October 10, 2007

The Overworld

I think one is apt to see the world in terms of immediate influences, so that if you surf the liberal web, as I sometimes do, no doubt you find yourself in a state of perpetual consternation about the various misprisions of the Bush Administration, and the impotence of a prostrate Congress, and the indifference or complicity of the mainstream media, etc. I'll cop to this syndrome. Where I part company with a lot of the hardcore liberal commentators I encounter while reading around, as I think I've mentioned before, is the tendency to see a dark conspiracy among all the plutocrats, Republican politicians, business tycoons, oil companies, Blackwater, et alia ad infinitum ad nauseum, and to explain the plight of the "middle class" and the poor in America in terms of their manipulations. Such thinking probably reaches its apotheosis in such books as The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein, who traces all our modern miseries to a conspiratorial cabal in the United States who have "traumatized" us into economic submission; or perhaps in the periodic screeds of Jane Smiley, she of A Thousand Acres and the Pulitzer Prize, a brilliant mind and writer, who periodically lays it all out, how the Bush Administration has seized control and subjugated us and used their inborn sociopathic tendencies to monopolize all wealth while constantly lying to the public about the reasons for war or economic policy or anything else.

Of course - there must be an element of truth to these ideas in order to support the grand superstructure of their explanatory theories. On the other hand, I don't think they explain very much, and they ignore the most basic of truisms about the current state of America. To wit, however powerful all these gathered forces are, the fact remains that the American people retain the capability to change it all, if they got motivated to do so. We don't actually have to elect dumb guys as President if we don't want to. There are plenty of smart people in the United States; I see where Europe finally won a physics Nobel (shared by a German and a Frenchman) for nanotechnology which is the basis of magnetic hard disk storage, making possible - yippee! - iPods and all the other pointless distractions of modern life. Prior to that, the USA had won the Nobel Prize for physics for every year since 2000. Instead, for ideological reasons, we tend to elect dunderheads like Ronald Reagan, and Bush pere et fils. I know that George II cheated to win the first election, but then JFK secured his election in 1960 with a huge payoff to the Chicago Democratic machine. La plus ca change... Like Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics, you have to win by a lot to overcome the effects of scandal. A good candidate could do that.

Similarly, the American consumer could make conscious choices to change the whole world of commerce: balance of trade, American job flight, all the rest. Instead, Americans eat way too much crummy food (getting obese, like Michael Moore), pay too little attention to the requirements of citizenship, put too much faith in divine providence (religiosity, in other words), waste tremendous amounts of energy, and are excessively materialistic. The "Overworld" does not require the average American to do any of this; we choose to do it.

What I think the conspiracy writers tap into is this American sense of entitlement and resulting grievance. Our European and Asian friends (if we still have any) are often too polite to say so, but this is what bugs them about us. Let's face it: the Greatest Generation and the society their forefathers had built won a world war against astonishing odds, overcoming a tremendous German and Japanese head start, and then built an economic colossus which stood astride the world. We exported all kinds of durable goods, we manufactured like crazy, we had plenty of our own oil and other resources, a tremendous food surplus, American citizens enjoyed a lifetime of secure employment at good wages -- and then the world caught up. I understand the concept that economics is not necessarily a zero-sum game, but water does seek its own level. As Asian and European countries took over the manufacturing sector, we became a "consumer and information economy". And the middle class began to erode as international competition drove wages down, while we clung to the same economic model which had propelled our success in the first place.

The American populace then began to panic as the life of assured prosperity began to vanish, and a sense of injured pride (similar to the Germans in the early Thirties) caused us to look around for scapegoats and villains. In truth, we needed to reinvent ourselves and to throw off a lot of the legacy industries (auto-based transportation, nonrenewable energy) on which the old economy was built. Many of the deep ecology writers of the Sixties and Seventies wrote about all this long ago. The "power structure" ascendant in the United States now has relied upon these legacy industries for their own wealth: oil, pipelines, nuclear energy, defense contracting, so they're biased in favor of their maintenance. Duh. But there are other people with other good ideas--most of whom the good people of America regard as "nerds" and "geeks" and "unelectable." We'd rather sit and grouse about the way things ought to be than take steps, for example, to construct a high speed rail system in the USA, or install solar roof panels or change to a vegetarian diet.

We want the old America back, in other words, when we had it made. Since we're Americans and entitled to have what we want, whatever the cost to the Earth or our fellow man, anything standing in our way must be an Overworld conspiracy which is preventing us from our rightful restoration. Baloney. The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are such underlings.

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