I’ve kept an eye on the Occupy Wall Street protests these last few weeks. I’m lucky enough to have several people in my social networking feeds that are doing the same thing, even including one guy who’s been on the ground with his camera. We’ll see what happens tomorrow with the temporary eviction, which I think could be serious test of the movement’s public image if they don’t work amicably with the rather reasonable desire to keep the park in good condition. Then again, it could also just be a pretext for shutting it down. It’s hard to know for sure – regardless of the the motivation, I doubt the protesters have any interest in leaving, and I also doubt the police will feel any reticence in evicting them.
Let’s start this with a primer.
Until recently, I must confess that I held no special love for America. It wasn’t a hate, but more a boredom and lack of hope for progress. Having witnessed first hand the incredible amount of history and tradition that forms the backdrop of European culture, anything in America just pales in comparison. Prototypical American practicality and efficiency do not leave much room for what we largely consider to be the frills of society: artistic expression, creative thinking, and serious introspection.
Even when I was still a consistent driver, I never paid much attention to bumper stickers. Aside from the minority that provide a cheap laugh, they seem to me like the most cowardly and ineffective way to make a statement. Every victim of the bumper sticker is left unable to make any sort of response; the argument starts and ends on a 12 x 3″ adhesive pad. The ultimate last word.
While I doubt the bearers of the stickers I saw while on my most recent monthly errand run really understood the philosophical and theological ramifications of their banners, some old concepts were brought to mind. A simple “JESUS is GOD” sticker brought a flood of memories of my childhood bible camp. Another “Jesus SAVES” led me on a long chain of thoughts; I’d nearly forgotten that the whole idea behind Jesus was that he’s meant to be saving us from something we cannot save ourselves from. Most people think of that something as being hell, but the more technically accurate answer is sin.
It’s been a long time since a classic post. Forgive me if I’m a bit rusty.
Every few months, I go back to church just to see how it compares to the last time I went, and each time the experience is more bizarre.
The service itself has become increasingly uncomfortable for me. When the congregation speaks in unison, the chorus of mumbles precisely imitate what I imagine hypnotized zombies to sound like. I still enjoy the singing, but the emotions involved are more akin to singing along to Rihanna than anything else. The lyrics are distant and meaningless, simply being a mechanism by which to carry the tune. The sermon is a long series of statements that I just don’t agree with; where once I felt great confusion over how I felt about the implications of the content, I now simply see totally different interpretation of our existence. The crowning moment of awkwardness is when I lift my hand to deny the communion plate. The server pauses for a moment, as if to make sure he didn’t just imagine that I did what he thinks I just did. The guy sitting next to me stares at his piece of bread with absurd intensity. Every time. I remember how I looked around to see who was and was not taking communion, and I know that a very large number of eyes took note of my choice. I know that single decision molds the interactions I experience thereafter. I can sense in each conversation a careful tiptoeing and delicate probing to see where I am, and how I am doing.
Halloween takes on an entirely different meaning as I get older. Growing up, it was one of my least favorite holidays. I’ve never been a fan of dressing up in costume – I find myself uncreative due to a dearth of motivation, and I always feel stupid running around in anything half-assed. The candy was lovely, except that most of my Halloweens were spent trick-or-treating alone. While this meant I could go at an extremely fast pace and hit up a large volume of houses (several occasions saw me end the night with fully two or three grocery bags of candy), there was little joy to the process, and certainly no artistic expression. Mostly I just dressed up in black and called myself some variation of ninja or wraith.
More recent days stress the elements of costume parties mixed with copious alcohol, and it was a rather sudden realization to find myself anticipating the weekend and its associated festivities. While I continue to lack any desire for costume-wearing, I delightfully found that there are enough others in the same boat so as to eliminate any of the social awkwardness involved with being the only one not in costume. I can instead enjoy the spectacle of silliness and broken social inhibitions of those around me.
While it might be considered irresponsible or immature to embrace this sort of tradition, American culture necessarily depends on these holidays. Having no long-term traditions or rituals from our heredity or locale, we need the sanction of a holiday – however obscured from its origins or overtaken by marketing schemes – to do what humans need to do: interact. We find ourselves devoid of good excuses to get together and celebrate our existence, and the grind of the day-to-day brings us to forget that our lives are worth delighting in. Halloween is certainly a weak band-aid for a problem that runs far deeper than one holiday, or even a “holiday season” can attempt to address, but for now, it’s the best that we can manage.
One of the frustrating aspects of my sociology classes is this never-ending truth that I live in a society that has a really, really dark history, coupled with the fact that things are still pretty dark, if I take an honest look around me. While that’s not particularly new, as I grow older I can’t escape the fact that I am, at the core, a product of this society and many of my values are pretty American, no matter how much I might vie for moral and intellectual independence.
I wish, for example, that we gave more weight to the importance of family, geographically speaking. I’ve always thought it would be better to live in a society where leaving home at eighteen wasn’t the expectation, yet I find myself in a situation in which the only practical solution is for me to do just that. As much as I believe in the virtue of self-control and humility, in the art and form of love, all of that seems to break down with each passing day living at home. A part of me wants to stay home just that I might prove society wrong and show that one can be a fully-developed person while still living with one’s parents, and I stubbornly cling to this ideal in the face of the reality that it’s just not going to work. Having consumed the essence of Americana for nearly twenty years, I am fate-bound; I cannot value the things that I do and be the way that I am, and yet peacably live at home.
That’s not to victimize myself, but merely to say that I am thoroughly American, and my parents equally so. It’s not just my values at play, here, but theirs as well. The style of American parenting is often highly control-based, a methodology that does not mesh well with the existence of independent children within the household. I would have to submit to that control – minor though it may be at this point – a thought which repulses my American sensibilities, those qualities of self-reliance and self-actualization. Modern Americans are to find their identities outside the home, a process which does not lend itself to living at home.
One of the most distressing by-products of this is the diminished status of those whom do not find themselves independent. We relegate adult dependents back to a child-like status, into institutions and nursing homes, and we pay the people that run those places poorly, that we independents might live and breathe without restriction. It is only with the advent of new technology and medicine that we begin to see the disabled as viable members of society. The irony of this is that America regards its actual children with a strange paranoia. We fear their arrival with intense trepidation and declare their presence as among the most life-damning possibilities (though for some, that really is true), and yet we bend over backwards to protect them beyond all logical necessity, and we obsess over some of the most statistically improbable catastrophes.
Yet, here I am, giddy with the thought of embarking on this journey of self-determination, my head full of the limitless possibilities and the myriad details that will be my responsibility, and mine alone. Not that it’s happening really soon or anything; still have to apply for student loans and all.
It’s times like these that I revel in the impetuosity of my youth. While I have my share of worries in the coming months over how well our nation will weather the current storms, I can’t help but enjoy the sudden rush of analyzation that results from an entire economy halting in its tracks with the realization that we have collectively made a series of giant, throbbing mistakes. It’s harder to criticize when things are going well. Nobody wants to play Negative Nancy, and the one guy that does is probably an asshole (for proof, see Michael Moore).
At the turning point for a recession, however, there’s a magical period of time where everyone gets to participate in the collective outrage. We become momentarily unified as we all point fingers in the same direction, and the rare-chance to humiliate the super-rich avails itself as we pretend that they actually give a rat’s ass about what the average citizen thinks. As reality sets in and the truth of the matter becomes more complicated than just ‘greedy men are greedy’ with each new failing corporation, an awkward moment ensues when people realize that they haven’t a damn clue what they’re talking about. They search for the nearest person they can trust to understand and solve these problems for them, all the while mumbling vague curses under their breath.
This might sound like a trite and arrogant comparison, but this is very similar to the experience I have with customers at work. In many cases, a customer will slam a laptop on the counter and pronounce very loudly, “Fix this worthless piece of shit”, and before I’ve said anything they’ve already scowled and turned their back to me. Disregarding the fact that half the time the problems they’re having are simple user error, a long series of questions immediately spring to my mind that I wish I could ask the people that come to me with this kind of attitude, and these questions resonate deeply with my regard for many of today’s complaints about the government and the economy.
The foremost question that comes to my mind, however, is this: If it’s a piece of shit, why did you buy it? (or, If he’s a piece of shit, why did you elect him?)
Customers rarely, rarely bother to research the products they buy. They expect the store to fully inform them of anything they might ever need to know, though I would estimate that less than 1 in 10 people read a single word on the contracts they sign in this store (fun fact: my store does not cover damage caused by acts of terrorism or hurricanes). Similarly, it seems to me that many voters really haven’t a clue about the kind of person they’re voting for, particularly when it comes to local and state-level politics. State and local government has at least as much impact on any given person’s daily life as the federal government, but voter turnouts for off-year elections are significantly lower than presidential elections, and people are significantly more likely just to go with their party when it comes to choosing governors, mayors, senators, and congressmen. At least, that’s the trend I’ve noticed, however unsubstantiated it might be.
I’ll be honest – I am not saint in this regard, though it’s something I’m working to improve. As of right now, I don’t know who the mayor of Ithaca is. I don’t know who the governor of New York is, since Spitzer resigned. I don’t know who the second senator of New York is. I am completely clueless, yet that doesn’t stop me from getting pissed off when some new bullshit law gets through in New York, even though I have exercised none of my rights as a citizen to make sure I know who’s doing what and how it’s being done. The customers I deal with, likewise, have in some cases spent thousands of dollars without ever considering what it is they’re truly buying, going solely off the word of one salesman whose job it is to ensure they spend as much money as possible. I would love to think these were actions born simply of trust and faith in the goodness of mankind, but the reality is that people are just lazy.
Until things stop working, of course. Then, self-righteous indignation and disgust-filled anger rouse them to action after-the-fact. Kind of like the current economic situation.
I would be fine with this whole process if people learned something from these situations. People make mistakes and overlook important details – we’re human, it happens. In some cases, people do learn – but most of the time, the conversation only ends because they’ve run out of excuses and complaints to keep it going. Likewise, my fear with the current situation is that people haven’t actually grasped why things are the way they are, beyond this vague idea that Bush really didn’t do so hot. Most people do not appear to have made any tangible connection between their own actions, and the overall state of the economy. These problems couldn’t possibly be related to the fact that Americans have been living economically unsustainable lives – no, it must be entirely the fault of a small group of faceless CEOs, wholly disconnected from the average citizen.
That’s not to say that corporate bullshit and political manhandling isn’t at play. There’s no doubt about that. Yet, have we ever expected anything different? Why do we feign surprise? For eons, jokes have been made about the endless greed and blatant corruption of America’s power players, but the notion that we have no part in these sins is false. We elect them, we buy their products, we hold stock in their companies, and we take loans from their banks. We are responsible for each dollar we spend and each vote we cast. And it’s not as if these are our only assets, either. Freedom of speech and whatnot, you know?
The kind of customers I’ve mentioned, however, would prefer to continue within the status quo. They don’t want to be bothered with the messy details. They don’t care about the whys and the hows and the ifs. Instead, they will hope that they can conjure enough wildly exaggerated excuses to convince themselves and others that their situation is most certainly not their fault, and that immediate compensation is the only fair solution to their problems. Sometimes my managers cave in to those sorts of customers, though thankfully not too often. But what happens when these people take that same attitude to the government, and the government doesn’t even have the compensation they’re demanding? What will they do without a large, anonymous body to blame their problems on and demand solutions from?