The Dumbening

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Just when you thought it was safe to be an American again... You know I almost didn't write this entry; being as it is a rumination on the decline of American civilization. I've been so heady since the election. We have turned a corner as a nation and perhaps put the brakes on our steady slide towards cultural entropy. Tuesday night I felt relief... even optimism. Then I read this:

As gas prices have plunged since topping $3 a gallon this summer, a startling shift is taking place in the car market. Hybrid sales are slowing and SUV sales are speeding up.

Come again?

That’s right: the megawatt popularity of hybrids is dimming and Americans are rediscovering their favorite automotive guilty pleasure, gas-guzzling SUVs.

Yes. Like a coop of chickens slipping into blissful slumber when their heads have been forced under their wings, Americans giddy on an artificial, transparently political, dip in gas prices, jump behind the wheels of those hideous, resource gobbling, behemoths. SUVs exemplify everything that is wrong and stupid in this country; the gluttony, the ignorance of history, the lack of foresight, the love of style over substance, the persistent belief that perception is reality... For instance, ask the average SUV driver "why?!" and he will usually say "safety." But SUVs are not safer. They are more likely to roll over, they lack a number of the safety features of smaller vehicles, and they are far more dangerous to everyone else on the road. Could there be a more perfect symbol of the mentality that has pushed this country to the precipice? As long as I feel safe who cares if I actually am safe or if I pose a mortal threat to everyone else; how many little cars I crush or how many tiny nations are turned to rubble in my pursuit of an illusive sense of security.

I've been pondering "the dumbening" of America for some time, but particularly over the last couple of months. Throughout our search for a new home and a difficult move, it was glaringly apparent to me that we are a nation in decline. As the housing boom goes bust, the country is littered with prefab catastrophes waiting to be bought. We saw listing after listing of cosmetically adorable lemons. Not only are they made of particle board and spit, almost to house they are designed with air conditioning/forced air, gas heat units. Cheap for the builder, expensive and inefficient for the home owner. Heat Rises. Cold falls. Does anyone not know this? Having experienced the wonders of forced air in a couple of rentals -- that delicious combination of dry, baked air, and the total lack of actual warmth -- and paid the attendant energy bills, I turned my nose up at 99.9 percent of the listings. I explained to our baffled realtor that to buy a house with a forced air system, just as energy prices are going through the roof, is a little like saying, "Hey gas is $3 a gallon. Time to buy an SUV." The joke fell flat and after reading Newsweek, it's pretty clear why. People keep buying their cardboard dream houses with the heating vents in the ceiling, and they keep buying SUVs.

We found our smart, efficient little bi-level. We love the house, but the move was horrifying. Why? The dumbening. Before moving we hit all the wickets, including setting up our new phone service. But even after two emails confirming that our phone would be turned on the day we moved in, it was not to be. So I called Verizon (on my cell, obviously) and was told that they had been unable to process our order. It took over half an hour and 3 different customer service people to arrive at the reason. They didn't have our old phone number. Why they didn't have it I still don't know. Why they didn't contact us to get the necessary information I still don't know. I do know that even after providing it so they could process the order, they still could not turn on our phone for another 3 weeks. I received a number of mutually contradictory reasons for this, but my favorite was "the weather." I guess it's never rained in the North East before and they were just flummoxed by it.

When I rented my first solo apartment over 15 years ago, a single phone call had my account set up and my phone turned on the day I moved in. During those three weeks while I parceled out my anytime minutes like canteen water in a desert, I had plenty of time to contemplate how it could possibly be that in the "age of communication" getting phone service has gone from nearly effortless to an herculean feat. I had no phone, no internet... and no television. My Sony lies in pieces in our new garage. Why? The dumbening. How else to explain professional movers so idiotic that they piled my husband's weights on top of it. More remarkable, they apparently delivered it into storage as a crushed pile of rubble and left it there without comment, signing off on the shipment like everything was cool. The loss and damage of this move was the worst I've experienced, and thanks to the wonders of bureaucracy it will be years before I see even partial recompense, but that I guess is not a terribly new phenomenon.

What is new, and I why I think America is dumbening is that no one seems to notice or care anymore that everything works like crap. What amazed me more than anything about my laborious conversations with Verizon was the seeming astonishment of the customer service reps that I was, how say, dissatisfied, at being forced to wait for 3 weeks for phone service through no fault of my own. Gone are the days when the customer was always right and sales people cared about your business. Today's service industries are typified by a prevailing sense that they are entitled to your money and a customer's unhappiness with either product or service is his problem.

It almost doesn't surprise me that Verizon reps seemed shocked by my lack of complacency. Complacency has become the hallmark of American culture. Now, I'm as thrilled as anyone that Dems have taken back both houses of Congress and it truly gives me hope, but look at just how bad things had to get for the tide to turn. Torture scandals, the loss of habeas corpus, unauthorized wiretaps, open cronyism, an illegal war; this litany of criminal offenses goes on. But what finally turned public opinion en masse? The lesson for today is that if you want to create massive political shift in this country, a President publicly shredding the Constitution is not enough. What you really need are some good sex scandals. Not just any sex scandals either. They have to be GAY sex scandals.

We have pulled ourselves back from the precipice and I have hope again. Hope that the self-loathing-gay-Republican-led zeitgeist will translate into a broader reawakening of an American populace grown far too comfortable in an environment of utter wrongness. For against this backdrop of unprecedented government excess and criminality, what I see ambling about town is a people whose biggest concern is which $2,500, flat panel television to dig themselves deeper into debt with. Because as credit card interest surpasses usury rates, you surely cannot have enough debt. (I'm not kidding. Since that beacon of Democratic ethics Joe Biden green-lighted bankruptcy reform, I'm waiting for the revised customer agreement notice that tells me that they can break my legs if I'm a day late on payment.) It's worth it because every American home should have a Fahrenheit 451-style "wall." And if cable rates are rising several times the rate of inflation, so be it. What's important is that we all know what's happening on American Idol.

So, yes, I'm optimistic. But with a Democratic Party that seems hell bent on snatching defeat from the jaws of an historic victory, I still have... concerns. I worry that we are a nation grown fat and happy on a literal and metaphorical diet of empty calories. Couch potatoes staring dumbly at ever larger, more crisply defined, images of pundits telling us what we think and feel, until our critical thinking muscles have gone utterly flaccid. Last Tuesday was a reminder of what can happen when the public flexes. We have a choice now between continued vigilance and a consumer culture more intoxicating than the waters of Lethe.