My State of the US Report
I was born in the US. I have family in the US. I live in Australia and have done so for well over twenty years and am a US/Australia dual citizen. I tend to get back to the US once every five years. I have found this gives me a peculiar perspective on developments in that country.
When you live in a country, you don't always see its changes because of the slow incremental nature of those changes. I have an inside knowledge of US culture, but am now living in a situation where I get to see developments snapshot style.
Last time I was in the US I remember looking around and feeling a little uneasy. I turned to my significant other Andrew and said, "This country is in a recession." Only months later the US news reported that the country was in a recession. So, I thought it might be of interest to people to hear my impressions of this trip.
I wish my impressions were more upbeat this time around, but the situation does not seem to be improving. Rather, like a dysfunctional family, the country is getting better at hiding its problems from itself and the results can be chilling.
The US Conference of Mayors reported in 2011 that "Every city surveyed reported that requests for emergency food assistance increased over the past year, and those requests increased by an average of 24 per cent across the cities." The State of Homelessness in America 2011 report calculates in recent years a 3% increase in homelessness. However, unlike my visit in 2007 I saw very few homeless people.
Seattle's Pike Place Market always had the odd beggar. I also remember having to be a little careful of the drug dealers. They were all gone this time. Rather than making me feel more comfortable, I felt unnerved. The place felt hollow, as if it had lost its soul. Everything looked neat and pretty, but at the expense of never having to feel empathy for the poor even though their numbers are increasing. So where were they?
Housing communities are built so that they are only accessible by people in cars. The same is true of shopping, which has turned even more relentlessly into one set of chain stores after another. Individually owned shops seem to be all but obliterated except in small towns and boutique centres. In this way it is possible to never see a poor person and assume everything is all right in the nation.
Travelling up and down the west coast I did see a few homeless. I saw military veterans begging. I saw one well-dressed couple with a large newish 4WD that had a dent in one side holding up a sign asking for food and gas. I saw a woman of retirement age fixing herself up at public bathrooms. She wore slacks, a matching suit jacket, a white ruffled blouse, and beads, all in excellent condition. Her face was impeccably made-up and her hair neatly groomed. Over her clothes she put on a neon yellow, floor-length, padded coat with dark filthy streaks. It looked like a discarded road repair outfit. She had numerous bags full of clothing, food, and kitchen items. I was at this bathroom at an unusually early hour and she seemed upset to be sharing the space with me.
For those with money everything has gotten bigger: bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger TVs, bigger refrigerators, bigger storage units, bigger stores, bigger people. The upper middle classes are not merely wealthy by the standards of other countries, they are obscenely wealthy with immense amounts of waste.
Seattle in particular is a city that prides itself on its environmentalism, but I saw very few electric cars, no solar panels, and hardly anyone was using recycled paper. I was pleased that Taco Bell seemed to be making an effort to put their foods into explicitly recyclable packaging materials. Now I'm sure somewhere in that city people are living more sustainably, but as a whole it was saddening. I saw one big gas-guzzling 4WD with an Obama sticker on it and wondered how car and sticker reconciled themselves with each other.
Star Wars is everywhere. Its signs and symbols are in stores and on the media non-stop. So what about that story aligns itself well with the cultural mythology of the US? It is a universe with a hierarchy, provable mystic powers, and problems are solved by military force.
I was taken to a museum exhibition of Avatar the movie. One little boy was happily playing with a multimedia exhibit displaying different alien animals, when his dad insisted he join him and "look at the guns". Now this has been a longtime mindset of the US. They love their guns. But stories and representations of the military are more ubiquitous than ever.
At the airports I would regularly hear announcements about special USO lounge rooms for military personnel. I have never seen so many people in uniform everywhere. The US seems to have developed a more defined military class. And it is a privileged class...provided you remain in the military.
I find it concerning that the US looks like it is either preparing for a major war or is aiming to become a military dictatorship. Even more concerning is the build-up of an ex-military underclass that may be resentful of having lost their state of privilege. You have people worried about the Occupy movement, which has been largely peaceful. What will happen if ex-military people decide they are unhappy with their situation and should make a group statement? Nothing says they can't be peaceful as well, but they could also be a more frightening powder keg of violence.
Overall the US feels lost and hollow. It has substituted financial value for human values, and fame for good character. It has atomised itself, so as to never get too close to anyone and lose a sense of "happy families". People who know each other well may fight once in awhile. People with whom you never fight may also not be there for you when times are tough.
I'm not certain if the US is on the verge of its own French Revolution or if it's just going to fizz away to nothingness like a Polident tablet. Things aren't good. And people have conveniently created a world where they don't have to do any self examination. The US clearly still has the tools to turn itself around, but will sufficient numbers of people be willing to make significant enough changes?
2012 July 15