OUTSKIRTS OF TAMPA
It’s treat-yo-self Tuesday. Well, technically it’s Monday night, but considering that for the majority of Friday and Saturday I thought it was a Wednesday means that when RB and I decide to get a motel for a couple of solid beds and a decent shower, regardless of what day it is, it’s treat-yo-self Tuesday.
Also, we’re covered in bug bites. Turns out, an RV park called Mostquito Lagoon was aptly named.
The motel is not a plush affair. Most would consider it seedy. I’d also consider it seedy. Freshly showered hookers are going room to room. Our next-door neighbor invites a lady into his room to smoke some pot. A couple minutes later she leaves, wanders downstairs. A negotiation cut short? Too pricey. Another door opens and a tall old bald man kisses a young blond in a tank top. Goodnight. Two doors down there’s a guy with his shirt off smoking a cigarette. He’s got a big ol’ Swastika tattooed on his chest. I fucking hate Nazis.
Where the hell are we?
Inside the room. Watching TV. News. Aside from the debates, I haven’t watched a second of cable news since the journey began. We keep switching between FOX, CNN, and MSNBC. For three straight hours every single talking head and their panels are discussing the news about a letter from FBI Director Comey. The only one that veers from that particularly unimportant narrative is Rachel Maddow. She highlights the rampant support of white nationalists/supremacists, the Klan, and the newly coined “Alt Right” for Mr. Trump. The organizations that represent the white nationalists are robo-calling voters saying things like, “I’m a farmer and a white nationalist, and I’m calling to let you know that Donald J. Trump is sympathetic to the beliefs of the white nationalist movement, and he wants to ‘Make America Great Again.’”
The majority of a combined nine hours of evening news on the three major cable news networks are discussing the latest email snafu to death. Beat the dead horse. Beat the dead horse. But why must we continue to bludgeon this horse? Because, child, it’s there. An overwhelming percentage. Of a combined nine hours. Of cable news. On emails. Which, truly, is fucking criminal.
It’s business as usual for the ol’ talking heads of television, and our patience is waning. We step outside. A breath of fresh air, away from the echo chamber focused so plainly and tiredly on simplistic narratives. Doors open and close outside with almost rhythmic predictability. The sounds of the night in the lives of others. On the outskirts. On the fringes of it all.
THE AMERICAN DREAM: PART TWO
After six-and-a-half weeks of conversing with people, profiling voters, and listening (somewhat) intently to a large number of campaign events and speeches, rallies and gatherings, there are certain turns of phrase that need discussing. A little unpacking if you will. Implied meaning. Likely outcomes of literal interpretation. And, when necessary, the difference between the two.
Both parties have consistently spoken about, “The American Dream.” Never expounded upon too deeply, but rather icing on the cake of a certain point about economic prosperity, family, education, or the promise of upward mobility. The phrase itself, the entire notion of The American Dream is essentially nothing more than an advertiser’s wet dream. I can picture Don Draper beating off to this ad campaign after guzzling down three martinis at lunch and four bourbons in the office.
In Dubuque, Iowa Mike Pence said that he and Mr. Trump would, “Open the doorway to the American Dream again.” In Toledo, Ohio, Democratic State Representative Teresa Fedor said, “Education is the key to moving up and moving out to the American Dream.” In Akron, Ohio, Mrs. Clinton says, “If you are willing to work for it, [you can] get ahead and stay ahead,” and reach “The American Dream.” In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Democratic Governor Tom Wolfe told the voters in attendance that this election was about one thing, and then he asked the crowd, “Is the American Dream actually finished?” In Miami Gardens, Florida the Democratic candidate for Senate Patrick Murphy says, “My dad was a union carpenter… no guarantee of success, but he had a drive to build a better life for his family… to work hard and grasp The American Dream.” In Clearwater, Florida a Republican Congressman tells the audience, “The American Dream is at risk for our kids.”
Such a strange thing, this American Dream. It’s a door that can be opened or closed, but it also might be dying or already dead. It’s something that you have no guarantee of attaining, but if you work real hard, you may be able to grasp it. It’s also something that, once seized, can be held onto for an indefinite amount of time. It’s also something that might be tangible for you, but due to its fleeting, ethereal nature, your children may lack the wherewithal or opportunity to grasp it. Oh, The American Dream is also locked, and the key comes in the form of education. But it doesn’t have to be higher education, necessarily. You can also be a tradesman, like a union carpenter or, like Mrs. Clinton’s father, a textile wholesaler.
Remember, though, it’s at risk, and if the other side wins, it’s going to fucking die.
Does the American Dream exist in our blighted communities? Does it live in the suburbs? Is it cared for in the minds of foster children? Does it gaze out in the penthouses of the wealthy, or sun on the decks their yachts? Does it bloom on the west coast? Does it flaunt its celebrity in Hollywood? Is it protected in the trust funds of the upper class or squirreled away in college savings of the middle? Does it live perfectly in the minds of immigrants and refugees? Does it breathe freely in preschool and get slowly asphyxiated in middle and high school? Does it wither and die on floors of shuttered factories? Is it pawned and traded for cash and payday loans? Is it tied off by institutionalized discrimination? Is it violently protected by homeowner associations with mandates on lawn-care and swatches of paint? Can it be resuscitated with a flat screen TV and a new F-150? Is it passed on for one generation but not for another? Is it craved by addicts, hustled by the poor, and tasted by the hungry, or does one need rose-colored glasses to see the way its opaque opportunity floats all around? Is its existence defined by tangible things? By material goods? By space and property? By how much wealth you can accumulate or the zeroes in your bank account? By freedom from persecution? By good health? By happiness? Love?
Alas, these days it seems that The American Dream is less about class mobility and, instead, more about material wealth. We have become such good little consumers, so obsessed with the items that may “define” us, define our lifestyles, and define our class. Such passive small and simple-minded people who find happiness only in material things, “Who,” as Noam Chomsky once said, “spend [our] time working to gain the things [we] do not need… which becomes the measure of a decent life.”
The American Dream saw it’s successes in the decades after the New Deal, in which the lower classes experienced the same rate of growth as the upper classes, but for the past forty some-odd years we have reverted back to a period of massive income inequality where the wealth of the few grows at an exponential rate and the wages, economic security, and social class of the many remains stagnant or actually declines. The effects of deregulation as profound and predictable as the economic crises and crashes of unchecked, unwatched, unethical, and, ultimately, unrepentant dealings of our financial institutions.
The myth of The American Dream is that it is inherent and impervious to manipulation. The truth is that it is much more organic. It can be fed or starved. It can be watered or drowned. It can wither, and it can die. If the policies and the systems in place support only the wealth and property of the few, then the dreams of the many will eventually suffer and die, regardless of whether or not they’re American.
Unless, of course, you’re a perfect consumer, in which case you are free of want for the greater good, focused solely on the “I”, because all that is desired can be purchased, and all you have to do to purchase is work and work and work. No worries if you can never afford a house or college for your kids, you can always open up another credit card and get that fucking Jet Ski you’ve always wanted. Never mind all that mess about creating a more equal and just, benevolent and free society, the iPhone 8 is released in two weeks and, baby, it’s mine.
MAKE AMERICA GREAT… AGAIN
Bill Clinton had an interesting take on the slogan of slogans down in St. Petersburg, Florida the other day. He said, “Make America great again is just another way of saying I’ll move you back up the social totem pole and move someone else back down.” Even the former president felt the need to do a little unpacking. An interesting bit of perspective from a self-described “70 year old white male from the south who knows exactly what they mean every time” Donald Trump says “Make America Great Again”. Poignant. Could easily explain why the KKK just officially endorsed Mr. Trump for president. A sort of silent understanding on the part of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, segregationists, and your run of the mill racists that making America great again means putting the white man back on top, as if he hasn’t been there for the past few centuries.
Ahhh, the gold ol’ days. How sweet they must have been for the hooded ones. How happy they must be to have a candidate who half-welcomes them back into the fold, neither denouncing nor accepting, but rather avoiding with a wink and a smile. “I want everybody to like me, what’s wrong with that?”
Wanting our country to be great is an honorable goal. Not in the way that the Alt-Right wants it to be, but great, in general, is an honorable, albeit lofty, goal. We’re pretty good. I don’t know about great, but pretty good seems fair. In some categories we’re above average, and in others a bit below.
We’re pretty goddamn great at getting into wars. Not so great at getting out of them. I suppose we’re above average at winning them, maybe. We’re definitely good at bombing the shit out of people. We’re also pretty great at providing humanitarian aid, globally.
We’re not so great at educating kids. Pretty good. High school drop out rates are substantial. 14 percent of our population is illiterate, and 21 percent of the population read below a 5th grade level. That’s not so good. But, all in all, our for-profit education system creates a large number of intellectually capable individuals many of whom are assets in the global market.
And we’re great at putting people in prison. Sorry, no upside to this one.
There’s a whole, whole lot of other stuff that we’re not so great at, and I have neither the wherewithal nor the energy to list them out here (for a few general ideas in the right direction, Aaron Sorkin got close to the bull’s eye with this bit), but let’s just say there are enough to go around.
Although we may not be so great as we once were (and this is largely dependent on who you ask, and in what era), we are still a superpower. We have purchasing power that burns with the heat of a thousand suns, and the global reach and financing of our military is unrivaled in the modern world. We topple dictators and wage war at will. And even if our own perception of our greatness is or has diminished, globally, for the most part, we are still revered as exactly what we are, a beacon of wealth and prosperity and might. An economy that alters the global markets, a military that can fight and fight and spend and spend, indefinitely, and a people whose appetites for consumption are insatiable.
But these things do not automatically equate greatness. The greatness of a society must be measured by how it treats its poor, hungry, needy, and disadvantaged and discriminated, working and middle classes. The greatness of a society must be measured by how it works to improve the lives of its citizens, how it fights for all people, not merely the lives of the ruling class. There is no greatness without equality. There is no equality without solidarity. In a great society, you want to pay your taxes, because you recognize that by chipping in for the greater good, you are helping the child who could otherwise never afford an education or the elderly who can no longer work and, for whatever reason, never had enough to save. A great society buys into the idea that there are two contracts, one between the people and its government, and two, between the members of that society to each other. In a great society, the individual works towards its own goals while giving in to the system as a whole, to increase the prosperity of the collective.
Mr. Trump, and a majority of the Republican establishment, believes that both of these points are false. That the contract between the ruling class and the government should only serve as a mechanism to protect amassed wealth and property, and, further, that aiding, in any way, shape, or form, to the strengthening of the collective is anathema to the American way, or Anti-American. Which is complete bullshit.
When Mr. Trump says, “Make America Great Again,” what is meant has nothing to do with greatness or America or again or, even, make. No, no, it’s just a bullshit slogan that some advertisers or a PR firm came up with that they decided tested well with focus groups. The underlying message of their policies and ideologies has only to do with the destruction of our systems of government that were set up to protect the many from the greed of the few. That in this day and age, if you don’t want to chip in for the collective, you shouldn’t have to.
MAKE AMERICA SAFE AGAIN
Protect against terrorism. Rebuild our military. Support our boys in blue. Save the “crumbling” inner cities (which is really just a call to police inner city communities). The line from Mr. Trump and Mike Pence is, “Restore law and order.” “Make America safe again.” And, last but not least, “Support our troops.”
If I could put all three of these slogans into a hat and take a hot steaming shit on top of them, I would.
We have the highest per capita prison population in the modern world. Our police force is militarized like it has never been before. Peaceful protestors are met by officers in full riot gear, gas masks, and “non-lethal” weapons that maim and kill, dressed in full, military-fatigues that roll up in heavily armored vehicles. Does that feel like the peaceful protest that’s protected under the First Amendment? Just ask the folks at Standing Rock whether or not they’re up against a weak police force –– or protestors in Ferguson, or Occupy Wall Street. Police in our country murder people on a regular basis, and, instead of being held accountable for their actions, many get paid vacations in the aftermath. Really.
And what, exactly, does “Support our troops,” mean?
If we’re talking about the individual soldiers and members of the military, yes, I agree, we should definitely support our troops. They deserve signing bonuses and higher salaries, and they deserve the best possible care when they return home from war and conflict. They deserve psychological counseling, medical attention, and pretty much anything else they need to readjust to civilian life, who, after giving so much, are repaid appropriately as possible for their sacrifices.
But, if “Support our troops,” is another way of saying support the shot-callers of the military, swallowing the 15-plus-year quagmire in the Middle East with unquestioning loyalty, giving a carte-blanche to the ever-expanding budget of the pentagon, or turning a blind eye when the Pentagon admits that it cannot account for six trillion dollars worth of expenditures, that’s when we should have a big fucking problem with it. A fraction of that multi-trillion-dollar-per-year budget would cover the cost of college for anyone who wants to attend in the United States. A fraction.
The gears of the military turn and turn, and the examples today that anything will come to a stop in the near future are severely lacking. The entire idea of peacetime has disappeared from our national conversation. The entire notion that we have other options than war seems to have vanished.
How easy it is to skip over articles, to set aside or push a far-off conflict back to the recesses of our minds. How easily entertained we are by the endlessly flickering screen of a TV or the mindless nightly surfing of the internet. How beautifully simple it must be to cheer every time someone says, “Support our troops,” forgetting that intertwined within the web of that slogan is a military-industrial complex that works day and night to secure more funding for more weapons or unchecked expenditures to do what anymore? I do not know, except maybe always be warring. Always be warring. ABW, Always be warring.
When you hear, “Keep America Safe,” or, “Make America Safe,” all that’s happening is you’re being primed with fear to induce a positive response. The associations in our minds so eager, so ready to relive our national trauma, to remember every detail that happened that day in the flash of an instant, and then to allow ourselves to agree with whatever statement comes next. Our existential fear so deep. How easy it is to forget that the policies of fear are based on the same principles as the policies of hate.
How easy it is to forget that the best way to support our troops is to avoid war in the first place. How easy it is to forget that peace is an option.
There is a world in which the ideal of solidarity exists again. Where labor unions protect the workers from wage-slavery and force CEOs and the endless stream of men in suits from their unyielding appetite for collecting and hoarding money. There is a world in which the notion of paying your share so that the kids across the street can go to a good public school, regardless of whether you have children, is alive and well. There is a world in which the populace realizes the extent to which their worldview has been molded by PR firms and advertisers and media conglomerates that have spent the last seventy-plus years turning us not into informed citizens or individuals, but, rather, perfect consumers.
A large swath of the population has bought into the notion that government is bad, because it infringes on the rights of the individual. And through this narrative, the endless marketing and targeted advertising, we have accepted our individuality as being supreme, above all else. But, the very essence of the modern-day American individual was created, manufactured, by advertisers and products that have you programmed you to believe that your individuality is defined by your loyalty to a brand of sneakers, a wristwatch, the type of alcohol you drink, your “individual” sense of style, the car you drive, the appliances in your home, the music you listen to, the type of experiences you hold dear, the sports teams you identify with, and the list goes on.
Although a bit repressive of the human spirit, perhaps attaching the strongest elements of the self, one’s identity, and the “I” to what an individual consumes does little damage overall, up until the point in which the individual believes that it is more important than the society within which it exists.
So long as consumer culture rules our lives, we will never find our way back to a system that works for the people, because we’ve bought into the notion, hook, line, and sinker, that if we can tailor our lifestyle to meet our own needs, and if we can amass wealth and material objects, then we have succeeded at taking control of our own lives and operated within the system of our democracy to its highest level, and those who were unable to find success over the course of a lifetime or generation, have simply failed on their own accord.
When you look at our society, with it’s grave failings that plague us decade after decade, do you feel okay with it all? Do you feel like you’ve done what you could for yourself, and for your family, and that has got to be enough? That it would be impossible to do more? That you’re a well-adjusted individual, who has worked hard and lived an honest and forthright life, and the greater ills of society, the pains of the masses have nothing to do with you? Do you?
Because when I look at phrases like, “Make America Great Again,” and “Keep America Safe,” and “The American Dream,” I do not see them as ideals and virtues, but rather slogans and simplistic versions of complicated systems. And when I look at the current status of our election, and the frightening trend that over the past 50 years there has been an assault on our solidarity, as a people, by those in power, that all you have to worry about is yourself, that the way things are supposed to be in this country is everybody is focused on the “I” and not the “We,” when I look at these things, the overwhelming feeling is that I must be maladjusted. I must not fit in.
But as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “there are some things in our society and some things in our world, for which I’m proud to be maladjusted, and I call upon all men of good will to be maladjusted to these things until the good societies realize. I must honestly say to you that I never intend to adjust myself to racial segregation and discrimination, I never intend to adjust myself to religious bigotry, I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take the necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few, and leave millions of god’s children smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society.”
So maybe that’s why we’ve been traveling the country in an RV for eight weeks, sleeping at Wal-Mart’s and RV parks and seedy motels, testing the limits of our livers and lungs, living outside of the press pool, separate from the parroted narratives of those who find solace in the inner circles of journalism, surrounded by an ever-changing landscape of America, with a shape-shifting figure known as John Q. Public, on the fringes of normalcy, because we’re maladjusted. And if that’s the case, we couldn’t be happier, regardless of who wins.