Saturday, February 25, 2006

Only in America: the relevance of the Reader's Digest to the fall of the American empire

I have a dim memory of 1950s reading fare in my household. My family subscribed, along with millions of Americans, to Reader's Digest, with its egg-timer doses of middlebrow culture and quick-read anecdotal patriotism. I suspect now that some Watsonian time and motion analyst employed by the editors closely calibrated Reader's Digest stories to average American reading speeds and the time it takes to consume a bowl of Wheaties, breakfast being the one American meal where it was acceptable to read rather than talk, at least in our house. Certainly any article had to be readable in the time you would wait in a dentist's office, which in those happier days might be as long as 10 minutes. And, unlike attention spans allowed by TV, which replaced Reader's Digest, Time, Life Magazine, and your daily newspaper as "the Media," this ten minutes was uninterrupted by messages hectoring you to buy something. As with the media today, though, you were perhaps buying the message itself.

Besides abbreviated and denatured magazine articles, condensed and unpalatable like some kind of emergency rations, or chewable vitamins (invented in the 1950s by the way), Reader's Digest had some recurring humor and schmaltz columns, one of which had the title "Only in America."

Back then, "Only in America" as I remember it (I guess I should go to the library, and read through some 1950s copies, to see if my memory is deceiving me) was suffused with a kind of unselfconscious triumphalism and easy patriotism hard to imagine today. Today's patriotism seems to me more belligerent, overweight, bulked up on steroids and angry--Rumsfeld type vein-throbbing-in-the-neck patriotism.

I am not a bit nostalgic for the 1950s, which as I remember as paralyzingly hollow and false, but I can see why the experiences of our recent imperial setbacks have awakened a politically manipulable nostalgia for that remote time, the peak of our power and certainty.

We had no beggars where I lived, and America had no refugees.

I pass beggars today at every major street corner in Austin, and Austin is a prosperous town.

As for refugees...

I was reading this morning about the muted Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans. According to the Los Angeles Times, the current population of New Orleans is now about 150,000, (mostly white, by the way.) This represents a 70% population reduction. About 350,000 people who lived in New Orleans have not returned. This is the from the city alone, not adjacent parishes.

Actually, the overall figures for refugees are more disquieting. The government has been providing some form of housing help for two and a half million people displaced by Katrina and Rita.

Two and a half million. That's a lot of refugees. That's right up there with some some places in Africa or the Middle East. That's kind of shocking, even for me, and I have always tried not to buy into American exceptionalism. So it's gotta be a surprise for most of us.

I wonder if Katrina will become a watershed event in the American psyche? I think most of my countrymen still want to believe the myth of inevitable American growth and ineluctable triumph. But when an entire city is destroyed and its population displaced--owing to various measures of incompetence, blindness, neglect, and the overarching imperial hubris which so defines Republican ideology-- it's hard not to notice, and harder not to be troubled.

"This could happen to me" has got to be a subliminal message here. Karl Rove is a busy man, as always, trying to find ways to use the resulting disquiet to Republican advantage. It worked with 9/11. But maybe (I like to end on an optimistic note) it won't work here. Not even the craziest of conspiracy theorists holds the Republican regime directly responsible for 9/11, but the New Orleans disaster is altogether different. The regime failed, and everyone saw it. The Republicans, I suppose, hope to work some sort of media magic and induce mass amnesia. Only in America could a city be destroyed and the country's rulers try to pretend it never happened. Then the tepid and subdued images of survivors celebrating Mardi Gras remind us again.

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