10 April - 5 June 1999
This period has been one of depression and just generally a "blue funk". It was brought on by the day-to-day trials of life with a kick in the ass by our moralistic President William Jefferson Clinton's attack on Serbia. The job that I have had since February, at Intermountain Farm Credit, has contributed in its own way. It is a valueless job, and as I will discuss, which leads me to thinking that I am therefore also valueless. It was during this period that I received an e-mail from one of my fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteers that said, "I wish I was back in my little town in Bulgaria". How about you? This question has run through my mind since receiving it and been present throughout all of my readings (some 14 or 15 books) during this time. Some of the passages that I came across seemed to be on target with the question and my general mood. So the report of my activities for this period is a rambling discussion that indirectly answers the question posed.
From An Empire Wilderness: Reflections on America's Future
by Robert Kaplan (1998) I found the following.
Deep down, we are a nation of heard animals: mouse like conformists who will lay at the doorstep all our rights - if you tell us that we won't have to worry about crime and that our property values will be protected.
And fromThe Rains Came
by Louis Bromfield (1937).
Long ago, watching the flocks at sight of a coyote, he suddenly thought - sheep are the middle class animal. They should live in suburbs, always belong to the Conservative Party and be perpetually swindled by stockbrokers. At the first sign of danger, of menace, even of change, the sheep would begin milling about, each one pushing and thrusting to reach the security of the very center of the heard. Like sheep, the people at Mrs. Simon's parties were without originality and without initiative. Like sheep they sought only security and enough grazing to keep them alive. The world of ideas, like the world of action, alarmed them.
I want to get away from this in the American culture -Yes, Yes, Yes! But, will I be able to avoid it in my little town in Bulgaria - No, No, No! I wrote many times about the sheep like behavior of the Bulgarians while I was there. From their pushing and shoving in a "line" that looked more like a Rugby scrum to their lack of originality and initiative. While there I became even more aware of that same attitude becoming more and more prevalent here in America and since I have been back it is even more obvious to me. It has been obvious to authors in this country for a long time; Louis Bromfield spent much of his life in France and looked at American culture from afar which sometimes gives a better vantage point.
Also from An Empire
there was this:
Alexis de Tocqueville and others warned that material prosperity in America might ultimately bred withdrawal. As material wealth accumulates within a society along with technological conveniences, people's personal lives become more complex, with less time and energy for communal concerns. He, Tocqueville, saw religion and patriotism, but primarily religion, as the adhesive in a democratic society no longer kept together by external authority. Despotism is more particularly to be feared in democratic ages because it thrives on self-absorption and the desire for the personal security that equality fosters.
Yes, we are loosing our communal concerns in the US but there was certainly none present in my little town of Bulgaria. That was a large part of what the Community Development Center and I tried to instill in the community. I agree that religion has kept this country together in the past. The separation of church and state argument here in the US is a fraud; it is an argument over power. The church has power that the government wants; in Communistic countries it was easy to remove the competition, here we have to go about it in a subtler manner until a despot truly gains control. Bulgaria is starting to bring religion back into their culture and therefore I have hope for democracy there. However, I see Bulgaria moving in the same direction as the US regarding security. The US Government at all levels promises security, particularly physical security; there is the symbolism of more gun controls, the promise of 100,000 more police on the streets. The reality is that people are buying protection in the form of gated communities and private armed security; there are 3 times as many armed security people working now in the US, as there are police. During my month in Ecuador I became almost inured to seeing machine gun toting guards in almost every store doorway - this is coming to a store near you soon. Or in Washington DC I stopped at a liquor store near my Motel 6 and the clerk is enclosed in bullet proof glass and you pass your money to him via a turnstile. Welcome to the security of your nations Capital!
I found this in Road Scholar: coast-to-coast late in the century
by Andrei Codrescu (1993).
An American without a car is a sick creature, a snail that has lost its shell. Living without a car is the worst form of destitution, more shameful by far than not having a home. A car less person is a stationary object, a prisoner, not really a grownup. A homeless person, by contrast, may be an adventurer, a vagabond, and a lover of the open sky. The only form of identification an American needs is a drivers license.
And this comes from The Testament
by John Grisham (1999).
At least he had a BMW. He might live in a dump, but the world would never see it. The world, however, noticed his car, and so he struggled every month to scratch together $680 for the lease.
Also fromThe Testament
he describes another character in this manner:
Alone, in his own fine car, he began to feel like an American again.
This is something that I would like to go back to my little town for. There was no need for a car and there was not the American obsession about cars - not yet. I have not bought another car since I have been back and all the descriptions I found above are on target. In addition, I have noticed that THE topic of conversation and headline news is the price of gasoline. You can abuse an American in almost anyway that you want but don't interfere with their cars and the gas to put in them. As you know the solution to drinking and driving now is to confiscate the drunk's automobile. This is the equivalent of banishment in the Middle Ages; guaranteed to bring the individual down to the lowest levels of society. I don't support drunk drivers, they are responsible for 40% of the automobile deaths in this country but what are we doing about the stupid sober drivers that kill the other 60%?
Also found these passages in the Road Scholar.
The American family today consists most likely of a work-crazed mom trying to raise shopping-mall TV brats in a world gone consumption mad. It's a sad culture. People live in frenzy. They work all the time to make money to buy things to impress other people, they're measured by what the own. In nineties America, working for peanuts, or not working at all, or working in a soulless place will steal anyone's soul.
It is this attitude in America that leaves me, and I suspect many others, with a feeling of worthlessness. Additional support for my thinking on this comes from a radio quiz question that I heard only last week, What are 1/3rd of all workers in America looking for in their job? Answer: A different one! Yes, I would go back to my little town to once again capture the feeling of worth that my job there gave me.
America is the ultimate hollow-deck. The secret of capitalist happiness is that everyone lives exactly like everyone else. The only difference is that whereas the rich consume expensive items, the poor consume the imitation of those items. The difference between an Armani-suit-clad man wearing a real Rolex and his poorer mirror image in an Armani clone with a fake Rolex is visible only to tailors, watchmakers, and thieves. What's more, the expensive items that guarantee the rich man's authenticity are often inferior in quality to the poor man's. There is no system of values in place to validate which is the original and which is the copy. America is a democracy, which means that it's rude to value the original over the copy. But the opposite is not true: Americans value the copy over the original. Real people are an encumbrance, actually, to the joyful use of the image. The hollow-deck is nice, TV obliterates those pesky differences of personality.
Unfortunately, the Bulgarians are trying to emulate the hollow-deck of American materialism so going there will not provide relief! The world has accepted Shop Until You Drop as the ultimate goal in life and with the Web now in place you cannot escape.
Yes, on balance I would go back to my little town, but my preference would be to go to a new little town somewhere else in the world. The elusive search for utopia still burns in my imagination but I must admit that it is a small flame.