by E.C. Fish on March 11, 2002

I won’t bore you with the details of my recent personal life, but will hope it suffices to say that it brings to mind an old radio commercial heard in, God help me, the seventies. It was an ad for some kind of cheap wine or something, done in what comedy buffs call the “John and Mary” format– a couple in love, talking intently over a restaurant table or telephone or cup of coffee or any of the millions of other things couples in love talk intently over (think Stiller and Meara for Blue Nun, or that guy from the Bob Newhart show and that anonymous female voice over artist for margarine). A somewhat freaked out Mary is telling John, “John, I saw a bumper sticker on a car today that said ‘HONK IF YOU BELIEVE IN ANYTHING’, and John, no one was honking .”

“Including me, ” she adds somewhat guiltily.

We are told, we citizens of post-9/11 America, that we have become a rather more cohesive lot these days, a flag-saluting, Olympic team cheering mass of people standing firmly behind our President and our troops. Still, it seems to me that if you buttonholed a random American and asked him or her what he or she believed in, he or she would be hard pressed to answer– try it for fun and tell me how it turns out…

Certainly as individuals, we believe in a great many things, whether they be God, UFOs, the free market system, the necessity of offing Osama bin Laden, Maoism, or our favorite ball team’s chances of taking a pennant this year. What we care about collectively, as a country, is a little tougher to determine. There are signs saying “United We Stand” on every burger joint and convenience store marquee from Portsmouth to Pasadena, but one still gets the impression that if we tried it for real, we’d find ourselves standing in a bunch of nervous little cliques like we did in high school.

Finer minds than I, who have tenure, talk loudly in restaurants, and wear wool sweaters you can only buy in Iceland have written extensively on the crisis of meaning in contemporary America for long enough to have covered several different versions of “contemporary” over the years. The most popular bunch of theories at the moment tends to blame this breakdown of shared values on the breakdown of such institutions of community life as fraternal organizations, bridge clubs, bowling leagues, but in my experience, these theories are a bit on the optimistic side. The problem runs much deeper– as a general rule don’t even bother to say hello to our neighbors anymore, much less bowl or play bridge with them. We probably couldn’t do so by name even if we wanted to. Worse yet, our homes themselves are more and more likely to include people we don’t understand very well or even see very often. It’s not just the world outside breaking down– everything is. And we’re scared to death of it, and each other.

Unlike most critics of this situation, I don’t tend to blame any particular breakdown of morals, ethics, or compassion so much as I blame the circumstances of contemporary life. For most people, this social atomization is not so much a choice they make as something they get with their paycheck. The average American wakes up, gets into the car alone, drives to work alone, sits in a cube for eight or nine hours with a computer and a telephone for company, drives back alone, and spends the evening at home pursuing one of the many lifestyles available commercially (hundreds are available, from Christian suburban conservative Walgreen’s clerk to rural lesbian separatist rock and roll singer– in the interest of full disclosure, I’d have to include my own urban pan-Bohemianism as being in the catalog somewhere), or maybe just watch others make such choices on television, which has hundreds of channels available to suit any (there’s that word again) lifestyle.

Even with the rapidly cresting trend towards “reality” television, what we see when we turn on the box and start fiddling with the remote isn’t the reality of America, or even the reality of our own lives. We are single parents, underpaid workers, the working poor, the untreated mentally ill, the drunk, the badly educated, the over stressed, the badly fed. We are also fans of the WWF and Nascar and the NFL and soap operas and Regis Philbin and Emeril Lagasse. Guess which side of our personality shows up on the tube.

I once had a co-worker who would respond to just about every evocation of any life other than her own with the then-current slang phrase “Sounds like a personal problem to me.” While this was somewhat cruel, and painfully overused in place of actually having anything to say by someone who really annoyed me anyway, I always considered it somewhat apt. As people, we have problems. The thing it misses is that when enough people have the same problem, that becomes a social problem.

And you don’t have to be a slang phrase to miss that point– the media and the power structure do just fine. With the sort of conservative ethos currently at large in America, there are no social problems, and no social solutions. Even if most of us wanted to actively pursue a political solution to the problems we face as a nation– and frankly, most of us don’t– the two party political system doesn’t offer us that option, making us choose instead between their marginally different takes on defense, tax policy, and abortion rights. What we need isn’t on the menu, and what is might not be especially good for us.

We Americans have always prided ourselves on our individualism. At other times in history, we’ve also prided ourselves on our kindness, our wisdom, and the things we can get done working together. If the above vision of American reality seems bleak to you, rest assured that I find it bleak too, and consider the simple proposition that if enough of us can agree that our current national condition is unacceptable, maybe we have a basis for talking about how to change it. Big changes start with simple steps, and better societies with individuals.

Howdy, neighbors………

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: