Friday, May 28, 2010

America The Indolent (Publicus Proventus.)

It's the Friday before Memorial Day, and this weekend is the official start of summer, which this year means hearing more and more news stories about death on the water. From the blue-green algae blooms that have transformed Madison's lakes into puddles of certain doom to the ever-growing oil spill, it looks as though this year swimming will be something best done in the cement pond as opposed to au naturel.

I, like all good-minded people, am opposed to the oil spill, only I'm not really.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not happy that roughly 100 zillion gallons of oil have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, which was and still is my favorite Gulf. Only I am, a little, in a hard-to-explain-but-I'll-try sort of way.

Actually, it's not even all that hard to explain, but I'll try anyway. Here's the explanation:

I think it's good that there's a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico because maybe now America the Indolent will begin to do something about our dependence on oil and our sucking up to the oil companies.

See? It wasn't that hard.

I'm not entirely sanguine about the prospects of that happening -- of America actually getting up off its collective butts and doing something, but each disaster like this brings America a little closer to the day that we do get up and do something, and I look forward to that.

21st Century America is like a teenager: it only works when it absolutely has to, and the rest of the time lounges on its bed promising to pick up its underwear someday.

We weren't always this way, we Americans -- I'm kind of including me, for a change, although not really because I'm not totally like this -- we weren't always slothful and waiting until the last minute to do something about something. In the past, we were energetic, full of gumption, throwing off the covers and hopping out of bed to do some jumping jacks and touch our toes before heading off to chop wood or build a log cabin or set out a simple set of principals that would serve to create a nation of unparalleled freedom and promise.

In the past, Americans saw themselves as having a manifest destiny, and our vigor impressed de Tocqueville and others as we looked at this giant continent and armed with little more than some horses, some powdered wigs, and some amazingly uncomfortable-looking clothes, began conquering it. We walked west, we rode west, we canoed west, and when those started taking too long we by God hammered out a transcontinental railroad, digging through mountains practically with our bare hands to get across the country faster, and when that wasn't fast enough we by God dug right through a continent so we could sail straight there, and maybe it wasn't the thickest part of the Continent, but I didn't see any other civilizations cutting themselves a path from one ocean to the other. That was us.

We didn't stop with digging in the ground, either. We laid cables across the ocean to talk to people, and then we invented powered flight so we could go look at the people we'd talked to and send messages back home about how weird the people were over there, and then, when we got a little bored with all that flying inside the atmosphere, we started up a space program and in just about seven years from when we decided to do it, we by God walked on the MOON!

And then we rested.

This country that had achieved pretty much everything it ever thought of doing, and some things it hadn't thought of doing but it did them anyway, got back from the Moon and went on break. Because since 1969, we've pretty much been taking it easy and only doing stuff when we absolutely have to do stuff, and the rest of the time we're watching According To Jim, or complaining about people who watch According To Jim.

What happened?

Where'd we lose the drive?

I, for one, blame the Baby Boomers, which is not surprising because I blame the Baby Boomers for everything, but that's only fair because they largely are to blame for everything, nowadays. The Baby Boomers began running the show around the time we got back from the Moon, and things have been getting more and more slack since they took over. The last thing the Baby Boomers accomplished -- the only thing the Baby Boomers have ever accomplished -- was getting Nixon out of office, and it took them a damn long time to do it. (Even then, Bob Woodward, Baby Boomer, had to have help from Mark "Deep Throat" Felt, a 1913-born member of the Greatest Generation.) But after that -- after bringing down a president who'd done everything to impeach himself but write up the articles for it -- the Baby Boomers gave up and no generation after them (including my own Real Generation X) has bothered to do much of anything.

Look at the world around us. How is it different from the world of 1969? Don't give me computers and cell phones. Those aren't different enough to count as an achievement. As I've pointed out before, most things that seem new or different are no more than minor improvements on ideas that already existed. Sliced bread is only bread that we've sliced, after all. It's not all that big a deal. There were computers and phones in 1969. The fact that we have better computers and better phones is neat, but hardly a remarkable achievement.

And in many respects, the rest of the world is no different, really, than it was in 1969. We still have TVs. They're flatter but other than that haven't changed as much. We get some TV through satellites, and some through cable, but that's not much different, either.

We're still driving cars around, just like my parents did, and those cars are more or less identical to the cars my parents drove. Don't believe me? General Motors had a hybrid car in 1969. So that hybrid you're so proud of that you bought when gas hit $4 or $5 per gallon a few years back? That could have been driven by Neil Armstrong to get to the launch pad.

All this not doing anything hasn't been because there's nothing to do. There have been plenty of things that the United States could be working on. That underwear in my teen's room isn't going to pick itself up, and the concerns that have faced the US over the past 41 years (a timespan that coincides with my life but I'm not taking all the blame here, especially because for 1/4 of that time, I was a baby or a toddler or little kid, and what do you expect from a little kid?) won't fix themselves.

In the past 41 years, America has faced increasing resentment to American policies overseas, resentment that grows and grows and grows, and each time we become aware that there is increasing resentment overseas to our policies (or us), what do we do?

Nothing. We sit there metaphorically playing our national Xbox and hoping that Mom stops yelling about the problem -- but in this case "Mom" is "the Mideast and Asia" and "yelling about the problem" is "attacking Americans."

So when resentment against the US began rising in the late 70s, we didn't do anything at all until a bunch of Americans got taken hostage at the Iranian embassy, at which point we got our act together enough to... vote Jimmy Carter out of office. And crash some helicopters, too, if I remember correctly.

Then, when resentment towards America began growing again in the mideast and Central America, we ignored that, too, until we had to go an invade Panama and Iraq, both in the span of not many years, with Americans paying so little attention to international affairs (and how our attitude towards international affairs was affecting us) that our government was able to ignore its own rules and set up secret arms sales, and then chuckle about it and laugh it off and forget what we were talking about when Ronald Reagan asked us all to raise our hands if we remembered what we were doing on a day in October.

Once that all came out, though -- once we had to blast rock music at a Panamanian compound and all, I may be confusing history here but I'm right about the gist of it -- once that came out, we got all up in arms again, and started doing something about it, holding Iran-Contra hearings and getting The Tower Report and promising to read it (but we wouldn't, because the only special report anyone's ever read was the Clinton one with all the dirty words.) We were, briefly, interested in government and foreign affairs, we even bombed Libya, but then Cheers came to an end and we had to watch that... and, well, we were also a little tired, by that time.

So the generation that once ousted a president for breaking into a political office, and then voted out a president for letting some of our citizens get taken hostage, roused itself again and this time, confronted with a president who'd either deliberately ignored the law or simply paid no attention to his staffers who did, just... sort of let things slide a little.

After all, eventually the underwear on the floor will be covered by t-shirts on the floor, right?

Our interest in government grew less and less; the new generation, my generation, took over and looked at the Boomers who were running the show, and we briefly got excited about HillaryCare, and got even MORE excited about LewinskyGate, even impeaching the president, before we gave up and just said to hell with it and let George Bush steal an election and then let him more or less steal a second one -- with half the country not caring that Bush was lying about Kerry and the other half being so lazy they nominated Kerry in the first place.

Don't think for a moment that we were energized by Obama, either: We didn't do that. It was done to us. Young people got excited, but young people get excited about everything, even new albums by The Fray, so that's not saying much. The rest of us didn't so much get excited about Obama as simply recognize that something had to be done, and then did the most minimal thing we could think of to do, which was to "not vote for McCain."

Our lack of energy can be shown by the fact that after we elected Obama, we started immediately trying to keep him from doing anything -- and by "trying" I mean "not trying." We let the Republicans keep him from doing anything, and didn't say much about what they were doing, or what Obama was doing, or what anyone was doing or saying or trying to do or say, in Washington. There were probably one million Tweets about Lost for every Tweet about government policy in the last two years. (And don't spoil the ending of Lost for me because I still haven't heard how it ended and I don't want to until I watch it myself.)

Politics aren't the only thing we've let slide; as our voting participation tends to drop and our government runs more and more amuck, we've let everything else go, too. Not only are we not picking up our room, but we as a nation are no longer sucking in our gut or bothering to comb our hair, as it were.

We spent no time, over the past forty years, doing much of anything about gas prices or our oil dependency, and as a result, not too long ago gas prices started to skyrocket wildly out of control. When we were confronted with that -- with an emergency -- Americans finally decided to start to do something about it. But we didn't attack it with the same urgency and determination that we'd attacked our enemies in World War II, or the problem of splitting the atom.

No, instead, we attacked it by requiring a marginal increase in fuel efficiency that will slowly be phased in (covering about 30 years, by my estimate) while exempting out some of the gas guzzlers that we love to drive, and a few of us bought hybrids and then gas prices dropped back down and there was a new Will Smith movie in the theaters, so our urgency went away and we stopped worrying about the oil thing-y.

During that time, too, we've been hearing and hearing about how eventually Medicare and Social Security are going to break the bank and bankrupt us all and we'll have only 1 worker for every 35,000,000 retired people on Social Security, and that poor guy is going to see his paycheck from Panera really stretched thin, and we've done... nothing, again. We've talked about it, and Worst President Ever George W. Bush even actually made a proposal to do something about it, but has anything been done about those things?

America responds: No. Of course not. Why would we? There's no need to act now, is there? We're not bankrupt yet, are we? Then why are you talking? I can't hear what they're saying on American Idol.

We let ourselves get dragged into two wars that were caused in part by our refusal to pay attention to how we behave overseas and in equal part by our refusal to pay attention to politics until two days before the election, when we decide our vote based primarily on who we thought looked worse in their Saturday Night Live impersonations, and while we did -- or didn't -- all those things, we also let 20% of the country slide into medical oblivion while most of the rest found themselves and their businesses strangled by increasing health costs, and even then, even when things were getting pretty bad and we had this president that wanted to do something about it, even then we didn't really do much of anything about it, paying not much attention to it at all and just going along with whatever Mad Dog Palin wants to post on her Facebook page, even then, as we let people say death panels and just make stuff up, even then we didn't act... until the health insurance companies, for some insane reason, decided to just shove it in our faces how much money they were making and how much more money they could extort from us, and only then did people rouse themselves to say something, and to watch as Congress passed a tiny first step towards actually guaranteeing a basic human right, and then, with that done, we sat back down and rested again.

What else can be said about a country whose greatest achievement, of late, is Cash For Clunkers?

All we do is bicker and sit slothfully, for 99.9% of our collective national lives. We let ourselves get distracted as Glenn Beck rants about Van Jones, and I don't even know who Van Jones is, and pay no attention to the fact that nothing is getting done.

This isn't a government-or-business, individual-or-collective thing. This is a doing nothing versus doing something thing. I'm not saying that government or small businesses or corporations need to do something; I'm saying someone does, and I don't much care who does it, but something -- lots of somethings -- need to be done. It's not that liberals or conservatives, or Democrats or Republicans, are to blame.

Well, Republicans are mostly to blame...

... but also others are, with blame being spread across the country, because we literally do nothing for most of the time. Most of our jobs even amount to doing nothing. Look at the jobs you do and those around you do. Do they contribute, or create or increase or fix? Or do they act as middlemen and investment bankers and brokers and the like, people who create a problem and then create a job to fix it and then hire themselves to fill that job?

Faced, over the last 41 years, with mounting national debt, with changes in the geopolitical landscape that make our old responses questionable, with warnings (believed or not) that climate change is going to wreak havoc, with increases in pesticides and chemicals that may be causing our kids to suffer from problems ranging from ADHD to autism, with ultraviruses and retroviruses and rising sea levels and terrorism and megacorporations creating fictional revenues to fool us into letting them go bankrupt with their money and banks deciding to lend anyone who wants it a million dollars and then let us pay them back and not even change their practices, faced with a clear warning that we are at the mercy of countries who produce oil in great-but-finite quantities and faced with strife in our own country that leads our own people to fly planes into buildings, we have done nothing nothing nothing, and we keep on doing that, paying no attention to anything of any import until we absolutely must.

And even then, we don't do much. There was a furor last year over the economy boiling over and then melting down and a rush to do something, ranging from "Throw a trillion dollars at it" to "regulate them out of business" to "bail out homeowners" to this and that and more... and now there's little hue and cry over the fact that the investment banks we blamed a year ago are more profitable than ever, and the Senate spends as much time on the NFL as it does on consumer protection.

We've been talking about gays in the military for 18 years now, and only today did anyone actually amend a bill to do something about that.

We still haven't fixed up New Orleans after Katrina, and it's already facing a new problem.

I'd blame fatigue, but how can one get tired before one actually exerts oneself? 25 years after Live Aid, there's still famine in Africa and Live Aid wasn't all that much effort for most people in the first place: you only had to sit and watch, and maybe make a contribution by phone.

We've seen, over that time, that America can act, and act decisively, when we need to. America can do stuff, if we try, just like in the old days. We took over Iraq the first time in four days; the second time, we're years into it and not sure what we're doing and not sure whether we should be doing it, and we vaguely remember something about a surge, and we sure liked The Hurt Locker even if it was a little overrated.

We could fix Iraq, if we wanted to. And we could win in Afghanistan, too. But we're not paying attention.

We went from not having a space program at all to walking on the moon in seven years, back just before I was born. So how come it'll take us the same length of time to modestly increase fuel efficiency in our cars? The Pony Express crossed the country in 10 days; is an Amtrak trip all that much faster nowadays?

In four years, we spent $25 billion dollars and rebuilt and restabilized Europe, back in 1947 under the Marshall Plan. Parts of New Orleans still haven't been rebuilt. Is it that much harder to build a city than it was to build a continent?

We could do these things, but we don't. It took $5 gas to get car companies to make hybrid cars and Americans to buy them. It took four planes crashing into our country to get us to realize, again, that there are other countries out there. It took an economic meltdown on the magnitude of the Great Depression to get people to look at their mortgages and ask what the hell the Banks are doing.

We only act when we absolutely have to, as a country, and we're getting worse. At least, in the recent past, when we did have to act, we actually did something. Now, when things get really bad, we don't even bother with that. Where's the outrage over the fact that the Gulf of Mexico now looks and feels like my garage floor? On Twitter? There's no protests out there, no companies facing lawsuits, no real effort to do anything. Obama increased the moratorium on the Gulf drilling, and we make some speeches, and then we wait to see whether Jack Bauer really gets killed off on the last episode.

What's needed is a country, and people, who will not only act when a problem occurs-- act, not Twitter-- but who will act not just to address the problem now but try to avoid the problem in the future. What changes have been made to air traffic after that volcano I can't spell shut everything down? What new security measures have we come up with after our old ones failed to stop the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber and the Times Square bomber? What are we doing to make sure that everyday Americans have enough of an understanding of financial instruments to not be caught sleeping and stupid again when investment bankers decide that $25 million in bonuses isn't enough this year and soak us again?

We used to just act, before there was even a problem. Then, we at least acted to address the problem: We busted the trusts and stopped the dirty sausage making and sent our boys and our money Over There when Europe needed help, and we tried to stop Communism even though that was a stupid goal because Communism, it turns out, stops itself.

Now, we see the problems -- tainted pet food and toys, fake financial instruments that might as well simply empty our checkbooks, poor people living in poisonous trailers in a washed-out city -- and we do nothing, barely rousing ourselves for only the most serious of the problems.

That's why the oil spill isn't a bad thing. Deficits aren't a bad thing. The economic crisis and the two wars and China practically owning us and the fact that health care reform won't really even start until after this president leaves office, those all aren't bad things, not in the long run. They seem bad now, but they're the only hope we have, ironically enough. Because if we don't have a bunch of bad things happen now, then we'll keep on not doing anything about any of these problems, and eventually we'll get hit with a bad thing that we can't fix.

We may one day not be facing oil on our shores -- we may be facing the oceans rising over our shores. We might one day not have to worry that a single person with a propane tank might try to blow up Times Square, but have to worry that hundreds of people carrying nuclear weapons are fanning out across America. We might one day not have to worry about gas costing $5, but instead worry that we've got no gas. Someday, health care costs might not merely be excessive, but might be completely unaffordable.

And then it'll be too late. Not only will we be unable to prevent the next oil spill, but we won't be able to clean it up, either. And we'll have nobody to blame but ourselves.

And the Baby Boomers. They started it all.

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