I was driving to work this morning, as I always do, down a host of local streets before getting on the highway, and as I sat in the middle of the road waiting to make a left turn, I noticed an orange sign that read, “Caution Mower Ahead,” and realized I had no idea whether it was supposed to mean the machine itself or the human operating it. No idea whatsoever.
My initial purpose in writing this column—in light of the just-passed July 4 holiday and the fact that I’m so tired of ranting about how I hate pointless jingoism I feel like if I even see my sophomoric opinions on the page again my eyeballs will explode—was to provide an essay on what it means to me to be an American in 2011. Kind of a revisit of the project a lot of grade-schoolers are doing right now, probably, but I thought it might be interesting.
That was also a mistake, as it turns out, because much like not knowing whether the mower was man or machine, I don’t have a god damned clue what it means to be an American in 2011. Our country is so fractured, so varied, so pummeled by information and opinion and argument, that to claim any definable singularity at the core of it is either bullshit or the kind of meaningless sloganry—“We love freedom,” “Food not bombs”—that has defined the better part of the last decade and is actually just a noisier route to the same end: Bullshit.
And it’s not just politics. I don’t just mean left/right squabbles or raising the debt ceiling, this or that congressman’s junk or whatever the hell it is having the life drained from it in the media sphere. I’m talking about real cultural fracture. The racism behind some of the criticism of our President. The apathy of people watching as workers serving the public good have their rights stripped out from under them. Our citizens not being allowed to marry the person they love. The rampant corruption of corporatocracy that has leveled our economy and the greed-fueled mentality that allowed it to rise in the first place. The glorification of ignorance. The fear of losing our “leadership role” in the world, when we in fact lead in nothing other than bloating. Shitty rock and roll. These are just general ideas that boil down to specifics, but even as our fireworks mimic the bombs we’re dropping on Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, it’s hard to know exactly what it is we’re supposed to be celebrating.
On the other hand, I can write and publish these things without fear of reprisal, so that’s something. I’ve been allowed to choose a career path that fulfills my apparently ceaseless capacity for self-indulgence. Most of what I work for, I keep—as much as keeping it means spending it on takeout, beer and records—and if I want to pass my evenings in intellectual pursuits or if I want to zone out and watch the ball game, it only matters to me (and maybe my wife). Personal liberty—such as it is with technology companies tracking our every move—is pretty much what we have going for us, and as long as we don’t go around making asses of ourselves thinking we’re the only ones who have it in the world, that’s fine.
So yeah, as we passed another July 4 this week, what it means to be an American utterly eludes me. We’re brave but terrified, driven but lazy, strong but cowardly and rich but broke; an empire built on contradiction and hypocrisy with a violent, selfish culture of entitlement that would rather blindly charge into oblivion than even begin to discover another path. I guess it’s easier that way.
And ultimately, I guess being disoriented, sandwiched between this glut of advancement and awfulness, and being confused, terrified and panicked with the notion that things need to be set aright as if they ever were is what I think it means to be an American in 2011. I don’t know if I’d turn that in to my Fourth Grade social studies teacher (Mrs. Delli-Santi), for fear of getting a B- and a note home, but there it is anyway.
Hope you drank responsibly,
Correction: In the June 29 “Freak Show” column, Hal Selzer said Wayne Bryant held a no-show job at NJIT, when in fact it was UMDNJ. Apologies for any inconvenience the error may have caused.