Sunday, July 08, 2007

Seriously, After this, I'll stop bitching...

So, I made the mistake of watching CNN for five minutes tonight, which was probably the most television I've watched in a few months. Anyway, aspiring demagogue Lou Dobbs was discussing the Microsoft story that I mentioned earlier. The CNN take on it was much different than mine; the reporter said that it was part of the ''War on the White Race''... I mean, War on the Middle Class that they were apparently focusing on throughout the show.

Now look, I can understand why people get upset when ''ferners'' can work for less than the minimum wage and undercut native labor, thus putting law-abiding citizens out of work. I get the problem there. But Microsoft isn't looking for the cheapest programmers they can get: trust me, they pay Daren a freakin' mint. They're looking for the best programmers they can get. They're not bringing in cheap labor, but smart labor. So, in order to ''protect'' the imperiled middle class in this situation, they would apparently have to limit the company to hiring stupider and less qualified people. They would have to lower their standards.

There is no logical argument for this that I can think of. In fact, there's no logical argument for saying that Microsoft is now tekkin ur jobs by moving to Vancouver; the best and brightest Americans can go work for Microsoft in Canada and make a mint there. In fact, the whole argument for moving to Vancouver is that it's easier to bring people there. And news flash- more workers makes for a stronger economy, just like more cultural influences makes for a more vibrant culture. Again, the mercantilists were wrong. You having ten dollars does not automatically mean that I have ten less dollars.

And I know that I'm going on about the same shit, again and again, but fuck if I don't feel like America is turning, at least culturally, into the world's biggest small town. I can't remember a time when I felt more out of place in the states. Every time I'm down there, I feel like nobody knows what I'm talking about and I have no idea what they're talking about. Seriously, when did there get to be so many hyper-bourgeois shopaholics? And when did they all start to sound like my paranoid right-wing Grandfather? At least during the 1980s, that decade in which Americans took really shitty drugs to escape from the reality of having elected a really shitty President, there was some sense that the reactionary horseshit wasn't going to last forever. But now, I don't even know where I would look to find people to think of ways out of this mess. Because, ultimately, we have to get to a point in which we can think of newer and better ways of doing things instead of just bitching about how stupid everything is. Or we all move to Sweden. Either one.

So I guess my question, and I promise that this will be the last rant for a while, is this- Am I the only one who feels this way, or is it really this lousy right now?


Holly said...

Can I have your ten dollars, you goddamn commie??

Rufus said...

Only when you pry my cold, dead fingers off of it.

Holly said...

OK, I'm sorry. You asked a question, and instead I made a funny. Here's my real answer, which devolves into ranting pretty quick:

It's not clear to me if it's a feature of my maturing mental processes, or wider awareness of the world, or if things actually ARE changing, but my perception is that Americans are willfully ignorant, which is probably the worst sin, in my book.

There is a pervasive sense of superiority which, in stark contrast to the British inherent sense of superiority, isn't actually based in having (historically, anyway) seen most of the world. It's based in having seen a lot of TV. The idea that a poorly edited news clip about something that happened Somewhere Else is THE SAME THING AS HAVING BEEN THERE is clutched to the breast like a winning lottery ticket.

While Americans ARE inquisitive, and genuinely interested in the world, they are like scientists with heavily agenda-driven research. They want to know exactly as much about the world, as can be made to conform to the space left among the other fixed geographical features. All interest is abandoned as soon as there is some violation of taboo or dogma. And, frankly, I think Americans are lazy.

For instance, I think in my LIFE I've met maybe 3 Americans who were vocal about NOT wanting to learn other languages. Nearly everyone I've ever talked to about this agrees that it's good for the brain, socially beneficial, and it encourages a healthy exchange of ideas and cultures, and is interesting, even if it is kind of a chore. However! Few people actually DO IT. I've actually felt pretty ashamed and embarrassed since we've been in Austria, because not only have I not mastered German, I don't really have any other languages on tap. I can ask for the bathroom in a couple of other languages, but it's not as if I know them. There are HERDS of polyglots here--2 languages is the minimum, that's what's required in school, and it's required for 10 years, to study English with German, and many people study additional local languages, for family or travel or just because it doesn't scare them.

It's humbling, but here's what gets me, and this is the thing I find embarrassing: I'm NOT representative of Americans. Most Americans have **nothing** because they want to believe that being able to order from the Taco Town drive-thru without reading from the picture-menu is "knowing Spanish."

OK, so there's the escalating xenophobia issue. Then there's the moral high ground thing, where America feels comfortable telling the rest of the world what is Good or Right. Not even talking about war, or AIDS medicine. I'm talking about telling other countries what crops they "want." I'm talking about telling other countries how to run their banks, their immigration, their social security, their health care. It's one thing to have a brilliant system that works and then allow others to take a page from the book (which American doesn't have ALL of, but maybe is too ready to believe); it's something else to insist that our way is right, and their way is wrong. The world is not binary, it's plural. There's SUCH a difference between, "You're doing that wrong, and we're going to penalize you for it" and "We've found this method more effective, and we will happily support and reward you for giving that a go."

OK, then there's the thing about the grotesque machinations. There was a news article today about the former Surgeon General being coerced and censored for political agenda. That is NOT what the office of Surgeon General is for. Even if that particular surgeon general is kind of an easily-swayed reactionary who does his research with Google and/or the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Either way, *I* lose, and I don't like that.

Anyway, I could go on like this pretty much forever. There are a million little alleys to go down on my tirade about why some of the prevailing attitudes in America chafe my hide.

Maybe I'm just... looking for trouble? Maybe there are loads of people doing great things, thinking big thoughts, trying to be adult in the grand scheme, instead of crawling through life like there's nothing more urgent than the Tuesday night line-up on NBC or whatever. Maybe. But I'm just not feeling it, and that is perhaps my real problem. Not that those things aren't there, but that they're not the dominant mentality, nor even secondary. Possibly not even tertiary. We live in an age of tremendous potential and possibility, and somehow we can't even see it.

Rufus said...

I'm glad you responded because it allows me to post a rant here that would probably qualify as continued bitching were it a post.

I thought about all of this recently because I had to go south of the border to do some business in the states, and I found that I wasn't much looking forward to it. For about a week or two I bitched about having to drive, and having to buy gas, and deal with the border guards, etc etc. Finally, I realized that I was simply not looking forward to spending the day in the states.

So, I tried to figure out why, and what I decided was that I just don't like the atmosphere in upstate NY. Ontario drivers (especially Toronto drivers) are not great. But, as soon as I cross into the states, I know that within five minutes I will have an SUV tailgating me in the slow lane, while I'm driving 75 mph, and the middle aged suburbanite driving it will be screaming at me. Invariably, I will be cut off in traffic three or four times, shoved in whatever store I'm in, glared at, etc. etc. And it's nothing personal. It's just a general sort of competitiveness and free-floating anger that I encounter when I'm there.

To be honest, it was the same in NoVA. You had the same tightly-wound and insecure white people making public places difficult to be in. People don't mean to be rude- they're just hyper-aggressive and ultra-competitive. Maybe it's just white people though.

I find the same insecure competitiveness when I talk to my students about Canada. Many of them grew up ten miles from Canada, but they've never been there. And yet all of them tell me that 'Canada sucks' or 'it's totally third-rate' or 'it's a loser country'. Again, it's not so much about hostility as a sort of cynical disinterest and an ultra-competitive view of the world. You can't root for the visiting team.

There are plenty of things in the US that I prefer to the way they're done in other countries. But I find it startling that I can't say the reverse to some of my relatives without them seeing it as a slight against the states. Again, I think of the world as a buffet, and I want to take whatever I want from wherever I want. If the French have better pastries, then let's steal the recipe and have those pastries. It's simple to me.

As far as languages go, remember that European nations tend to be as close to each other as say Virginia and Maryland. So people need to learn the languages in a more immediate way there. I agree that Americans should learn a foreign language- the old joke: "what do you call someone who knows two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who only knows one? American." But I'm not sure that most of them really see the need to learn another language.

So, I think that what irks me is that I encounter a sort of disinterest, meanness, and again hyper-competitiveness whenever I cross the border. But I have to say that I have no idea if people are just that way in upstate NY, VA and DC, or if it's a general trait. There must be cool people somewhere in there, right? Isn't the West coast supposed to be the mellow coast?

But, yeah, I don't feel the potential either. Even among the raging lefties I encounter a sort of cynicism and sarcasm and a sort of team mentality that feels like a dead-end. I'd personally like to be a lot more open to the world and exuberant than I am, and I worry that being around so much angry energy is making me more of a grouch.

Holly said...

The laziness and isolationism are more pronounced in the middle and southwest. Personally, I found California loathsome, with transportation and commerce. They do other public spaces (like parks and events) much better than the east coast. The Pacific NW seems mostly mellow, but is a weird attractor for serial killers and white supremacists, both of which I personally find unnerving. Texas is a shithole, for reasons I won't even go into here, because I don't want to fill the internet with vitriol. Let's not even talk about the Deep South.

That said: There are a lot of nice places in the US, where the people aren't hateful, their worst crime is probably ignorance, even of local issues. Or basic geography. Or world history. The fact that they are ignorant of these things indicates that it hasn't been necessary for them, which is disappointing. WHY hasn't it been necessary?

And I'm sorry, but I do not accept the argument that Europeans MUST learn other languages, I've heard it so many times. I would accept the argument that, in such a tight space with so many languages, it would be difficult NOT to learn more, but please consider the other side of the coin: the fact that there are so many languages in such a small space suggests it is not necessary, but a matter of choice. I'm quite sure two world wars had a LOT to do with decisions about linguistic education, but it is a much more recent development that it's mandatory to learn English, in the last 15 or 20 years, I think. I'll see if I can find out about that, but I know it wasn't always the case. There are probably a dozen native languages in the US, and the people who live next door to the folks who speak them do not take an interest in learning them.

Further, it's a notorious issue for Americans to expect that, when they travel to non-English speaking countries, the locals will speak English, but when others travel to the US.... they will speak English. This is asinine. Americans do engage in world travel, and while there are exceptions, many behave as though they're on the extended version of the Small World ride at Disney. The world is not just an extension of the US.

The urban east coast of the US is more senselessly competitive and invasive--no question. I hated that about living in Boston, particularly, there were a few specific incidents there that soured me on the whole city.

I suspect a lot of the problem is the transience of Americans. They orbit around inside the country, and feel like they've been everywhere, seen everything. I forget the number, but I believe there is an actual finite number of people that one can actually know and feel connected to, in terms of keeping up with significant events and such. Americans probably are simply overstimulated in that regard?

A small part of me feels like it'd be a worthy thing, to find a place in the US where I feel comfortable, and really inhabit it. Live there for 50 years. Know ALL the people, and the buildings. Make some lifework that will become part of the place, something tied to the local culture, but that takes the locals into the larger world in some way. But I sometimes get the sense that it would be unwelcome. Like somehow it's rude.

Rufus said...

When we went to Oregon, it was all hippies and meth heads. That was pretty weird.

I see what you mean about the languages. It was hard for me to keep the French from speaking English once they heard my accent. I wonder if it's better in the US cities- none of my students was familiar with a foreign language. Well, or maybe they all took Latin.

I hated Boston when I was there. Everyone acted like they'd gotten a blood transfusion from Andy Warhol.

I could see living for years in a foreign country, but not the states somehow. I liked Williamsburg quite a bit. It was incredibly friendly. But, even there, it freaked me out how racially segregated the town was. Of course, the same was true of DC.

I don't know- sometimes I think that I need to grow my constituency.