Thursday, September 22, 2011

The American dream in prime time

These days, darkened by indecision and dread, it's difficult to think clearly about politics except to observe that the men and women in government truly represent the aspirations and anxieties of those who elect them. If our leaders are petty, avaricious, and credulous, it's because so are we. Democracy -- government by the people -- works. If we're disappointed in the results, we're probably disappointed with human beings generally, certainly our fellow consumers and maybe even ourselves.

I live in northwest Jersey, good, green land criss-crossed by roads, dotted by commercial development, some offices and warehouses, mostly shopping centers. The architecture is abominable, the construction cheap -- these developments won't last but a few years past my lifetime. When I was a kid growing up on the Island, there still were adults around who bemoaned the spread of suburban ticky-tack. Those days are gone. By now we're inured to it. It's part of the "environment." Humans, like cockroaches, are adaptable -- we can live with most anything after a while, even the omnipresent smell of shit. Or the sound of white noise. As long as someone is turning a profit.

Most people who live around here want to get rich -- and believe they can. Maybe if they pray hard enough. Maybe if they cut enough corners. All around them, they see people who have made it. They ought to be able to make it too. They're just as good as anybody else. Sure, they'll work if they have to, assuming they can find a job, but the men would rather fish or watch football, just as the women would rather dress up and go out. And the jobs they do find are not particularly enriching. Retail, healthcare, social work, administration, security, logistics, maintenance, cleaning. Service jobs, putting out fires. Twenty-five, thirty thou a year tops.

They seem happiest when they're doing something with their hands that doesn't involve conscious thought, like yard work or shopping. They like it when the kids are old enough to go to school so they don't have to put up with them all day long. They're tired and anxious most waking hours and when they sleep, they don't sleep well. No one knows why, but a lot of theories are advanced: bad food, too much stimulation, moral relativism, the environment, chemicals, terrorism, failed schools, fluoride.

Just like their representatives, they believe a lot of the crap they see on TV or the internet is important, even if they suspect it isn't true. Talk radio blowhards rile them up. Even the weather report gets on their nerves. They're not part of any community -- they could be living anywhere housing is cheap, on their own, acting out a parody of cowboy individualism in their overpowered automobiles.

There's one now, sitting in traffic on Route 23 talking to himself. He's thinking about setting up a hot-dog stand just beyond Paradise Road. Be my own boss. Plenty of traffic up there. Just need a little seed money. The car in front of his starts to move. He's still talking to himself, drumming on the steering wheel, shaking his head from side to side. If I could only get the goddamn government off my back, I'd make some real money.

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