Sonntag, 28. August 2011

The Travelogue, Part XXXI - USA: A Country of Virtue

One of my reasons to travel through the (west) of the USA was to gain more understanding of a country that my home media chooses to represent in a few select and mostly unflattering ways. I talked to a lot of Americans, some in loft bars and some on the greyhound, about their country and what makes it unique to find my own perspective on this vast stretch of land. And while I learned there is no such thing as "the USA", everyone I talked to seemed to define America mainly by its overarching values. I've spent a lot of time thinking about the most commonly named ones, and this post is about my perception of the state of these values.
Just like in my last post, I would like to employ the help of someone else. This time it shall be someone held in generally high cultural esteem, an ancient greek by the name of Aristoteles. But don't worry, it's not going to be very intellectual.
Part of Aristoteles ethics theory centers around the idea that every virtue has a desirable measure, a painful excess and a lacking deficiency. Undesirable behaviour in society stems not from lack of virtue, but from straying from "the golden mean". I do indeed believe that USA is a country of many virtues, yet how often they hit that golden mean is an entirely different issue.


Ah, yes, freedom. If there was ever a plebiscite in the US on whether to rename it to 'Freedom Country', I'd wager it would pass, so prominent is this word over here. And truly the magnificent history of this country stands witness that it has indeed been a new home for those ostracized, surpressed and prosecuted, and ideal cast into copper and iron on a tiny island in the Bay of New York. Due to overexposure, many Europeans scoff at the sentiment that the USA is indeed a country of freedom, but I find that it is. The USA still takes in more immigrants than any other country on the planet, and they do not only come for the economic benefits. They also come because they are allowed to bring their culture, their religion and their language. In the southwest of the USA almost all information is also presented in Spanish. Try lobbying for Turkish signage in Germany, good luck.
A frequent cause for ridicule and disdain of American society in other countries, the (literal) excess of the freedom virtue is that freedom is treated as an unconditionally desirable value. So many Americans want freedom for the sake of it, constantly lamenting infringement on its unrestricted possession. What they seem to forget is that freedom has to come with a purpose and responsibility. If neither of the two are provided, freedom itself is meaningless. Since most freedoms (including the ones demanded by the founding fathers) is provided in Western societies, America has turned to 'injecting' issues with freedom that have little meaningful purpose at all, not to even speak of responsibility. So strong is the power of the word that whole political movements, such as the Tea Party,  can ride on its wave without having any politically meaningful content whatsoever.
Considering the deficiency of freedom, I think it's a bit of an ironic backdoor thing. The very system that publicly guarantees your freedom is the main inhibitor to actually make use of it. True indpendence is undermined by the social and economic legislation, that favours the powers in existence and gives people without prior assets very little chance to enjoy freedom of choice in work, travel, education and entertainment.


America, so I was told many times on this trip, was built on the idea that every man can make his fortune, provided he works hard for it. What that actually come to mean, however, is 'every man for himself'. To a certain degree, this is a healthy attitude I like about many Americans. Taking your fate into your own hands and going out to make a mark in the world seems to be an ubiquitous attitude. I don't necessarily mean that in an economic sense, rather in the way that the general opion is omnipresent that if you want things to happen, you gotta go out and do 'em, whether your love lies with Wall Street or Green Peace. That also means that Americans come with a healthy scepticism towards anyone telling them what to do, including the federal government. Quite contrary to a dearly held European belief that there is 'the United States', in fact Americans in all states fight tooth and nail against the overburdening 'common culture' that we have come to know as the American way of life. Although it is probably a losing battle in the long term, every state has a distinctive local culture that can be surprisingly different from what you normally imagine America to be, and is well worth sampling.
Excess of the self-reliance virtue is the reason why America is often portrayed as a cruel and heartless society. Many Americans I met believed that poor people are poor because they are lazy and refuse to work hard for their dreams like everybody else, and if they don't make it then it's their very own fault. That's why Americans love the figure of the re-emerging underdog. To keep believing in that ideal of success through hard work, they need the occasional, if rare, proof of concept that it is indeed possible. Many oppose any sort of social taxing on grounds of this belief, or any help to even out disadvantages that comes out of their own pockets. This sentiment has prevented the creation of meaningful social systems in the US and should misfortune befall you despite hard work and ample ability, in reality there is rarely a way back up. It has also made it surprisingly acceptable to make fun of the poor and homeless, to a degree that would be impossible anywhere in Europe.


Whether you want to see it as a by-product or a prerequisite to aforementioned self-reliance, many Americans seem to believe that they are more individualistic than other peoples, both as respective entities and as a culture as a whole.
I believe that this is true, from a purely jurisdictional sense. The American government is indeed more lenient with whatever expression your may find for yourself, and rarely seems to infrige on your right to be a freak.
Painful excess of inviduality shows itself in the assumption that everyone seems to get told that they are a unique little snowflake, and that whatever severe character flaw they might have is just part of that amazing unique self. Society has to cater to that, and all institutions tell you that you are wonderful and special 24/7, and many people genuinely believe that.
But then here comes one of the mean punchlines of US society: people actually hate you for expressing individuality. Nowhere else I have been is conforming to a group and their trappings more pressing than in the states. From high school on people are hammered into shape by relentless comments and ridicule on their individual quirks, and become either Preps or Goths or Nerds or whatever drawer you want to come up with. And if you aren't anything recognizable, then good luck, because for many people it's literally do or die. Teenage suicide rates are high in the states, and many teens are on antidepressants. Yes, I know that social pressure and rejection are not the only causes for that, but I claim they are major.
This seems to lead to Americans either sticking with their group choice for life or becoming as plain as possible in public. Apart from subcultures, Americans wear little that gives away their personality, and are some of the most homogenously dressed people on the planet. And they're stuck in the fashion world of the late eighties. But that's a different issue.

Enthusiasm and Optimism

One thing that separates Americans the most from Europeans is the unlimited enthusiasm and relentless optimism people emanate. The eternal can-do atttude still reigns supreme, and people with even the hardest fates seem to believe that greener pastures still exist within reach. Nothing can seems to be able to bring Americans down, they are the living embodiment of the old saying "dust yourself up and try again", a spirit that I personally found highly contagious. It doesn't surprise me that there are so many more startups and new ideas springing up in the US than in Europe; individuals here are just so much more hopeful and likely to bet on their dreams.
When this virtue passes the golden means, it becomes a value in itself, devoid of any reason. In America, being enthusiastic about something gives it enough validation in any case, even if no arguments exist to back your enthusiasm. That allows people to stand up in public and make a series of non-statements and still get applauded instead of embarassed. The fact that they are passionate about it gives their view sufficient weight despite a lack of content. Consequently being passionate about whatever you think or do has become a national requirement and is encouraged (or even demanded) from early age on. From there stems one of the most annoying habits of Americans: that they will always enthusiastically say yes and agree to all you say, even if they actually mean no.
This constant demand to be positive and upbeat has led to a backfire of enthusiasm in many Americans, especially when reality frequently collides with the perfect world that is claimed to exist. The American 'fakeness' that so many Europeans lament when they stay in the US for a while is merely a mode of survival in a society that has adopted an unhealthy level of optimism as a social virtue. A by-product of that is the widespread abuse of 'happy pills', often on prescription by America's ever-growing pharmashrink industry, that mask individual tragedy to smoothen public life.


People I met frequently spoke about equality being an American value, but unfortunately I could find no proof for this virtue being existing anywhere in a golden mean. There is some amount of excess, evident in an obsession with political correctness that, while protecting minorities and disadvantaged within the (very academic) realm of language, does little to actually improving the chances or acceptance of said minorities. Companies can rise and fall on an issue of equality, so all companies pay lip service to all sorts of equality schemes to conform to propriety rules. The acceptance of differences is not in the head of people yet, however. This can be seen in the fact that the average American man has an almost pathological fear of being perceived as gay, which means that even remotely form-fitting clothing is non-existent in all common store chains, even for suits. Failure to comply to the rule of baggy will gather you a comment or even open scorn.
It is the utter lack of equality though that is the most visible, and if I may say, below the standards of a nation so proud of its wealth and principles. In no nation I have traveled have I seen so many homeless, so many working poor and met so many people with no perspective in life. You might call it conincidence, but most of them happened to be black or native american. Quality education, the main means of improving your status and income, is prohibitively expensive in America. The USA has a very unflattering Gini Index for its prosperity, and the (white) lobbies that actively prevent equality are strong. So strong in fact that the economic structure actively discriminates against the middle class, which is shrinking by a larger amount every year.


Unline Europe, where faith is more of a character trait than a value, in the US it is an important virtue. Strangely enough, it doesn't even have to be faith in the religious sense. For Americans it doesn't seem to matter as much what you believe in, as long as you do believe in something. Being an atheist is a major social stigma in the United States, despite the nation being founded by atheists, and many Americans who are not religious still pretend they are. In absence of a religious mindset, many of them seem to chose to believe in a system instead, adopting a dogmatic, unquestioning attitude towards concepts usually seen as just merely an administrative choice elsewhere. An example is "capitalism" which I many Americans elevate to an absolute, word-of-god concept that does not allow for modification. Everything else is "socialism" (aka 'the devil'), and will not be debated. A subtle outgrowth of this mentality is the tips system. In other countries tips are given to reward and encourage exceptional service. In America a sizeable chunk of tips will be added to any price by standard, eliminating the actual reason why they are given. This enables owners to actually pay below the minimum wage, filling the missing dollars up with tip money instead of paying a reasonable salary instead. The most frequent answer to this pecularity I got was that "those are the rules of capitalism", displaying the same fatalist attitude as believers accepting the invetitable will of God. Insha'Capital and Amen.

Sonntag, 14. August 2011

The Travelogue, Part XXX - USA: A Paradise Lost

Bustin' Broncos - Then

When you tour around the West, imagery of its glorified past abound. Reconstructed wooden facades, old trading posts, statues of trappers and indians can be found on every corner, and residents are exceptionally proud of their land and history. And indeed, the West holds a special significance in American culture both for what it was and what it is now. Again, these are thoughts, not facts, so feel free to disagree.

Americans living in the West (away from the coast) are often derided in the Eastern parts of the States, both for their reclusiveness and old-fashioned (or even outright strange) beliefs. While it's hubs, such as Denver, might be relatively liberal, the majority of the area is deeply conservative. Here most of the population is still white and folks are friendly in the homemade-pie-and-guns kinda way. And I think it's a brilliant place to get a idea of what the whole of the USA is ailing from today.
Following an idea I picked up at the Denver Art Museum, I want to use the change of the depiction of the Native American in Western painting to illustrate the changing perception of the West and how it relates to the US today.

In the earlier Western times, Indians were depicted as foes, symbolizing the settlers' constant fight.

When the west was still wild and immigration laws were welcoming, the west was a country of (sometimes quite literally) golden opportunity. But going there wasn't easy, so it attracted certain kinds of people. First a group called pioneers. As much as hardyness and iron will might be commended, there's no denying that living all by yourself in the wilderness with nothing but squirrels and woodpeckers to keep you company takes a pretty weird fellow indeed. Secondly open empty land attracts all those people who have been coming to the United States because they didn't like it back home. Whether they are part of some obscure religion, despise their current government or just don't get along with their neighbours, they all move on from the settled and bustling east to a place where they can do as they please. Lastly the west is the place to go for all those who have failed to make a living anywhere else. The promise of gold and unlimited resources has drawn many desperate men and women from the more rigid societies and economies of the developed world to the mountains and deserts in hopes of greener pastures. In short, going west was the choice of the loners, lunatics and losers. A perfect setup for a grand story, and it's been told to generations all across the American nation and beyond.

Later on, Indians symbolized the vast, untamed wilderness of the uninhabited West.

For many years "going west" was the path to independence and riches. There was always more land to claim, more mountains to mine, more furry little creatures to skin. So after the individuals the big companies and then the government moved in, slowly extending the borders of civilization westward, and with it came planned development, common morals and the burden of public laws. The people didn't like it, and they ain't likin' it today. The response to the lost freedom of travel and choice of neighbours seems to have been an obsession with trespassing and the sanctity of your own piece of real estate. Get off my fucking lawn.

When the West became settled, Indians represent the melancholy of a waning era
Yet nothing could be done, and the Frontier became the Wild West and then simply the West, stripped off all it's mystery and glory, and more importantly, it's resources - there ain't any land here anymore, stranger, it's all taken. But the idea of a place where the intrepid and daring can find unlimited resources seems to have prevailed in the American mindset, and I make it responsible for some of the US's problems today. It has caused both people and the government to live beyond their means, a shortsightenedness that is not explained by the need to make money alone, but by the general assumption that there is a magic place, somewhere, that provides for those willing to go there. Sounds far-fetched? Remember that findings such as the Texas oil boom or the Fairbanks gold rush are little more than a hundred years ago. The American belief that everyone can achieve greatness is inseparably linked to the seemingly endless resources of the country, and its potential for growth. As that potential fades, opportunities become less abundant and viable, but the national psyche (as everywhere else on the planet), lags behind.

"The End of the Trail" a metal reminder a land stripped of its vigour and spirit

The sudden scarcity of resources such as oil and water and the corresponding rise in prices seems to have taken many by surprise. As the American continent is fully claimed and exploited, the US government is forced to repeat the tragic story of its native population in countries elsewhere: false promises, isolation, exploitation and finally war have unfortunately become synonymous with the United States in many parts of the world.

A parody on a well-known butter brand featuring a Native American, a cynical reckoning with the ideals of the West

The West was the proof to the concept of the Manifest Destiny, but the US is about to reach the end of the trail. There are more people staking their claims now, and the land has become crowded. I can already see the stories being told of the glorious days once again, where the daring and intrepid could still strike it rich no matter their lot, and there was plenty of everything for everyone - back in 2001. Everyone here seems to feel that the end of an era is dawning, and if I might suggest, it's a little bit of Wild West history repeating.

And I said get off that goddamn lawn.

Busting Broncos - Now

Mittwoch, 3. August 2011

The Travelogue, Part XXIX - USA: Of Red Rocks and Red Men

You may wonder why I haven't written anything in such a long time. Maybe you haven't, but then you wouldn't be reading this anyway. It's not because there has been a shortage of interesting happenings to talk about. The answer is: I've just been plain lazy. So join me on my journey through Arizona.

The Grand Hole

Probably the US' most famous natural sight, the Grand Canyon is truly amazing and awe-inspiring. It's actually so grand and vast that it almost feels unreal. I wish I could say more profound things about it, but I guess you just really have to go there and see it for yourself.

Flagstaff and Sedona

When you hear Flagstaff, Arizona you probably think of a flagpole in the middle of the desert with a few desolate houses scattered around it. At least I did. I was surprised to find a pleasant, quite bohemian town surrounded by forests and mountains. It's actually a quite nice place to spend a couple of days and get drunk on surprisingly good local brew.

Oak Creek

A mere 30 minutes from Flagstaff lies Sedona, a town famous for its iconic scenery used in as many as one hundred Western movies, making it one of Hollywoods favourite filming locations to date. Film making started here as early as the 1920's and has seen stars such as John Wayne or Robert de Niro.

You can see the Sedona rocks in the background

After the Western genre became less popular, the town instead attracted droves of hippies and spiritualists, who believe that the area with its giant red rocks and meandering creeks is an energy nexus of global importance. Many of these people have settled there as healers and teachers, giving the town a distinctive alternative flair. Some of them seem to make a lot of money though, and Sedona's residential architecture shows that.

One of the more elaborate Sedona mansions

Whether you believe in invisible energies or not, Sedona's giant red rocks and pittoresque rivers are definitely worth a visit. I recommend coming with a posse of friends on horseback.

Modern Catholic church molded into the rocks

Hopi Reserve

The Hopi are a Native American tribe in the heart of the Arizona desert, and are in many ways the most untouched of all American tribes due to their enclosure in the much bigger Navajo reserve. Their alloted area is mostly wasteland, yet unlike with many other tribes, always has been, making the Hopi towns the oldest continously inhabited villages in the US.

I forgot our lovely stranger's name, but here is his picture.

No one could summarize the situation of the Hopi Indians better than their own legends, told expertly by an accidental encounter with one of their tribesmen:
The Great Spirit lay before the tribes many types of corn. The red one, the white one, the yellow one and the blue one, and each tribe was to take one. The Hopi waited until last and picked the small blue corn. The Great Spirit said: "You have picked the small blue corn. Your fate shall be dire, and you will have to work the hardest, but you shall be an honest people."

Can you spot the houses?

The Hopi reserve lies within the much greater Navajo reserve, and is one of the most arid and resourceless reserves in the US. The Hopi have decided against jumping on the casino-building bandwagon, and instead live a life of relative simplicity. Coal was recently discovered and is being mined to support a school, hospital and education for young students, but houses and infrastructure are basic and run down.

The old villages actually sit atop these rock mesas

Most of the inhabitants still live relatively close to the old ways, and ritual still has high importance in Hopi society. Important enough in fact that the towns were all closed off to visitors when I was there and there are strict no photography laws. Hopi rituals permeate every aspect of society and many of them are very time consuming. One of the requires everyone to craft a masterpiece to his best abilities and then throw it away in a communal ceremony to remind people of the unimportance of material belongings. To ensure the limited prosperity of the corn plantations, elder must walk the entire reservation on foot and bless every single rivulet, which takes several days. Eagles must be captured from the steep desert rocks in a dangerous trial to obtain adulthood. Marriage takes, believe it or not, eleven years to complete including the manufacture of all the necessary garments and jewelry. Before you wonder, I thought it was impolite to ask what happens when you decide it doesn't work out or your partner dies. But judging from the rest of the process, it probably has to start all over again.
Hopi society is matrilineal, and women own all the land except the fields in which the men work. Husbands join the clan of the wife.

There are hundreds of Kachinas, here's a few of them

The gods of the Hopi are known as Kachinas,and they have gained some renown because of the colourful and alien statues that are modeled after them. Visions of their appearance are usually obtained through use of the buds of the hallucigenic Peyote cactus. Unlike most other gods they are not available year-round, however, they must sleep for several months to recover from their work in the San Francisco peaks.
What happens to the Hopi once the coal is gone remains to be seen, but they seem to be strangely unfussed by it. Maybe because they know they have managed to live here for the last thousand years.