Wednesday, December 17, 2014

See the USA in Your Chevrolet

"The answer is never the answer. What's really interesting is the mystery. If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you'll always be seeking."
-Ken Kesey

"There is nothing wrong with Americans except their ideals. The real American is all right; it is the ideal American who is all wrong."
-G K Chesterson

Poetically, nothing is perhaps more synonymous with America than the open road. Not counting the great Alaskan frontier, the contiguous 48 States is rather huge. That it was settled coast to coast within a century of the nation's founding is a testament to our collective restlessness. America is big: big people, portions, guns, budgets, ideas, lies, estates, dreams.  An easy glance at the political-economic spectrum reveals America as an Hegemonic Bully, making it tempting, if not convenient to write all of us off as big-ass dolts, and so toast good riddance to the passage of the American century. But even the most virulent anti-American propagandists would be disheartened to know that if they were to actually visit America, going deep by way of highway and byway, they might find Americans more complex than they thought possible and perhaps undeserving of our cruel stereotypes-- in fact, some visitors might find Americans rather likable and perhaps not so big in everything.

A baby boomer born into America's Golden Years, Timothy O'Grady, left for Ireland in 1973 at the age of 22 and never moved back. In 2003 and 2004 he does two cross country road trips in a rental pale beige Chevrolet. "But there's nothing between here and California but gas stations" some dude in a New York city bar exclaims to O'Grady at the outset of his journey. But as O'Grady describes his travels in his travelogue Divine Magnetic Lands, while homogenization has made America an uglier, less interesting place, geographical quirks persist still. This is one of those zen trips where it's all journey, destination an afterthought. Thus to enjoy the ride, he avoids interstate highways for country roads. Wherever he arrives, he goes drinking at bars, usually beer, with a game of billiards if there is a table. The bar does seem a good place for interviews, though surprisingly O' Grady learns "that in in the little bars in the little towns on the American road, particularly those where the grooming is haphazard, the language coarse, the prospects bleak and where it is believed that disputes both international and personal are best solved by violence, you are unlikely to get from the door to your chair without being engaged in conversation... but in cities and university towns, no matter how politically or spiritually open the prevailing ideology, you are likely to pass your evening in silence."

The wonderful thing about a road trip is that no two are exactly alike. Where you choose to stop is personal-- friends in propinquity, lingering nostalgia, or local cultural interests all play a part.  O'Grady's first trip takes him along the northern half, visiting a number of small towns including Ogden Dunes, Hibbing, Eagle Butts, Deadwood, Wallace, Medford, and Sausalito, then Big Sur, Monument Valley, Taos, Wichita Falls, Greenwood, Oxford, Sarasota, Edenton, among the many smaller towns during the second leg. Along the way he references other famous trippers on the American Road including Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, Simone de Bouvier, William Least Moon, Woody Guthrie, and Alexis de Tocqueville. Wherever he goes, he breaks down a bit of history: famous native sons, inventions, and often parables of civic decline. Most American towns have been dying since the 1970s, the main cause being de-industrialization, factories shuttering. Most ruminations lead inexorably to a discussion of American decline, and nearly everyone O'Grady meets on the road is feeling this some way or another. In New York City the author meets a researcher who has written a study on Americans' fascination with the apocalypse.  Here's O'Grady summing up the mess:

"This is the age, it would seem, through which America is passing, an Endtime of Empire-- a lack of belief in state structures, a decline in voting, an unreality in the unit of currency, enemies without and within, false accounting, vast numbers of servers accumulating around the rich, the ingratiation of the press to the powerful, the ascendancy of marketing over product, a retreat into privacy, reduced intellectual activity, a lack of public forums, a clouded future, religion based on salvation rather than good works, the infantilizing of adulthood, high anxiety, falling wages, casinos, crystals, angels, lotteries, private armies, seers, fanaticism."

The solution to nearly all these problems begins and ends with politics. O'Grady is a progressive and recognizes that deregulation and inequality are the primary causes of poverty, pessimism, and the decline of the middle class. He offers some advice for reform, all good and all to fall on deaf ears so long as our government continues to be bribed with graft and corrupted by K Street lobbying groups. O'Grady writes, "There is no people more easy to govern than the fearful, the debt-ridden and the demoralized. " Indeed, our current power structure thrives on the burdens of the many.

(c) Stephen Shore

The timing of the author's journey is important: 2003-2004 was the heart of the Bush era, an extraordinarily paranoid period wherein Bush, ostensibly, still had much of the country's support in spite of the developing catastrophes of the Iraq invasion (as a personal sidenote, 2003 is when I left the USA myself and eleven years later, have yet to move back). Traveling the US against this backdrop of fear and loathing will inevitably lead most seekers to dark conclusions. Nevertheless, for all his protestations, O'Grady is at heart, American, and thus optimistic. Interestingly, he connects the whiny victimization complex to conservatives and their "appeal to the sense of being abused, fed up, being ever on the losing side, in this country so focused on and celebratory of winning." Certainly if America ever hopes to be winning again, it will necessitate its reactionary minority to look beyond gay marriage, abortion rights, school prayer, and immigration fears to a politics that is more in tune with their livelihood. Like O'Grady I'm at heart an optimist and believe this is possible. But one day I might have to drive myself cross country and back just to make sure. 

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