7/03/2002

In the American Grain

It’s Independence Day tomorrow, of course, and everybody’s trying to think up reasons to like America. I mean, Americans are.

Roger Rosenblatt, for instance, acknowledges that these are ‘stressful times’ which makes it hard to be patriotic without being solemn. ‘But,’ he says, ‘at least half the reason one loves this country is that it's a playful, quite nutty place, teeming with ridiculous notions and silly pronouncements.’ He suggests lightening it up a bit. Think of all the wonderfully wacky things Americans do! Where else could you find The Spam Museum, for example? That’s a pretty nutty thing, eh? A museum for Spam! Har har har! Only in America! I feel the love of my country burgeoning in my breast already!

And what about all those silly names we give our towns and cities? Like Hot Coffee, Mississippi, or Oatmeal, Texas! Tee hee hee! Or how about, nudge-nudge-wink-wink, French Lick, Indiana! ‘H. L. Mencken said that in naming places to live, our original pioneers ‘preferred humor to poetry,’ and so do we, generally. Something about the grandeur of the country seems to beg for an accompanying giggle, perhaps out of embarrassment for our former connections with Emerson's ‘courtly muses of Europe.’’

Rosenblatt goes on to praise our leaders for reflecting this great sense of humor. ‘National leaders are never so endearing as when they expose the comedy beneath their official sobriety.’ Among America’s funniest political punchlines, according to Rosenblatt: George Bush the elder's praise of Vaclav Havel ‘dying, or living — whatever — for freedom.’

He says, even the founding fathers probably had a pretty good sense of humor. ‘Can't you picture Jefferson and the boys on July 2, 1776, looking up from the document they had just created, realizing that they were about to toss a pie in the face of the most powerful empire on earth, staring at one another, smiling and wide-eyed, and asking: ‘Are we nuts?’’ Yes, Roger, everyone is as fat, disgusting, and complacent as you are, as we, the people, have become. It’s all just a big, nutty joke! I wonder how much they pay him to write this rubbish.

It’s actually a reaction to the trivialization of every aspect of existence that comes with the kind of prosperity America enjoys. And when I say kind, I mean kind, because there are different kinds. The kind that America enjoys, which is purchased cheap from others, calls for as little moral scrutiny amongst those who enjoy it as possible.

No, the Founding Fathers weren’t tittering and tee-heeing when they signed the Declaration of Independence. That’s actually a failure of imagination. Although he starts his op-ed piece saying it’s hard not to be solemn, given the ‘stress’ Americans are under, the opposite is actually closer to the truth. American solemnity is as superficial as the sentimentality that passes for patriotism. Americans are soft, and so are their sentiments.

Lately, with Bush in the White House and the events of 9/11, there’s been a lot of praise for the strike-first-ask-questions-later philosophy. Bush’s unilateralism fits in nicely with the American mood of the moment. His impatience with long, compound-complex sentences has been praised not as a defect, but as a sign of sincerity. America is not about compound-complex sentences, after all. That’s some kind of pretension left over from those old ‘courtly muses of Europe,’ we’re rightly embarrassed about aping. Americans tell it like it is. This is, of course, a crude kind of sentimental picture of an America that might once have been, in a time when the Americans laying claim to this essentially rural/blue collar ethic actually existed, but nowadays that naïve rural culture is gone, along with the urban immigrant culture that was its counterpart. So I don’t buy a word of it.

And Mencken would’ve spat in Rosenblatt’s face, by the way.

Aside from Rosenblatt’s blather, you’ve got Maureen Dowd banging on about what she calls ‘catch-2002.’ I like the phrase, and Maureen Dowd’s clever enough, but after going through all kinds of catch-2002s, she ends with what I guess we’re supposed to see as the ultimate:

'The Washington Post had a front-page article last week reporting that a significantly higher percentage of American college graduates are women and quoting experts saying that would make it harder for women to find suitably smart mates.
And a new study from Rutgers about why more men are putting off marriage suggests that moms who warned daughters that guys would think, "Why buy the cow if you can get the milk free?" may have been right: women have sex to get men to marry them, but men think they don't need to marry because they're already having sex.

'Which brings us back to the dread findings of Sylvia Ann Hewlett: Women having trouble finding husbands get better educations and bigger jobs to support themselves, which ends up scaring away possible husbands. Catch-2002.'

Women are so smart and so diligent. Brutish, boorish men have kept them down all these millennia through sheer force, but now that they are free to really excel the truth is out. Men simply aren’t up to muster.

Poor sods. Women, I mean. They will always end up with the short end of the stick. I’m starting to see that now, very clearly. Their only satisfaction is in making life a misery for us, too. America and British society is so saturated with politically correct sexist hogwash, if at once you see it, you’ll see it everywhere you look.

I was reading another article in the science section, about why childhood lasts so long in humans. It was a pithy piece, and full of little off-hand observations. The author, a certain Natalie Angier, was talking about the hunter-gatherer societies anthropologists were studying trying to puzzle it all out, and when it came to hunting, she never bothered with adjectives, but gathering was ‘difficult,’ requiring strength and dexterity, and the foods foraged for were described as ‘nutritious’ and ‘all-important.’

Ms. Angier and I had a good giggle when she revealed that while kids fell far behind the women in foraging, ‘the proudest spearmen on the island are just barely better than . . . the children.’ And the ellipsis is in the original, so that it’s clear it’s supposed to be a punch line.

She also spends a good deal of time recounting how the anthropologists encouraged the men to compete with the women and children by offering prizes for different tasks. The implication was clearly that men are even more like children than...children. In the end, though, all it goes to show is that women were made for work , and men for play. I mean, men are physiologically built and psychologically wired for play. More and more I see that women are pissed off about it, but what’s to be done?

It’s not persecution mania, either. And it’s no more misogynistic than is merited by female misandry. There’s a real shift in perceptions of gender and sexuality going on, and the main trouble with the whole picture is it looks a lot like a dead-end. Feminism comes to a screeching halt about 13cm up the cunt. Why get bent out of shape about it? I mean as a gay guy who doesn’t have to have anything to do with that stretch of lost highway anyway? Well, it’s possible that’s precisely why. Heterosexuals have a reason to look the other way, to turn the other cheek, but the feminine holds no mystique for me.

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