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Looking for a new American Dream

Essay by Martha Quillen

Modern Life – March 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine

“Oh, we’ve got trouble…. Right here in River City.”

It was 1962, and Robert Preston filled the big screen, strutting down Main Street, leading a parade of enthusiastic small-town folk, who were convinced that they had trouble. “Oh yes, we’ve got trouble….”

But the only trouble the people of River City had was Meredith Willson’s Music Man, that lovable, appealing scalawag — and, of course, their own profound naivety. Those folks were as green as grass and ripe to be conned.

Yes, those were the good old days. The Music Man portrayed a more innocent time, in a rural place where human beings lived without malice or guile. Things were simpler, better, and easier, then. Small towns were homey, comfortable and prosperous.

But another movie masterpiece also came out in 1962 — one that portrayed a different side of rural America. To Kill a Mockingbird presented the anger and bigotry at the core of Maycomb, Alabama, another imaginary American town.

Both movies were about quaint home towns. In fact, if a studio wanted to recreate those film classics, it could probably utilize the same location — featuring a picturesque town with old-fashioned homes, parks, porches, and trees (a place that epitomizes hearth and home).

Hadleyburg, Gopher Prairie, Mayberry, Smallville, Lake Wobegon….

Easy Rider, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe, Salem’s Lot….

Apparently rural places suit writers and film-makers who want their settings to project all-American values. But so do bigger places like Metropolis, Gotham City, and Sunnydale. Be they big or small, imaginary places inspire emotional reactions, and so do real ones.

Here in Salida, people often say that they don’t want our town to be like Vail, Breckenridge, or Boulder. We don’t want more people, malls, and parking lots; we appreciate small, mountainous and remote. But presumably a lot of people in Aspen, Vail, and Breckenridge are similarly pleased with the amenities offered in their towns.

For the most part, however, small towns and large cities aren’t as divergent as they used to be. Forty years ago, most small mountain towns didn’t have television, big box stores, chain restaurants, multiple radio stations, or the latest fashions. In rural Colorado, antlers, deer heads and knotty pine paneling were ubiquitous decor. Cowboy hats, boots, and country music prevailed. Dude ranches outnumbered golf courses, and cattle outnumbered tourists.

But slowly and surely, personal computers, video games, ATMs, fax machines, cell phones, internet service, cable television, satellite dishes, DVDs, and all those other conduits of mainstream culture arrived. And those new devices flooded our valleys with diversity — American style.

IN DUE COURSE, rural Colorado culture shifted away from Old West traditional to mixed mainstream. All that country and western fare got submerged by coffee houses, chamber music, live theater, public radio, poetry readings, brew pubs, and art galleries.

Once upon a time, most local businesses — including drug stores, restaurants, clothing retailers, implement dealers, and hardware stores — catered to the everyday needs of local residents and industries. But now many local businesses market to tourists, and the others generally try to welcome visitors, too.

And over the years, many visitors have moved here, and opened businesses themselves, contributing new ideas, new cachet, and new products.

But that’s the way it’s been all across the nation — and the world. Modern technology, transportation, and communication have made us all eat, dress, and think considerably more alike than we used to.

Thus, you might think that we’d be a little more agreeable. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Instead, Americans seem to be polarizing over almost everything from abortion, to morality, religion, science, school curricula, the environment, war, immigration….

Anger over current issues is abundant and shrill.

Yet Americans may not be as divided as our corrosive rhetoric implies. Today, many disputes are less about the issues, than about our black/white, red/blue, liberal/conservative outlook on political issues. For example, an article in the New Republic by Thomas Edsall, author of Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power, asserted:

“… The culture wars continue to powerfully animate national politics in large part because the left has been so successful at winning them. In extraordinarily short order, racial discrimination has been outlawed; abortion and contraception — including, now, the morning-after pill — have been legalized; sexual harassment has been barred from the workplace; the labor force participation of mothers has soared, reaching 78 percent for those with teenage children: many corporations and local governments, as well as some states, offer health coverage and other benefits to gay and lesbian partners; prime-time television portrays a sexually liberated nation; high schools hand out condoms; diversity is the norm in public school textbooks; the faculties of elite colleges are overwhelmingly liberal; and the military draft has been eliminated.”

EDSALL, A STAUNCH Republican, believes that his party is growing stronger and will dominate in future years, because Republicans are temperamentally better suited to accept hierarchy and compromise. Yet Edsall’s list is puzzling. Note how he neatly divides issues into Red and Blue? Is he implying that Republicans support racial discrimination? Or that they’re against mothers in the labor force? Or would want to reestablish a draft?

Probably not. Although many Republicans might gag over some of the stuff on Edsall’s list (as might some Democrats), Democrats and Republicans have more in common than political spin contends. Today, Republicans come in all colors, sexual preferences, and ethnicities, just like Democrats, Both gay Republicans and Democrats are out of the closet. Likewise, Republican mothers need their jobs just as much as Democratic mothers, and even Dick Cheney’s grandchild may someday rely on “benefits to gay and lesbian partners.”

Despite all of the red and blue propaganda our political parties are not easily divided along class, race, or geographical lines. In fact, the last two Presidential elections were so close, American citizens are still disputing the outcome.

Furthermore, citizens on the same side of the political spectrum frequently disagree, too. Despite right- wing polemics, U.S. citizens don’t merely come in two religions, fundamentalist Christian and secular humanist. And they’re not either patriotic or communist; or religious or licentious.

Likewise, despite left-wing posturing, U.S. citizens aren’t either committed environmentalists or ignorant extremists; or pro-gun control or gun nuts; or against school vouchers or uneducated fanatics. In fact, despite leftist rhetoric, one suspects that conservatives probably outnumber liberals in pursuing engineering and high tech degrees.

Clearly, Americans have divided themselves into narrow factions that tend to exacerbate rather than resolve issues, and antagonistic politicking has made our positions so volatile that even being on the same side isn’t enough.

LONG AGO, I realized that Ed would frequently get angrier letters when a column supported a writer’s position than when it didn’t. For example, one pro-choice activist repeatedly sent him outraged letters protesting his attitude — even though Ed always supported legal and available abortion and opposed legislation to impose waiting periods, mandatory counseling, and parental consent.

The activist, however, objected to Ed’s belief that abortion would always present a difficult moral decision. As Ed sees it, the citizen rather than the state should get to decide moral and religious matters. And fundamentalist attempts to make fetuses citizens are dangerous, because such protective legislation could logically be extended to protect embryos from their mother’s drinking, smoking, binge eating, hang-gliding, travel, exercise, horse-back riding, or preference for natural childbirth. They could even conceivably be used to hold women accountable for the deleterious effects of weight problems, illnesses, and injuries they incurred before pregnancy.

Either a woman is a citizen with rights, or she’s the vessel for a citizen with rights. But making her both could get very complex. None of this mattered to the activist, though. According to her, Ed clearly didn’t understand that there are 10-year-olds pregnant by their own fathers.

To me, that sounded like a non sequitur. But apparently she believed that support of an issue must be total, absolute, and unconditional. In her view, it wasn’t enough to regard abortion as a distressing medical option that should in all fairness be decided by the woman involved; it was important to present it as life-affirming and positive.

And perhaps she’s right. Maybe Americans are so overworked and tired due to lack of job security; spiraling health care costs, high energy and housing prices, and uncertainty about Social Security, pension plans, and war that they don’t have enough mental acuity left for nuances.

For years now, politicians have embraced ridiculously deceptive appellations: Pro-life, pro-choice, death tax, War on Terror, stay the course. Republicans seem to have the edge in this name game. But Democrats prevail in the blame game. Democrats (and I ought to know, since I am one, and not above the technique) frequently try to impose a sense of shame on their fellow citizens for not supporting worthy causes (be it peace, education, diversity, environmentalism, etc.)

Last month, for example, George Sibley took Ed to task for being “contrariety” and not backing the straight party line on global warming.

Ed contended that Americans must reduce their oil usage (due to dwindling oil reserves, our dependence on foreign oil, and numerous other reasons), but he didn’t feel that it really mattered whether people believed in global warming or not.

GEORGE, ON THE OTHER HAND, wrote that Oil Peak and other factors were probably just as important as global warming, and concluded that Americans must reduce their oil dependence and carbon emissions by at least 60%, but probably won’t and can’t.

I’ve got to admit I was surprised by Ed’s doubts about global warming theory. I guess I assumed that he was a bigger believer than he is. But in this instance, I don’t really think Ed’s beliefs matter one way or the other.

In the big, cosmic picture, it doesn’t matter what Ed thinks, or I think, or George thinks about global warming. What matters is what we do about it.

Perhaps the biggest problem with current political wrangling about a lot of issues is that we conflate belief and action. Global warming is not a religion, and nothing is going to change just because someone believes in it or doesn’t.

In fact, in most polls the majority of Americans rate environmental concerns as paramount. Yet after decades of environmental activism, we’re driving bigger vehicles, faster; living in bigger houses; consuming more; wasting more; and prizing greed, money and material goods more. And to make matters worse, our arguments often inhibit, rather than encourage, conservation.

Take George’s pessimism, for example. How does it inspire us to action? Clearly it doesn’t. But neither does Ed’s insistence that something must be done. Or mine.

In the same Central issue that featured George’s article about global warming, Gail Tinkly gripes about environmentalists who speed around in their huge cars wasting gasoline, while bristling at the idea of new oil and gas wells. And not long ago, I would have thought, Hallelujah. It’s time more people expected environmentalists (and everyone else) to live up to their convictions.

But no more.

Well, okay. I’m lying. I will doubtlessly continue to gripe about people who live in 10,000 square-foot houses and jet-set here and there as readily as the rest of us fetch our mail. But from now on, I’m going to try to stifle my resentment and shift my focus away from what’s wrong, and toward how to make things better. Because that’s what’s important.

CLEARLY, WE ARE ALL a little angry about how other people fail to see things the same way we do. And thus, we keep blaming others for the messes we get in. Yet most of us aren’t doing a whole lot to change things.

And when I try to ponder why that may be true, I come up with numerous reasons: We’re frustrated. We’re burned out. We’re disillusioned. We’re tired. We don’t think anything will work, anyway. Recycling, public transportation, and compact cars are not always practical in our region. And what’s the point of acting when nothing is ever going to get better?

Sometimes I think we’ve fallen into this morass because of baby boomers like me. We’re just too old to dominate a society as thoroughly as we do. With us and our elders in charge it’s little wonder that the country has gotten so pessimistic, adversarial, and Armageddon-crazed. After all, even if it turns out that the country, the climate, and the world are not going to come to an end soon, we are. So it’s little wonder we’re inclined to wallow in hopelessness, disillusionment, and a pessimistic belief that the future could not possibly hold anything good.

But my analysis may not be the best one. One of my college English texts, The Literature of the United States, by Blair, Hornberger, Stewart and Miller, has a section devoted to “Modern Pessimism.” According to their theory, World War I left a dearth of depression that was quickly supplemented by Freudian psychology and “the dominance of science and quasi-science.” At first, leaving the prudish and morbid Victorian era behind seemed to spark a “great liberating force,” but it was soon squelched as the new sciences of economics, sociology and psychology convinced people that they were trapped in conditions not of their making: Man was driven by his psyche and glands, and controlled by economic forces and social pressures. Writers started expressing a growing sense of helplessness: Theodore Dreiser, T.S. Eliot, Hemingway, Steinbeck….

“American literature between the wars was thus predominantly pessimistic….”

And one of the reasons was war and the threat of war. So perhaps that’s why gloom and doom are so persistent today.

Or not.

Written in 1966, my lit text ended with “The Age of Uncertainties,” which was purportedly an era of conformity produced by the Cold War and fear of “the Bomb.” At that point, concepts of a nuclear winter, the imminent need for zero population growth, oil depletion, species die-off, global warming, and international terrorism hadn’t yet taken hold.

IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE how our current era will be remembered (especially right now with a war going sour and a population splitting into new factions). And yet I’d bet most people would conclude that the dawn of this new millennium will not be recalled with fondness by anyone (presuming there is anyone left to recall it after we finish warring, killing each other off through crime and genocide, using up the fossil fuels, producing tons of carbon, heating the planet, and inflicting irreversible damage to the biosphere).

Clearly, we need to change things.

But first we have got to cheer up.

For several decades now, Republicans and Democrats have continually decried one another’s hypocrisy, avarice, immorality and intelligence, and it hasn’t helped. So maybe it’s time we tried getting excited about things — instead of harping about what everyone is doing wrong.

And there are countless things to get excited about, especially here in the boonies. Out here, we know the value of nature, exercise, fresh air, and the great outdoors. We’re working on conservation and preservation. Contractors are building “green.” Residents are hosting sustainability fairs. Citizens worry about water, wildlife, and wilderness. People are establishing community gardens, experimenting with alternative building materials, adding insulation to their homes, buying energy saving lights, and hiking or biking to work.

Communities like ours might be the best place to launch a new sort of green movement. Local councils are always talking about those elusive light industries we so desperately need, but never seem to get. So why not create them? We could declare ourselves green communities. We could start clamoring for something symbolic, like returning the speed limit to 55. Local newspapers could feature “clean and green” corners with ideas and suggestions for living better. We could feature our green home tours and sustainability fairs on-line. We could build every new home in our region with passive solar design. We could establish prizes for the best green home design, and the best green-living anecdote, conversion, and plan, with a booby prize for the most humorous fiasco. Local builders could start demanding — and working on — a new, safe, alternative state building code to allow for greener living. In the long term, our goal would be to make going green easier, more fulfilling, and more sustainable — so that it feels less like dieting, and more like living well.

Surely we can do better. But first we have to start believing that it’s possible.

SINCE ITS INCEPTION in the 1960s and ’70s, the modern environmental movement has been Malthusian, steeped in the pessimistic perspective of Thomas Malthus, the nineteenth century economist who believed that population inevitably expands to overtax production. Malthus insisted that poverty was inescapable, that charity merely encouraged overpopulation, and that “misery” and “self-restraint” were needed to reduce the burgeoning masses. He proposed establishing workhouses for the poor where life should be hard and stressful in order to discourage propagation.

In the same era, more optimistic rivals predicted that an industrial revolution would bring new farming methods, increased food production, and jobs for the masses. But Malthus didn’t believe it. Malthus did, however, maintain that thrift pushed to excess could destroy motivation, and therefore some luxuries and wealth were Tokay — for the few. Penury, however, was inevitable for the majority of mankind and should not be mitigated, because hardship, privation and death would actually help the “common people” — by diminishing their population.

Today, Malthusian ideas live on, in leftist deco-politics, and conservative economic theories, and trendy books like Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael.

And many environmentalists still believe that only draconian measures can alleviate the threat of overpopulation.

YET MALTHUSIAN PROPOSALS didn’t work. Although they were widely accepted and often prevailed in the 19th century — as one can see by reading Oliver Twist and Jane Eyre, or by recalling the scads of poverty-stricken Europeans who fled the old world — things didn’t pan out the way Malthus predicted. Despite the best efforts of Malthus and his followers, Europe’s peasants didn’t keep over-breeding themselves into starvation. Once the industrial revolution dawned, production increased, personal wealth grew, birth rates dropped, and social conditions improved.

Clearly Malthus was right about some things. He predicted that geometric population growth would lead to unsustainable population levels, and that’s a concept most people agree with today. But misery and self-restraint aren’t the solutions that Malthus presumed they’d be.

In retrospect, Malthus offered the common man untenable choices. They could choose misery, self-restraint and death. Or they could choose self-indulgence and death.

Instead they chose change, pleasure, and life.

Rather than dwell on the sacrifices they would have to make (and they were enormous), or the hardships they would endure (which were unfathomable), or how difficult their course would be, dreams propelled the peasants of England into making momentous changes. They headed to America, Australia, New Zealand, and Africa. They moved to foreign cities to take jobs in newly established industries. They learned new trades, and established new lifestyles.

And if they could do that, surely we can insulate our attics, and build greener homes, and grow veggies in our windowsills, and bike and walk more — or get around with solar golf carts (presuming we somehow get our troops home from Iraq, without inadvertently creating an incident that results in WWIII and total annihilation).

If we truly want to change, then we’ve got to establish a new American dream. Instead of trying to define our society by enumerating its flaws, we need to imagine the possibilities and develop aspirations — because you can’t get very far by concentrating on the pitfalls.

But first we’ll have to develop some enthusiasm and learn to dream.