It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!

Capitalist Realism is one of the drains around which my mind slowly revolves. My mind revolves around it for that stinky dark hole is the center of our society. I poke and pick at the detritus clogging up the works until whatever lay hidden oozes out.

You get the picture. It’s a fun game I like to play. Join me, if you will.

Let me begin with obesity. We Americans are fat and lazy. I almost feel stupid to state such an obvious fact. Everyone knows this simple truth. It’s no big secret, pardon my pun. 

It’s a good thing we have a morally superior elite to tell us what to do (and to sell us the products to help us cover up our failures and lessen our inadequacies). And we know they are morally superior because they aren’t fat like all us poor schmucks. The elite may consume more than everyone else, but they go to the gym regularly to work it all off. The poor could work it all off too, if they weren’t lazy and morally inferior.

To continue with the obvious, we Americans are a hungry people ready to devour all of the world at the first chance we get. Our military and our consumerism is an endless gaping maw, ever hungry and waiting to be fed. We are the Borg… blah, blah, blah… assimilate… blah. It’s eat or be eaten. It’s the natural order for the lean and mean to prey upon the fat losers.

To put it in more prosaic terms, here is a sampling of an article that lists all the excuses for being obese (i.e., ugly, disgusting and generally worthless):

The obesity era
As the American people got fatter, so did marmosets, vervet monkeys and mice. The problem may be bigger than any of us
By David Berreby
Aeon Magazine

And so the authorities tell us, ever more loudly, that we are fat — disgustingly, world-threateningly fat. We must take ourselves in hand and address our weakness. After all, it’s obvious who is to blame for this frightening global blanket of lipids: it’s us, choosing over and over again, billions of times a day, to eat too much and exercise too little. What else could it be? If you’re overweight, it must be because you are not saying no to sweets and fast food and fried potatoes. It’s because you take elevators and cars and golf carts where your forebears nobly strained their thighs and calves. How could you do this to yourself, and to society?

Moral panic about the depravity of the heavy has seeped into many aspects of life, confusing even the erudite. Earlier this month, for example, the American evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller expressed the zeitgeist in this tweet: ‘Dear obese PhD applicants: if you don’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation. #truth.’ Businesses are moving to profit on the supposed weaknesses of their customers. Meanwhile, governments no longer presume that their citizens know what they are doing when they take up a menu or a shopping cart. Yesterday’s fringe notions are becoming today’s rules for living — such as New York City’s recent attempt to ban large-size cups for sugary soft drinks, or Denmark’s short-lived tax surcharge on foods that contain more than 2.3 per cent saturated fat, or Samoa Air’s 2013 ticket policy, in which a passenger’s fare is based on his weight because: ‘You are the master of your air ‘fair’, you decide how much (or how little) your ticket will cost.’

Several governments now sponsor jauntily named pro-exercise programmes such as Let’s Move! (US), Change4Life (UK) and actionsanté (Switzerland). Less chummy approaches are spreading, too. Since 2008, Japanese law requires companies to measure and report the waist circumference of all employees between the ages of 40 and 74 so that, among other things, anyone over the recommended girth can receive an email of admonition and advice.

Hand-in-glove with the authorities that promote self-scrutiny are the businesses that sell it, in the form of weight-loss foods, medicines, services, surgeries and new technologies. A Hong Kong company named Hapilabs offers an electronic fork that tracks how many bites you take per minute in order to prevent hasty eating: shovel food in too fast and it vibrates to alert you. A report by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co predicted in May 2012 that ‘health and wellness’ would soon become a trillion-dollar global industry. ‘Obesity is expensive in terms of health-care costs,’ it said before adding, with a consultantly chuckle, ‘dealing with it is also a big, fat market.’

[ . . . ]

The trap is deeper than that, however. The ‘unifying logic of capitalism’, Wells continues, requires that food companies seek immediate profit and long-term success, and their optimal strategy for that involves encouraging people to choose foods that are most profitable to produce and sell — ‘both at the behavioural level, through advertising, price manipulations and restriction of choice, and at the physiological level through the enhancement of addictive properties of foods’ (by which he means those sugars and fats that make ‘metabolic disturber’ foods so habit-forming). In short, Wells told me via email, ‘We need to understand that we have not yet grasped how to address this situation, but we are increasingly understanding that attributing obesity to personal responsibility is very simplistic.’ Rather than harping on personal responsibility so much, Wells believes, we should be looking at the global economic system, seeking to reform it so that it promotes access to nutritious food for everyone. That is, admittedly, a tall order. But the argument is worth considering, if only as a bracing critique of our individual-responsibility ideology of fatness.

To put it in proper context, next up is a passage from the book where I first learned of Capitalist Realism. Reading this book has misled me from the true path of profit. I think I may have been brainwashed into socialism. Read the following at your peril!

Capitalist Realism:
Is there no alternative?
By Mark Fisher
pp. 18-20

At this point, it is perhaps worth introducing an elementary theoretical distinction from Lacanian psychoanalysis which Žižek has done so much to give contemporary currency: the difference between the Real and reality. As Alenka Zupancic explains, psychoanalysis’s positing of a reality principle invites us to be suspicious of any reality that presents itself as natural. ‘The reality principle’, Zupancic writes,

is not some kind of natural way associated with how things are … The reality principle itself is ideologically mediated; one could even claim that it constitutes the highest form of ideology, the ideology that presents itself as empirical fact (or biological, economic…) necessity (and that we tend to perceive as non-ideological). It is precisely here that we should be most alert to the functioning of ideology.

For Lacan, the Real is what any ‘reality’ must suppress; indeed, reality constitutes itself through just this repression. The Real is an unrepresentable X, a traumatic void that can only be glimpsed in the fractures and inconsistencies in the field of apparent reality. So one strategy against capitalist realism could involve invoking the Real( s) underlying the reality that capitalism presents to us.

Environmental catastrophe is one such Real. At one level, to be sure, it might look as if Green issues are very far from being ‘unrepresentable voids’ for capitalist culture. Climate change and the threat of resource-depletion are not being repressed so much as incorporated into advertising and marketing. What this treatment of environmental catastrophe illustrates is the fantasy structure on which capitalist realism depends: a presupposition that resources are infinite, that the earth itself is merely a husk which capital can at a certain point slough off like a used skin, and that any problem can be solved by the market (In the end, Wall-E presents a version of this fantasy – the idea that the infinite expansion of capital is possible, that capital can proliferate without labor – on the off world ship, Axiom, all labor is performed by robots; that the burning up of Earth’s resources is only a temporary glitch, and that, after a suitable period of recovery, capital can terraform the planet and recolonize it). Yet environmental catastrophe features in late capitalist culture only as a kind of simulacra, its real implications for capitalism too traumatic to be assimilated into the system. The significance of Green critiques is that they suggest that, far from being the only viable political-economic system, capitalism is in fact primed to destroy the entire human environment. The relationship between capitalism and eco-disaster is neither coincidental nor accidental: capital’s ‘need of a constantly expanding market’, its ‘growth fetish’, mean that capitalism is by its very nature opposed to any notion of sustainability.

But Green issues are already a contested zone, already a site where politicization is being fought for. In what follows, I want to stress two other aporias in capitalist realism, which are not yet politicized to anything like the same degree. The first is mental health. Mental health, in fact, is a paradigm case of how capitalist realism operates. Capitalist realism insists on treating mental health as if it were a natural fact, like weather (but, then again, weather is no longer a natural fact so much as a political-economic effect). In the 1960s and 1970s, radical theory and politics (Laing, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, etc.) coalesced around extreme mental conditions such as schizophrenia, arguing, for instance, that madness was not a natural, but a political, category. But what is needed now is a politicization of much more common disorders. Indeed, it is their very commonness which is the issue: in Britain, depression is now the condition that is most treated by the NHS . In his book The Selfish Capitalist, Oliver James has convincingly posited a correlation between rising rates of mental distress and the neoliberal mode of capitalism practiced in countries like Britain, the USA and Australia. In line with James’s claims, I want to argue that it is necessary to reframe the growing problem of stress (and distress) in capitalist societies. Instead of treating it as incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress, instead, that is, of accepting the vast privatization of stress that has taken place over the last thirty years, we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill? The ‘mental health plague’ in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high.

There is always an individual to blame. It sucks to be an individual these days, I tell ya. I should know because I’m one of those faulty miserable individuals. I’ve been one my whole life. If it weren’t for all of us pathetic and depraved individuals, capitalism would be utopia. I beat myself up all the time for failing the great dream of capitalism. Maybe I need to buy more stuff.

The other phenomenon I want to highlight is bureaucracy. In making their case against socialism, neoliberal ideologues often excoriated the top-down bureaucracy which supposedly led to institutional sclerosis and inefficiency in command economies. With the triumph of neoliberalism, bureaucracy was supposed to have been made obsolete; a relic of an unlamented Stalinist past. Yet this is at odds with the experiences of most people working and living in late capitalism, for whom bureaucracy remains very much a part of everyday life. Instead of disappearing, bureaucracy has changed its form; and this new, decentralized, form has allowed it to proliferate. The persistence of bureaucracy in late capitalism does not in itself indicate that capitalism does not work – rather, what it suggests is that the way in which capitalism does actually work is very different from the picture presented by capitalist realism.

In part, I have chosen to focus on mental health problems and bureaucracy because they both feature heavily in an area of culture which has becoming increasingly dominated by the imperatives of capitalist realism: education.

Ah, education. I was just discussing that earlier today. In that post, I labeled it as a Dangerous Pragmatism.

Everything must be measured by profit and transformed into capital. To blame the individual, society must create the individual. Education in capitalism, first and foremost, is about manufacturing this product of individuality. In Capitalist Realism, individualism is defined by freedom, both the freedom to accept the system and the freedoms denied by the system. We are free when, where and how we are told to be free. You are completely free within the reality tunnel, just as long as you play within the boundaries and draw within the lines.

A bit further on in the book (pp. 73-74):

There’s no doubt that late capitalism certainly articulates many of its injunctions via an appeal to (a certain version of) health. The banning of smoking in public places, the relentless monstering of working class diet on programs like You Are What You Eat, do appear to indicate that we are already in the presence of a paternalism without the Father. It is not that smoking is ‘wrong’, it is that it will lead to our failing to lead long and enjoyable lives . But there are limits to this emphasis on good health: mental health and intellectual development barely feature at all, for instance. What we see instead is a reductive, hedonic model of health which is all about ‘feeling and looking good’. To tell people how to lose weight, or how to decorate their house, is acceptable; but to call for any kind of cultural improvement is to be oppressive and elitist. The alleged elitism and oppression cannot consist in the notion that a third party might know someone’s interest better than they know it themselves, since, presumably smokers are deemed either to be unaware of their interests or incapable of acting in accordance with them. No: the problem is that only certain types of interest are deemed relevant, since they reflect values that are held to be consensual. Losing weight, decorating your house and improving your appearance belong to the ‘consentimental’ regime.

Freedom to seek pleasure. It is in our Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed…”

We have the unalienable right to pursue happiness, endlessly pursue it. Some might say it is our civic duty to never stop pursuing happiness, like the man lost in the desert following a mirage in the distance. But sometimes it isn’t even about the happiness or even the pretense of seeking it. As Dubya famously said, 

“Now, the American people have got to go about their business. We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where we don’t conduct business, where people don’t shop.”

Happiness is just the selling point. The real purpose, though, is what is being sold. It’s not just a product being sold. The entire system of capitalism must be sold to the American people… hook, line and sinker. We the People must buy into Capitalist Realism or the American Dream will die and the Terrorists or Commies will win.

When you buy, you are bought. You buy to consume and you buy to solve all the problems of consumerism. The only thing that can’t be bought is your humanity, but it can be sold very cheaply.

To learn more of my deep insight and profound analysis, explore the wonders of my previous blogging about Capitalist Realism:

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/the-unimagined-capitalism-and-crappiness/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/03/10/pkd-vs-the-american-mythos/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/11/21/liberal-mindedness-empathetic-imagination-and-capitalist-realism/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/03/24/symbolic-conflation-empathic-imagination/

A Dangerous Pragmatism

How often pragmatism leads to or belies shortsightedness and narrowmindedness. Or rather how often claims, justifications and rationalizations of realism undermine greater pragmatic results, capitalist realism allied with realpolitik cynicism often being the worst.

The question as always: Pragmatic toward what?

In education, what is sought to be achieved and created? Not just for the individual. Not just for the workforce and economy. But for all of society. What makes a morally and intellectually well-rounded human being? What makes a good citizen, both of a nation and of the world? What makes for the public good?

These questions are even more important in a democracy. When democracy is given short shrift, when democracy is devalued or made secondary, if not tertiary, that bodes not well for the long-term survival of a democratic society. Nor does it offer much hope for moral results of any kind. Freedom of the individual, freedom of markets, freedom of all of society is dependent on how each generation is raised and acculturated, trained and educated.

Every society seeks pragmatic results, as defined by their political structure and cultural traditions. The Nazis and Stalinists all sought to be pragmatic toward achieving their desired end. They were as caught up in their fascist realism and communist realism as we are caught up in our capitalist realism. How about some plain old civic-minded democracy instead?

Let us be pragmatic about something that truly matters, something that can inspire and benefit everyone. Let us be pragmatic about democracy in all of its forms.

Let us create and sustain a democratic system and citizenry. Let us create and sustain a democratic economy and democratic markets. Let us create and sustain a democratic education system.

Let us do all of this pragmatically, not just with rhetoric and propaganda, but with real world results. Let us finally for the first time in history take democracy seriously, both on the large-scale and for the long-term. Let us together build the practical infrastructure and the grassroots culture of democracy.

Let us begin with a new generation by preparing them for a new era of democracy. Let us fulfill the democratic promise of education for all.

Illiberal Arts
‘Is College Worth It?’ and ‘College (Un)bound’
By Andrew Delbanco
The New York Times
Published: June 21, 2013

The colleges that survive will be those, in Selingo’s words, that “prove their worth.” Fair enough. But there’s a problem with this formulation, which presumes a narrow definition of worth that can be captured in data like rates of early job attainment or levels of lifetime income.

In times of economic stress, it’s entirely reasonable for students and families to demand evidence that paying for college makes sense. Bennett construes college as a business proposition, but Selingo allows himself to reflect on what’s sacrificed in such a view: “I worry at times about what might be lost in an unbound, personalized experience for students. Will they discover subjects they never knew existed? If a computer is telling them where to sit for class discussions, will they make those random connections that lead to lifelong friends? Will they be able to develop friendships and mentors if they move from provider to provider?”

These are the right questions. In striving to “prove their worth,” America’s colleges risk losing their value as places young ­people enter as adventurous adolescents and from which they emerge as intellectually curious adults. Such a loss could never be compensated by any gain.

Sea Change of Public Opinion: Libertarianism, Progressivism & Socialism

I’ve been pointing out over this past decade the sea change occurring in American demographics and public opinion. Despite being well informed, I was blown away by looking at an area of polling I hadn’t previously looked into as deeply.

Pew had a poll from a couple years ago that I missed. If you look at the broad public opinion, it looks like the same old same old. Most Americans have a more favorable opinion of capitalism than socialism. They also have a more favorable opinion of conservatism than liberalism. But it’s always in the details where it gets interesting. The cracks are beginning to show in the Cold War edifice.

More Americans have a positive opinion of progressivism, significantly more than their opinion of conservatism. As many have noted, progressivism has basically become the label for those who like liberalism but are afraid of the negative connotations of the word itself. There isn’t a vast difference between what liberals support and what progressives support.

Even most Republicans give a positive response toward progressivism. This probably relates as well to why many people who self-identify as conservatives will support many traditionally liberal positions. These positions back in the Progressive Era used to be called progressive. Americans strongly support them. That is the true Silent Majority or rather Silenced Majority.

Now, prepare to have your mind blown… or else your stereotypes dismantled.

More Democrats have a positive view of of libertarianism than Republicans. And fewer Democrats have a negative view of libertarianism than Republicans. This shouldn’t be as surprising as would be suggested by watching the MSM. Libertarianism is a direct political competitor with the Republican Party, but Libertarians socially have more in common with liberals and progressives.

What about socialism and capitalism?

“Of these terms, socialism is the more politically polarizing – the reaction is almost universally negative among conservatives, while generally positive among liberals. While there are substantial differences in how liberals and conservatives think of capitalism, the gaps are far narrower. Most notably, liberal Democrats and Occupy Wall Street supporters are as likely to view capitalism positively as negatively. And even among conservative Republicans and Tea Party supporters there is a significant minority who react negatively to capitalism.”

Interestingly, blacks and hispanics both have a negative view of capitalism. However, blacks have a more positive view of liberalism while hispanics have a more positive view of socialism. That will be an interesting future dynamic as these two demograhics grow.

As Sarah van Gelder, at Yes! Magazine, summarized this trend (Don’t Let the Apocalypse Get You Down):

“There is growing willingness to name corporate rule and global capitalism as key problems, and to look to decentralized, place-based economies as the answer. While capitalism is viewed more favorably among all Americans than socialism, the reverse is true among those under 29, African Americans and Hispanics, and those making less than $30,000 a year, according to a Pew poll. And more Americans have a favorable view of socialism than of the Tea Party.”

It should go without saying that, as more in the Cold War generations die off, those above demographics combined will quickly become the new majority. 

* * *

Capitalism: Big surprises in recent polls
by Charles Derber

Is Capitalism on Trial?
by Peter Dreier

‘Liberal’ unpopular, but newer ‘progressive’ label gets high marks in poll
by Neil Munro

* * *

12/21/20 – Update: The polling referred to in this post is already about a decade old. Majority position has since then further shifted left, as it has been doing so for decades now. I’ve documented this leftist or progressive moral majority in the past (US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism). The majority, in being suppressed and silenced, has not yet gained the public knowledge and collective awareness that they are a majority. Instead, they feel disenfranchised and divided.

Nonetheless, more recent polling from PRRI and Fox News show how left keeps going further and further left (American People Keep Going Further Left, Polarization Between the Majority and Minority, & Fox News: Americans are the ‘Left-Wing’ Enemy Threatening America). The growing suppressed and silenced majority includes not only the public favoring social issues like same sex marriage and woman’s rights but also hardcore economic issues such as progressive taxation and universal healthcare, not to mention growing support for environmental regulations and alternative energy funding as seen with the Green New Deal.

This majority has been developing while much of this gets attacked as socialist by Republicans and sometimes by Democrats as well. President elect Joe Biden felt the need to signal his alliance with big biz by consistently punching left, both before and after winning the election. Yet Americans remain unfazed by the propaganda machine, as they continue the leftward trend. This was seen even before the election began, as we near a tipping point.

Four in 10 Americans Embrace Some Form of Socialism
by Mohamed Younis, 5/20/19

“Americans today are more closely divided than they were earlier in the last century when asked whether some form of socialism would be a good or bad thing for the country. While 51% of U.S. adults say socialism would be a bad thing for the country, 43% believe it would be a good thing. Those results contrast with a 1942 Roper/Fortune survey that found 40% describing socialism as a bad thing, 25% a good thing and 34% not having an opinion. […]

“Previous Gallup research shows that Americans’ definition of socialism has changed over the years, with nearly one in four now associating the concept with social equality and 17% associating it with the more classical definition of having some degree of government control over the means of production. A majority of Democrats have said they view socialism positively in Gallup polling since 2010, including 57% in the most recent measure in 2018. […]

“Additionally, while a majority of Democrats view socialism positively, that is not a major change in the eight years Gallup has tracked this metric. The major shift over this time has been the reduced rate of Democrats who now view capitalism positively (47%).

“These data alone make it hard to generalize a simplistic conclusion about Americans’ opinions of, and willingness to entertain, socialism. But there are a few clear takeaways. About four in 10 Americans are accepting of some form of socialism or socialist policies, and Democrats currently have a more positive view of socialism than capitalism. In addition, the April survey found that 47% of Americans say they would vote for a socialist candidate for president.”

The Force of Truth

It sometimes feels like those of us who value truth and honesty are at a disadvantage in these times of mass misinformation and disinformation, willful ignorance and echo chambers. But the internet despite its failings has opened up dialogue in a way never before possible. The average person can access info that even the most educated elites didn’t know in the past.

On the world wide web, a person can live in a reality tunnel if they choose. But when they do so, they isolate themselves and so disempower their impact on the world. They end up silencing themselves, a just result in a too often unjust world.

I’ll give an example of this.

Just recently, I was debating someone in their book review and someone else joined them in their defense. So, I took them both on which wasn’t hard to do because I had the facts on my side. These people weren’t necessarily ignorant in the willful sense, at least not initially. They simply didn’t know the facts because no one had taught them the facts and it never occurred to them to look at alternative views.

They argued with me for several comments. But I ended the debate by offering direct quotes of the person in question. The review was on Amazon and so the reviewer couldn’t censor the debate. They couldn’t silence me directly without also silencing themselves. They removed their review which is their admitting they were wrong and knew it.

That has to hurt their sense of self esteem. They can never again enter a debate with confidence that they know what they are talking about. From now on, they will live in fear of debate because they fear the truth. They can now become a recluse who hides away in their preferred reality tunnel listening to their own views echo back to them. But in doing so they’ve accepted defeat. They’ve chosen to resign from debate and so have removed themselves from the battlefield of ideas.

This is the second time I’ve managed to get someone to remove their review simply by offering facts they couldn’t refute. I’m only one person. Imagine if every lover and seeker of truth were to do the same. It’s a win/win scenario, for me at least. If they remove the untruth, that decreases the misinfo/disinfo in the world. If they don’t remove the untruth, they are forced to leave my refutation of their untruth for all to see.

I’ve noticed this kind of power to influence in other ways as well. There are the right-wingers who will mindlessly repeat that America is not a democracy. I saw this regularly online for years. I pointed out the falsity of this every single time I saw it. Many other people did the same. Now, you rarely hear right-wingers say this anymore.

The force of truth is more powerful than we sometimes realize. This makes me happy.

 

Westerly Migrations

My research on genealogy and family history has shifted gears, that being the proper metaphor to describe my recent family road trip.

The traveling party included my parents, my second oldest brother and myself; although my brother only came for the first half of the trip. It was a long trip, but I didn’t mind too much. I get along well enough with my parents and it was nice to spend some quality time with my brother who, these days, is usually busy with his own family.

It was a trip with family and largely about family. There was much discussion. I prodded my parents with many questions and took extensive notes. My motivation to learn about my extended family is that I didn’t grow up around them nor did I ever see most of them on a regular basis. They are strangers to me, strangers because of distance and time. Some of them, specifically three of my grandparents, were dead before I had become an adult.

I grew up feeling detached from family. As I wasn’t raised with extended family, I wasn’t raised with the belief being overtly instilled in me that there was much value to extended family, my own parents willingly having left their families behind other than for brief visits. There was never a sense of closeness. No big family reunions and holidays. No grandmother next door, no cousins in the neighborhood, not even distant relations in nearby towns.

My parents didn’t consciously choose this, but on some level I’m sure they understood the choice they were making for their children. They had conflict-ridden or even distant relationships with their own family, especially their parents, and so they did the opposite of prioritizing extended family. Career always came first, a choice that was easily rationalized out of a sense of parental responsibility and duty to self-development. This just makes my parents normal according to the standards of modern American society.

My parents have always wanted normalcy or a close approximation to it. They grew up with the nuclear family fantasy of those early black and white tv sitcoms. That is what they internalized and then modeled in their own adult lives. They just wanted to be good people, responsible adults, dutiful parents. It was a role that society told them to play and they played it well. I make these observations with deep empathy for I understand the pull of wanting to fit in and be accepted, to be perceived as a worthy human being and a valued member of society. It just so happens to be a role I’m not very good at playing. If not for depression, I very well might have followed right along with a career, house, wife and 2.5 kids.

The destination for the road trip was California. It was a journey that followed in the footsteps of family members before me, some of the family I never knew or barely knew. California is a state that for some reason was where several lines of my family ended up in or passed through, not unlike many other Americans. California, the land of new beginnings, the birthplace of the suburban dream.

While in California, my mom visited a cousin she hadn’t seen since childhood and I visited a cousin I hadn’t seen since childhood, two reunions from each side of the family. Along the way, we stopped in a town where my dad recalled visiting a great uncle (where a great aunt also lived nearby) and we stopped in another town where he once visited his mother after his parents divorced.

All of them had their reasons for leaving their families behind. My mom’s cousins ended up there either because their father was escaping debts or because it was suggested that a change in climate would be beneficial for some illness in the family. My dad’s mom simply went for the supposed perfect climate of the bay area, illness not being the motivating factor. My cousin has been there because he has a good job in Silicon Valley. My dad’s great uncle and great aunt moved there for reasons unknown.

California is a place that hasn’t held any personal significance, but this trip has changed that. Starting in the most southern area and heading up just past the Bay area, I was able to get a glimpse of what life is like there — the geography and history, the culture and ethnicities, the settlement patterns and imperial remnants. No doubt it is very much symbolic of America and the American Dream. A society on the move. A people of progress. Keep going West until you can’t go any further. Then what?

Midwestern Green

The Midwest is a very green place. There is good reason that this is called the breadbasket of the world.

Growing up in the region, I never realized how different are large sections of the country. That changed when I moved to South Carolina. The soil, instead of dark and rich, is sand and clay. The woods, instead of thick and lush, is sparse and dry.

The stark contrast didn’t really hit me, though, until I moved back to Iowa after high school. Now, I’ve been living in Iowa for a few years shy of two decades. I have once again grown accustomed to the green.

I’m looking outside at my parent’s backyard. The flower beds are full. The lawn is a deep carpet. The woods at the back is a solid wall of foliage. It is green upon green, endless green. It is life frothing at the bit. I’m in the city and yet life surrounds me. Bunnies and squirrels and a thousand birds tweeting.

This all hit me again because of my recent road trip out West along a more southernly route to the coast. The Southwest for damn sure is dry. Even the Bay Area of California can’t compete with the summertime brilliance of the Upper Mississippi River Basin.

There were only two small areas we visited that would be comparable: far down in the canyon of Zion National Park and halfway down the Grand Canyon in Indian Gardens. A stream flows through the Zion canyon. However, despite the relative greenness, there was no apparent life in the stream itself… which I thought very strange. Indian Gardens is an even smaller area. The smaller area coincides with a concentration of life. It is an island amidst dry rocky terrain.

It wasn’t just life or lack thereof that stood out to me. I was sometimes surprised by what kinds of life I saw, what kinds I didn’t see and where.

Down in Indian Gardens, I saw Box Elder bugs. I saw those little critters several different places where one wouldn’t expect them. They weren’t present in the massive swarms I’d see as a child here in Iowa. But how did they end up at all in Indian Gardens? What strange wind blew them across the surrounding arid land?

At a rest stop in the middle of desert, there was a few trees and a leaking faucet. A flock of pigeons lived there. After some travelers got up from the picnic table, the pigeons cleaned up the crumbs. Pigeons in the desert? Probably hundreds of miles of dust and rock in all directions, but that man-made oasis was able to support a decent sized population of non-desert creatures. I’d assume those poor pigeons were trapped there. Once again, what strange wind?

So, what didn’t I see?

I’m sure there were rabbits somewhere in the various areas I went, at least jackrabbits if nothing else, but I didn’t see them. Here in the Midwest, little bunnies are like flies on shit… and they breed like, well, rabbits. Another animal common in Eastern United States are domestic cats, whether pet cats being let outside or strays. There is a large stray cat population in this neighborhood. There were even quite a few cats down in South Carolina, despite there not being as many rabbits for them to feast upon. Out West, I only saw one cat the entire time.

There was only one animal that I saw in many different places. Deer. They seem to be versatile creatures. North, South, East, West. There are deer everywhere. If you see one of them, there are probably a dozen more nearby.

Coming back to the Midwest after the trip, everything was greener than when I left. It was greener in my perception because I had been away from it, but it also was literally greener because it had rained a lot in the meantime. We had drought conditions last year. We are far from having a drought right now. Farmers lost crops last season, but the Midwest is now back in business.

I’ve known many people from many places. People tend to like the place they came from. My South Carolina friend thought the woods there was beautiful, but not I. Green, deep dark green. That is what I like. Green is life. The more green the better.

Mexican Reconquista

There is an interesting Wikipedia article about Reconquista, what Professor Charles Truxillo refers to as Republica del Norte. I was reading about this in American Nations by Colin Woodard (where he labels it El Norte). I highly recommend the book, by the way.

Here is the map that goes along with that article:

File:Hispanic population in the United States and the former Mexican-American border.png

The Hispanic and Latino American population in the United States in 2010 and the Mexican-American border of 1836 in red.

And here is the map of New Spain, specifically the North American territory of the Spanish Empire:

File:Viceroyalty of New Spain 1800 (without Philippines).png

New Spain 1800 (not including the island territories of the Pacific Ocean).

If that doesn’t convince one of the persistence of culture, I don’t know what will. Mexicans aren’t invading America. Americans invaded Mexico (and the former Spanish Empire).

More than Woodard’s book, the reason I was thinking of this is because I just got back from visiting the Southwest and California. I took a family road trip with my family. We arrived in Southern California where we visited some of my mother’s family and headed up the coast to the Bay Area where we visited other family from my father’s side.

On the way up the coast, we happened upon a formerly Danish town, Solvang. It was interesting to discover that it was settled by some Danish from Iowa and the Midwest. However, they settled the land which was before that was a Mexican land grant and before that part of the Spanish Empire. There is a Catholic Mission there, Mission Santa Inés. The mission, along with many other missions, was created as part of Spain’s attempt to maintain its frontier territory.

Today, the mission is a Catholic Church that is still being used by those of Mexican/Spanish ancestry. We happened to be visiting when they were having an outdoor ceremony. There was a procession going on and they were singing in Spanish. We stepped inside and you could feel how old the place was, how old the faith was even. Spanish Catholics have been worshipping Jesus in North America longer than British have had colonies here.

My mom’s family came to California in the 1950s. They are Evangelicals and belong to a mega-church. There are lots of mega-churhes in southern California. We went to a church function. There was a lot of emotion in the singing, but later when visiting the mission I realized how shallow that emotion felt compared the ancient faith of Spanish Catholicism.

It is hard to explain in words. Entering that mission, there was a depth to the place. Part of it was just architectural. It was a place that was built to last, unlike most modern churches. I got the feeling of a faith that was built to last, unlike many Evangelicals who barely can suppress their anticipation for the End Times. I got that sense of depth most clearly when I gazed upon a statue of St. Anthony and baby Jesus which was of Spanish origin and even older than the mission.

The United States is a very young country. We Americans often don’t have much appreciation for the past. We can be naive and superficial in what we think we understand about the world we live in. Almost everything in human history is older than this country… and all of that remains in the background, sometimes emerging to the foreground when we are paying attention or when events in society force us to notice.

Correction (6/13/13): I incorrectly stated Alan Taylor as the author of American Nations. The actual author is Colin Woodard. Alan Taylor, however, has written a not dissimilar book about early settlement patterns: American Colonies.