Unfunking America

The American people aren’t stupid, just depressed. In case you’re not among the depressed, or are medicated, self-medicating or figure it’s Armageddon so what the hell, here’s a headline from last week: “American dream fading, poll says”

The McClatchy newspaper chain is behind this Marist-MaClatchy Poll, and one of its reporters led his story by saying Americans are “overwhelmingly pessimistic about their chances of achieving and sustaining the American dream.”

They see an economic system in which they have to work harder than ever to get ahead, and a political system that’s unresponsive to their needs. They see the wealthy allowed to play by a different set of rules from everyone else.

To which I say, OK, so what’s new? Since when has it not taken hard work to get ahead in this country? Since when has the political system not leaned toward big money? And since when have the wealthy not played by their own rules or at least tried to? Buying Manhattan Island, slavery, Robber Barons, invading Nicaragua, renting congressmen, Justin Bieber, anyone?

This poll is based on about 1,200 phone calls to random landline and cell numbers across the country earlier this month and mostly reflects the usual conservative-moderate-liberal splits. It’s interesting, though, that even more than two-thirds of hard-core and Tea Party Republicans agreed the “well-connected and people with money” play by their own special rules. However, the pollsters didn’t ask specifically about the “American dream,” and the McClatchy reporter, while mentioning the dream, doesn’t attempt to define it.

Nor does the poll delve into why people feel the way they do. Is it just the economic crash and lame recovery? Is it a decade-plus of continuous war producing damage out of proportion to accomplishment? Is it the ugly social and political forces unleashed when we dared to elect an African-American president? Is it too many Kardashians on TV?

I’m going with the latter and what is now two or three generations of a TV-driven media culture venerating beautiful people, high living, fast cash, faster cars, perfect skin, guns, six-pack abs, happy pills, fountains of youth, spotless homes and untold products you obviously can’t live without or you’re a failure. Oh, and sex, which I’m all for, by the way.

When the culture swirling around you ingrains expectations with little intrinsic value, no wonder you’re depressed even if you achieve some of them when you’re not parked in front of your screen wishing for more. If you’re into such self-loathing, the American dream is a nightmare keeping you awake so you’re even shorter on sleep and madder at yourself because you didn’t eat a healthy breakfast or join a gym.

It’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it. — George Carlin, 2005. (Carlin’s rant on YouTube. Warning: Very adult language)

As we spiral downward from “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” to living in our cars, is there any hope? Comedian Carlin didn’t think so, but he’s dead and gone as is Will Rogers, an optimistic social and political observer who supplied invaluable laughter during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Maybe that’s what the country needs now, a gut-busting, tears-down-your-cheeks, slap-your-thigh, pee-in-your pants uproarious belly laugh so cathartic it derails our train of fear and inadequacies just long enough to remind us things aren’t as bad as we think or as ugly as people out for themselves want us to believe.

Reviving American history as a school subject beyond the rah-rah high points would help, too, since the good and bad of the last few hundred years put modern times in perspective. You think it’s bad now? The Great Depression and its bursting Wall Street bubble pushed unemployment from 3 percent to 25 percent (officially under 7 percent today; 10 percent in 2009), wiped out banks in the days before deposit insurance, lasted 10 years and didn’t begin winding down until the Nazis invaded Poland.

The excesses of the Robber Barons led to the broad reforms of the Progressive Era that actually made life better and safer for many Americans. No telling where our confusing times are going or what it will take to break through the national funk. An honest leader out for us as much or more than him/herself? A new Progressive Era? A high colonic? Maybe we could dig up and clone the Will Rogers of seven or eight decades ago:

I guess our country holds the record for dumbness. The Pope spoke to the world this morning in three languages and we didn’t understand a one of ’em. But the minute he finished and the local stations got back to selling corn salve and pyorrhea toothpaste we were right up our intellectual alley again.

Yeah, a lot of folks are in deep holes not necessarily of their own making, and we can’t forget that.  So, what to do? You can watch Caddyshack or The Blues Brothers or the riffs of George Lopez or Chris Rock or Sarah Silverman (more adult and political content). Skip the news for a while. Skip for a while Facebook and its self-praising posts, political blathering, calls for prayers and cat videos. Pet a live cat instead. Believe little of what you hear, not much more of what you read and only half of what you see. Write your congressman, even if he can’t read (that’s Will Rogers’ advice). If you’re lucky enough to have a job with paid vacation, use it. All of it. If not, at least take a long walk and observe the world, people and animals around you.  A lot of real life is pretty funny. Really. And much of the good stuff is free.

* * * * * * * * * * Addendum Feb. 26, 2014:

I commend to your reading pleasure an account of the Dalai Lama spontaneously visiting the Santa Fe ski area in 1991, riding the chair lift to the top and later over cookies and hot chocolate being asked by a waitress, “What is the meaning of life?”

“The meaning of life is happiness.” He raised his finger, leaning forward, focusing on her as if she were the only person in the world. “Hard question is not, ‘What is meaning of life?’ That is easy question to answer! No, hard question is what make happiness. Money? Big house? Accomplishment? Friends? Or …” He paused. “Compassion and good heart? This is question all human beings must try to answer: What make true happiness?” He gave this last question a peculiar emphasis and then fell silent, gazing at her with a smile.

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