Friday, January 25, 2013

The United States and me: A torrid love affair. Part I: Disillusionment

 Two Septembers ago was the tenth anniversary of the World Trade Center bombings in 2001. Many newspapers ran very interesting articles about the bombings and their significance for the past ten years. (most of the articles I'm linking to in this post are from September 11, 2011, because I found them oddly, unintentionally related to the attacks). My friend, a high school teacher in Chicago, has for nearly ten years based a good part of his US history curriculum on discussing the implications for democracy and governance of the terrorist attacks, though now he's slowly retiring that unit as his students have increasingly foggy recollections of the event itself. For me, the tenth anniversary of the attacks was the occasion for a fair amount of melancholy and bitter memories, not only regarding the attack itself nor even the wars that ostensibly followed from it, but also of the economic and cultural decline of the US, and my own frustrations coming into adulthood in the post-9/11 decade.

I'm sure each of us has lots of memories, not only of the context surrounding our first learning of the event, but also of the ten ensuing years. Even my wife, who was at the time giving a workshop to a peasant group in a remote region of Colombia, was informed by a local farmer, “Caro, shit! They just bombed the Twin Towers.” She thought that the video they kept replaying on the TV must be from an action movie or something. My own memories involve my waking up in my sophomore-year college dorm room to a general tumult. Most of my neighbors were shocked or dumbfounded or appalled at what was happening, though some (whom I charitably assume were trying to come off as more callous and radically left-wing than they really are) were dancing and celebrating the seeming comeuppance dealt to the US and the more negative things our country sometimes stands for (consumerism, realpolitik meddling, political and ideological hypocrisy, etc.). I mainly remember my feeling a sinking sensation in my stomach, not only for the thousands killed in the attacks themselves, but also because I had a feeling that this would be a pretense for the US to invade Afghanistan in order to make the Taliban and bin Laden pay for their sins. I had been keeping at least somewhat up to date with the story behind bin Laden and the Taliban before the attacks (the bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan was still fresh in my mind, though it seems to have passed unnoticed or been quickly forgotten by many of my countrymen), so I guess my gut feeling was on the ball.

Shortly before September 11th of 2011, I saw the Terry Gilliam film Brazil. It envisions a futuristic dystopia with a totalitarian, sterile bureaucracy running a country of unthinking twits that are too busy with television and shopping to realize the dire straits their world is in. The film also deals with issues of terrorism, torture, and the use of the threat of outside terrorism as a justification for torture and other types of repression. The parallels with US society and governance in the 2000s were scary and uncanny. Our country’s fall from grace came not through an Orwellian state of force and spying, but rather through the gradual dumbing-down of our people through greed and consumerism. In this Gilliam was prescient of how unbridled consumerism can lead people to give up their freedom uncritically and unthinkingly.

All film references aside, the 10th anniversary of the WTC attacks had me thinking very seriously about the past decade. For me it really seems like a lost decade on many fronts. The US had already to some extent been mining its productive base by outsourcing jobs, paying workers less, and fooling itself into believing that scamming and saying you have money is the same as actually having it. GW Bush came into the presidency on the tails of the bubble, and his policies probably worsened our economic straits if anything. Parallel or perhaps linked to this decadence, the US was becoming increasingly vapid in terms of political debate, cultural literacy, and general education. (See for example this article from September 11, 2011 about the rise of product marketing on university campuses, the one place that should be a sacred bastion where kids are supposed to be learning and thinking critically, not becoming loyal to a consumer brand). 

But the September 11th suicide attacks, or I should say the political mishandling of the attacks as a military and not a criminal affair, led us even deeper into economic and cultural decline. If we were in bad shape before with public debt and the downfall of honest private enterprise, then two wars, trillions of dollars of war-related government expenditure, stupid, dogma-based tax cuts for the rich, and a business culture that increasingly tended toward influence-peddling and rentism (any sector that could be said to be “anti-terrorist” ransacked the public coffers), sealed the deal for the end of the admirable, thriving US I was taught to believe in. Maybe I read too much James Howard Kunstler, but it really does seem difficult to get out of the straits we’re in now. Today our natural resource base is depleted, economic inequality is high, our populace receives a poor quality education in many respects. What can we draw on for a new birth of our country?

So in many ways I guess my prescient sadness on the day of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, as well as the way I view them in retrospect, could be characterized by Donne’s line, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee”. I was sad about the people that died that day and the US soldiers, Afghans, and Iraqis that would die afterward, but above all I feel as if, with our country’s reaction to the attacks, we did the most damage to ourselves. It would have been better for us as a country if we had taken to heart a recent sermon I heard about Christ's injunction to forgive seventy times seven whatever ills have been done us. And it seems that the US is not the only place that is worse off for the attacks and their aftermath. Perhaps the rest of the world became a meaner, uglier place, too.

Most selfishly, I lament my own trials over the past decade, many of which I associate with the wrong directions we as a country and a society had taken before and after the September 11th attacks. First and foremost, I spent much of the decade frustrated at the lack of job opportunities for me in my native country. I studied agronomy in college, and I think it’s fair to say I excelled at it. In fact, I even spent the last two years of college paying no tuition and getting paid by the university to teach chemistry. So prospects looked bright for someone who believed that if you did well in school you could get a well-paying, meaningful job. The problem is that in the decade I came into adulthood, this belief was not accurate. For a long time the US economy had been tilting towards services, but in the 90s and 2000s it took a more devious turn into dubious services: websites that didn’t produce anything, marketing that bordered on criminal scamming, houses bought and sold with nonexistent money, and of course most famously financial derivatives whose value consisted in little more than gambles and uneducated guesses. (check out this sanctimonious article from Thomas Friedman, who has been one of the most uncritical cheerleaders of the breathless bullshit economy of making little and consuming a lot, and now is acting shocked, just shocked to find that there is swindling going on in our economy). Even apparent bright spots in the economy, like movies or video games, are not entirely ethical products. Movies can be great, but most movies that get made are real garbage that impoverishes the world culturally instead of enriching it. And though I appreciate the artistry and wizardry and real hard work that goes into making video games, the net balance I see is that playing video games is basically a toxic non-activity. I know too many kids and even adults who gain nothing from their exposure to video games, and lose a great deal as they waste hours and hours entertaining themselves instead of thinking or working.

At any rate, some of my friends couldn’t even get hired into the unethical rackets that comprised the major movers of the 2000s-era economy, and ended up selling things on the streets, working at bars (as I did for a stretch), or doing telemarketing and front desk service jobs. Nothing at all related to their interests or qualifications. For an agronomist like me, there was a lot of work to be had, and many companies practically bombarded us with recruiting pitches during our college education. The main professional options were either to work for grain marketers like ADM or Cargill (who make their buck by manipulating markets in an oligopsonistic fashion in order to squeeze farmers and consumers), or input and equipment producers like Monsanto, Pioneer (Dupont), John Deere, or Bayer, whose business model consists in finding the magic spot where they can extract the most money from farmers without driving them totally out of business. In short, I had studied agronomy to help farmers, but the major jobs available to me consisted in bilking them. Now that I know a bit more than I did then, I might have been interested in working for a farmer coop supply store or an agricultural bank or an independent seed company, but I wasn’t as aware of those options when I was in college. I would have loved to work for a county extension office, offering agronomic advice to farmers and gardeners, but most of those jobs required a masters degree, as did my dream job of working in international agricultural development.

Basically then my job panorama was either to make a lot of money doing something immoral, or not to work (at least not as an agronomist). I worked in a few dead-end, non-agronomist jobs, and did enjoy working in a community gardening program (though it didn’t pay well).

Despite my professional frustrations in college and shortly thereafter, I must say that my life has been good over the past decade. College, self-discovery, a masters degree, meeting my wife, having my kid— I could never have imagined all this. But most of these good things happened to me outside the US, and in fact their happening at all was directly linked to my leaving the US. It’s sad to think I've spent more than half the last decade outside of my country. I don't regret leaving—the lack of jobs there, and the opportunities and interesting things I’ve discovered in Europe and Colombia mean it was a good decision, and I've come to love and appreciate my own country even more since then. At the same time I marvel (in a terrified way, not a good way) to think about the world my son has been born into. How can I explain to him the changes that occurred in the US and the world after September of 2001, how can I make him understand how the world was and all the changes of this past decade? Hell, how can I explain how the climate was before now? Better said, it will not be hard to tell him about what’s changed, because that changed world is what he already knows, but it will be tough to convey an idea of the good things that used to be and are no more, especially in the US. The jobs, the hope, the ideals (hell, even the Cold War had its merits if for nothing else than to give our country a sense of shared values and purpose), the environmental balance. I'm not responsible for screwing these things up, but I'm still ashamed at the state of the world today.

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