Sunday, 3 March 2013

Notes on America

What exactly is the American dream? For Thomas Jefferson writing his ‘Notes on Virginia’ in the eighteenth century the answer was clear. The new United States would be an agrarian democracy of self-sufficient farmers whose honest toil would generate the necessary values for personal and political independence. America would be parcelled out into small holdings worked by virtuous yeoman, tilling their fields by day and thumbing through the works of Homer and Virgil at night. A worthy vision no doubt but – having been in this country now for a couple of years now – I can’t help feeling this is some way removed from what we ended up with.

In the present century the American dream consists of driving one’s gas guzzling SUV up to an enormous windowless concrete box and wandering zombie-like through its corridors in search of cheap plastic goods manufactured by Asian serfs. Evenings are then spent, not in the study of Classical texts as Jefferson would have had it, but in the watching of such shows as ‘Jersey Shore’ and ‘The Housewives of Orange County’; a carnival of decadence, promiscuity and gratuitous violence.

These have the effect of numbing the populace and making them more susceptible to a torrent of advertising messages. In Hitler’s Germany techniques of mass media marketing were used to make the population believe they should engage in an apocalyptic race war and seek an Aryan promised land on the Russian steppe. The genius of America is to use the same apparatus to instil a set of benign messages into the minds of its people. These include, that one should buy car insurance from a Gekko with a British accent; that one should use a hotline to call some chap called ‘psychic shaun’, a young and eclectic ‘animal empath’ who will be able to tell me the innermost desires of my neighbour’s dog (to rip my ankle to a bloody pulp I would say given our last encounter);  that one should harass one’s doctor into prescribing some kind of wonder drug (with an array of nasty after effects such as vomiting, rectal bleeding and death); or – most bizarrely – purchase an ‘IRenew energy balancing bracelet’ an item - as far as I can make out – that doesn’t do a damn thing.
Some weeks ago I had the misfortune to tune into the U.S edition of Celebrity Wife Swap. This particular episode featured Gary Busy; whom you may remember as the star of such classics as ‘Lethal Weapon’, ‘Under Siege’ and the anti-Semitic Turkish blockbuster ‘Valley of the Wolves: Iraq’ (in which he played a Jewish doctor who harvests fresh organs from injured Iraqi prisoners for his paymasters in Tel Aviv).

During the show Busey and his wife Stefanie claimed to have discovered via hypnosis that they had lived a total of 31 past lives together and that they are currently on their 32nd. These included a previous existence as a Native American, a fighter at the Alamo and a witch burned at the stake. Most bizarrely of all Busey and his wife claimed that they had had a child together in one of them – the Roman emperor Constantine. If this is true it would explain why he was crazed enough to have his wife cooked to death in a super-heated bath chamber.
What’s the problem with the idea of past lives? Perhaps my scepticism lies in the fact that all of those related seem to have been exciting and eventful. The fact is that the vast majority of the 108bn human beings that have ever existed had decidedly unglamorous lives as subsistence farmers. Perhaps someday a past lifer will recall an existence in which they spent their days smearing their own excrement onto a rice paddy before dying a slow and painful death from smallpox but I doubt it.