America Fantasyland Part 1

Disneyland, the epitome of the American dream. If you believe hard enough and spend a lot of money, all of your dreams will come true.

Good god. Has it really been just over a year since Donald J Dumbass was elect president? How are you holding up? I haven’t handled it well and it shows. To quote Hamlet, “I have of late lost all my mirth”. I’ve lost the passion to blog, to read, and to some extend I’ve been far to slow to move past the last election.

Looking back to November 8th, 2016, it is clear to me now that I’ve spend the last year going through the five stages of grief. At first I denied it, (oh he’ll never take office-he looks as stunned as the rest of us), then I felt anger, to the point of rage when he was finally sworn in, and then on to a long bout of depression as I watched him make a mockery of the office of the Presidency and everything it stands for. Worse yet, watching as Congress defends his shredding of our Constitution and the principals on which is was written.

The last stage of grief, according to Elisabeth Kubler Ross, is acceptance. No, I am not there yet; I can’t bring myself to say his name and the title President in the same sentence, but I can say I am starting to accept the fact that millions of Americans voted for him. I’ve spent the last year trying to figure out why.

Like many of my fellow liberal Americas I know people who did in fact not only vote for him, but did so not out of a sense of irony or sadistic glee, but because they honestly fell for his bullshit. And not just his bullshit, but also the bullshit being flung around by social media and the sharing of said bullshit. No, seriously, how do you fall for a guy who on one hand says, “I’ll hire the smartest people” and on the other says, “I am your voice, I alone can fix it”. Fix what?? The guy filed for bankruptcy four times! How do you lose money owning a casino?? Damn, I may still be in the anger stage. Moving on.

My questions of why expanded beyond wanting to know why so many people I know and respect (and millions I don’t know) fell for his con. But not just his con; cons and hoaxes in general. Truth be told, I’ve been asking myself for quite a while now, “is America becoming dumber”? Long time followers know this is a topic I hit on once in a while. In 2014 I reviewed a book titled “Idiot America” in which I talked about the dumbing down of America. Who knew two years later millions of voters would prove me right?

I made some connections between our decline in good judgment and religious like idolization of all things connect to consumerism that seems to be paving the way for a dumber America. Whether we are talking about materialism (I’ll feel better, look better, be better, if only I had X) or how we greedily consume our news and “information” without an ounce of critical thinking. How did we become the nation whose mantra seems to now be, “It feels right, so it must be true”?

I wish I could say after careful study of our culture I came to a solid answer; that my months in hiding have given me insight to what is wrong with our country, but I have to give credit to a book I recently picked up. Kurt Andersen’s book, “Fantasyland How America Went Haywire” put a lot of things in perspective and helped me connect the dots. I can’t say it’s a great book (although I do recommend it) as Andersen does tend to veers off into weedy thinking, and expresses some personal opinions in order to make a view seem like fact. Ironically this is the very thing his book argues is wrong with America. Yet some of his simplest statements are powerful truths and should be recognized as such.

America was created by people resistant to reality checks and convinced they had special access to the truth, a place founded to enact grand fantasies. (p.72)

Andersen begins his book with the European explores who risked their lives (and reputations) for the promises of golden mountains waiting to be plundered, and the mystical Fountain of Youth. He then quickly moves to the Puritans with their idea of a religious utopia; setting the stage for a history of people who are resistant to reality checks, even as reality hits back. There were not mountains of gold, or flowing waters of eternal youth. There was no religious utopia; instead, to the Puritans utter shock, there were “pagan savages” everywhere they looked.

One would have thought that the Puritans would’ve had the good sense to go home as so many had done when it was discovered there was no easy spoils to be had, but no. They believed they could convert the savages, and when that didn’t work later generations set out to annihilate them, firmly believing it was their God given right to do so.

Andersen’s book pulls the veil off the myth of American exceptionalism and exposes the truth of how we became fantasyland. How today we’d rather listen to our gut or a conspiracist, rather than a medical doctor. How our political views are shaped by labels rather than ideas. Why being offended now allows us the “right” to protest and boycott free speech and opposing views. And so much more.

Andersen may not have gotten everything right; his bias against religion shows loud and clear and clouds some of his thinking about what is found strictly in America and what is not. Yet he gets enough right that his book is a jumping-off point for cultural self-reflection and deep discussion. So much so, that in the coming weeks it will be the focus of my posts. We will look at various stops on our journey to fantasyland. It is my hope that in time we begin to reflect on what came before and how it has shaped our understanding of who we are now and what improvements we can make so that Fantasyland doesn’t turn into Nightmareland.

 

 

The unseen observer, is he bound to speak? McEwan’s In a Nutshell review

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It’s been quite the winter, and here in Nevada we are only half way through the season. We can see snowfall as late as March. As I write it’s raining and snowing. This has been a record wet year, and again, we are only half way through the season!

We’ve had 12.63 inches (or roughly 32.09 centimeters) of rain since the start of the year. Our average yearly total is 9.23. As you might of guessed by now, we now have more water than the ground can hold. Great news if you are duck, but for us home dwellers this is becoming a nightmare. My lawn is now a pond and the water is starting to seep onto my patio. Good thing I held onto the sandbags I got a few weeks back. I am also learning how to sleep to the noise of a sump pump.

But enough about the weather. It’s been a while since I posted, but you will have to excuse me. Between snow shoveling and ark building I’ve been preoccupied. Ever Googled a cubit? Ever gone into a hardware store asking if they sell boards by the cubit? I don’t suggest you do, the look you get is not worth the giggle. I thought everyone but Americans built things using the metric system; leave it to God to make up his own system of measurement. Sigh.. All kidding aside, the one good thing about winter weather is that it makes for a great reading companion. And I have done a lot of reading these last few weeks. In fact, I have read a genre I haven’t had much enthusiasm for lately. I’ve started reading fiction again.

It started with some mentions on Twitter. A few readers whose opinions I highly respect mentioned reading McEwan’s In a Nutshell, based on Hamlet and liking it. Soon, the New Yorker and other magazines praised it as a tour de force and possibly McEwan’s best writing yet. The Washington post said, “It’s more brilliant than it has the right to be”. And this, my dear friends, is the best line of a review for the book you’ll read. It really does say it all. I cannot express myself enough about how much utter joy it gave me. It is modern fiction at its finest. If only other writers had half McEwan’s talent.

Now, stay with me, as the plot will seem beyond absurd. From the author’s webpage:

Trudy has betrayed her husband, John. She’s still in the marital home — a dilapidated, priceless London townhouse — but John’s not here. Instead, she’s with his brother, the profoundly banal Claude, and the two of them have a plan. But there is a witness to their plot: the inquisitive, nine-month-old resident of Trudy’s womb.

The story is told through the eyes of Trudy’s unborn son. He is the unseen observer of both Trudy’s betrayal and involvement to kill her husband, but more importantly, he observes and comments on modern life and this is where the fun begins. His observations are both comical and biting, This is the baby thinking about college life:

A strange mood has seized the almost-educated young. They’re on the march, angry at times, but mostly needful, longing for authority’s blessing, its validation of their chosen identities. The decline of the West in new guise perhaps. Or the exaltation and liberation of the self.

Should inconvenient opinions hover near me like fallen angels or evil djinn (a mile being too near), I’ll be in need of the special campus safe room equipped with Play-Doh and looped footage of gambolling puppies. Ah, the intellectual life!

And like all good tragedies, he also makes us cry as we watch his helplessness as he is trapped in a situation that offers no control.

Unless, unless, unless–a wisp of a word, ghostly token of altered fate, bleating little iamb of hope, it drifts across my thoughts like a floater in the vitreous humour of an eye. Mere hope.

For those of us who are parents, this book will make you wonder if your prebirth actions were observed and noted. You may ask yourself if somehow, without forethought or intent, your actions affected your child’s worldview, as if he/she fed off  your words and the words of your outside contacts just as he fed off the food you ate. For those who bought into the idea that playing Mozart to an unborn child would make him/her a genius you have to ask yourself, what effect your daily activities had on the child? And even if you didn’t buy into this, you may find yourself wondering if your child formed his first opinions based on his prebirth observations. It’s both a scary and hilarious prospect. Especially with observations like this one:

Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose.

Much like Shakespeare this book is contains layers. The most obvious is McEwan’s use of an unseen observer in order to write about modern thought and society. The other is a tad bit more nuanced; the hard choices we make and the ripple effects that sometimes nudge but often wash over those around us.The baby’s mother is tragic in the sense that she seems to be bereft of any sense of true dignity and self-awareness, much like Hamlet’s mother who enters into a pact with Claudius out of lust and possibly self-preservation but without thinking about the consequences of those around her. In fact I would say we don’t feel for McEwan’s expectant mother like we do Gertrude because as a modern women there are more choices available to her. And unlike Gertrude she is no innocent pawn of Claudius’ plot.

There are nods to Hamlet, naturally, but you don’t have to be a Shakespeare fan to enjoy this book. It stands alone as a great piece of modern literature. But like Hamlet, be prepared for a tragic ending; this is no modern fairytale.

Works Cited

McEwan, Ian In a Nutshell Random House September 2016. Print Edition

Washington Post, Ian McEwan’s In a Nutshell a tale of betrayal and murder as told by a fetus. September 12, 2016. Online

For giggles I have to admit I heard the baby in the voice of the E-Trade baby. This was a series of commercials that stared a talking baby. For my UK readers and those who do not remember I offer these clip. After finishing the book you may need a good laugh, so I urge you to go back again re-watch them