An amateur examination of the American psyche

So I’ve been in the US for long enough now to largely overcome the initial ZOMG-I’ve-seen-it-all-on-TV feelings, and to settle into living here. It’s been a fascinating month – getting to know a new country is always intriguing, and especially so when you’ve been fed that country’s culture since the moment you were old enough to start reading or watching TV.

I could bang on forever about the fact that America is a strange place, but I said when I started writing this blog that I didn’t want to make it a simple travelogue – to quote Gulliver, “it is easy for us who travel into remote countries to form descriptions of wonderful animals both at sea and land… whereas a traveller’s chief aim should be to make men wiser and better, and to improve their minds by the bad, as well as good example of what they deliver concerning foreign places.”

I think poor old Gulliver would be horrified by the USA. It’s pretty much the antithesis of the land of the Hounyhyms. But I don’t know if that makes it dreadful or just different. Because say what you like about the USA, it makes no bones about what it is. The gap between rich and poor is widening like a Glasgow smile everywhere, and while it’s probably more obvious somewhere like London – where the city’s genesis as a series of villages means that high-rises gaze mutely at the gleaming shopping strips of Fulham and Chelsea, and where verdant Putney borders on the monochrome grimness of Rotherhithe – there’s something particularly dramatic about it here.

I think the difference is that in Australia and the UK and pretty much everywhere else on the face of the planet, the disparity between the haves and have-nots is the subject of at least a cursory degree of angst. Politicians make noises about social justice and redistributing wealth and alleviating poverty, even if they make actual little effort to do so. It’s largely cynical: pay enough lip service to the “battlers” – as we love to call them in Australia – to get them to vote for you, then go back to serving the interests of the people who funded your bid for office.

Here, there’s virtually no such sentiment. Sure, politicians still have to court votes, and the Obama administration is far more concerned with these issues than its predecessor ever was… but regardless, the gap between rich and poor is generally seen as something to be traversed, not alleviated. Popular culture celebrates materialism as a way of life, and the idea of “making it” is a de facto test of innate worth. If you’re “smart”, if you “innovate”, then you can climb to the top of the pyramid. There’s a whole cultural mythology built around this notion – America as the can-do country, the country where anyone can be president, the country where freedom is a way of life. There’s none of the tall poppy syndrome that so characterises Australian life. Winning is what it’s all about, for better or worse.

What I find interesting is that this acquisitive view of success is pretty much never questioned by anyone. I found myself at a Communist warehouse party a while back, and it was the first and only example of even remotely socialist politics I’ve encountered. It felt like a quaint anachronism. In general, the fact that the very nature of a pyramid means that it’s pretty fucking narrow up there at the top, and not much fun being at the bottom, doesn’t seem to bother anyone much – even the people who are at the bottom.

Look at hip hop, for instance. The mythology of hip hop lyrics is probably worth a PhD of its own, but still, it’s worth a brief look here. Hip hop’s whole ideology deals with the gutter of American life – the poor, the disenfranchised, the exploited underclass. (Whether or not this is genuine is kinda beside the point here.) Again and again, the same lyrical conceits crop up: escaping the “ghetto”, hustling to make cash, doing whatever you can to scramble your way to the top. And then… what?

Probably the last hip hop act to advocate any sort of social change were Public Enemy, whose best days were already behind them in the mid-’90s. For all that hip hop today continues to celebrate the figure of the outlaw, the game is the same, just played by different rules. The ultimate aim is wealth and respectability. You get rich or die trying, to quote 50 Cent, and if you manage the former, you end up embracing the very system that begat the ghetto you’ve spent your life trying to escape. It’s… um, a curious idea of success.

But it’s one that’s echoed again and again in American culture and in American politics. If poverty is discussed, it’s in a utilitarian sense, not a moral one. This is interesting because Christianity is such a prominent force here – but poverty is largely seen as a problem because it breeds crime and social discontent, not as an issue of morality. There’s no real sense that the rich have a moral obligation to help the poor.

Whether they do or they don’t is, again, almost beside the point here. I just find it interesting that American culture diverges so drastically here from that of countries to which the US is generally similar in a lot of ways. You could probably make an argument that the nakedly materialistic nature of American society is at least more honest than the pseudo-leftie nature of New Labour or the Rudd Government, where ostensibly left-wing parties celebrate right-wing ideals even more enthusiastically than the parties who are supposed to be the conservatives. I guess.

The other interesting point about America, though, is that it doesn’t really embody its own mythology. Just as “mateship” is a cultural construct that has little if any basis in reality (what, people in other country don’t have friends?), the idea of an ultra-competitive meritocracy that results in the primacy of the consumer and a rollicking good time for all concerned isn’t really borne out in reality. The health system, or lack thereof, is an obvious example, but there are plenty of cases where user-pays has led to shitty infrastructure and services that’d be laughed at throughout most of the Western world. (The internet connection on which I’m writing this is a fine example.)

I get the impression that the fact that unconstrained capitalism doesn’t actually result in the best of all possible worlds raises deeply uncomfortable questions for America. The whole national psyche has taken a bit of a battering over the last few years – September 11, the inability to catch Bin Laden, the revelation that the country’s banks were a bunch of greedy self-serving fuckers after all… None of it has really done a lot for national self-esteem, to the extent that you can actually gauge a country’s collective mood.

What happens from here is anyone’s guess. Apparently there’s an ancient Chinese curse about living in interesting times, and this is definitely an interesting time for America. And it’s also interesting to watch from the perspective of a foreigner.

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