Saturday, October 7, 2017


This is a prototype of a book project built around an essay, again. So, it's not commentary or criticism, it's my attempt at Art, again

In 1776 some fellows wrote these words, and some other fellows signed the blank space found below them:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Some 13 to 16 years later more words were written and ratified, as follows:

Amendment 1: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment 2: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

These are, of course, some of the central texts of the United States of America. The first is the core of the Declaration of Independence, and the second are the first and second amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Arguably, these are pretty much the only bits of these larger central texts that the average citizen has much familiarity with in these modern times.

I am not much interested in what the authors or signers of these statements might have meant. They are all 200 years dead, their intentions are surely academic. Yes, yes, Jefferson and Washington were terrible assholes. Or not. Whatever. Neither one of them is saying a lot these days.

Nor am I much interested in contemporary legal theories of what these things mean. Not that these are not interesting questions, but they are irrelevant to what I am saying here.

What I am interested in is the cultural impact of these things, how we citizens and residents of the United States, have internalized these words, what we make of them, and how they influence the ways we think and live.

Utterly entrenched in these words is the idea of individual liberty, the right of each of us, one by one, to seek out what it best for us and ours. Entrenched in these words is the idea that the government should at no time and in no way attempt to restrict our individual freedoms, our individual search, our individual labors. Ours is a nation built, the idea goes, on the efforts of individuals. The railroads were built not by Chinese laborers but by titans of industry, working practically alone. The west was won by steely-gazed men with Colt pistols and strong-willed horses.

Still, this freedom and liberty business is a pretty good idea. Empowering the individual to seek out what is best is a good thing. Each of us should feel and be free to pursue our dreams. It is not unhealthy to feel that perhaps without individual striving things might go badly for us. Around the world parents try to imbue their children with these ideals, among others.

These ideas do ignore the group, the tribe, that force that is all-of-us, together. They minimize these ideas, and perhaps that is not so beneficial. The myths of this nation are not quite true, the railroads were built by shared labor, the west won likewise. Most of the large scale success here in the United States was through group effort, through teams of self-effacing (not always willingly) people working as one toward a larger goal, as well as by oppression, exploitation, or elimination of other people, other classes.

Still, I believe firmly in the ideas of individual pursuit of hopes, dreams, success. Up to a point.

With so many millions of us so deeply imbued with these beliefs, there will inevitably be outliers, in all directions. Some few will utterly eschew individuality in favor of the commune. Some few will observe opposite theories. Some few will seek to elevate their own individual liberty above everything and everyone else.

The worst results hold when we fetishize the objects we identify with our Liberty, when we feel that certain objects contain the answer.

The Car

The first world as a whole has embraced the absurdity that is the car. Several tons of steel and plastic, nowadays bristling with computers and cameras and air bags, simply to transport, usually, a single person and a few personal odds and ends from one place to another.

The United States has taken this to some sort of ultimate pinnacle. Our lust for personal liberty has obliterated every other method of getting around, in any practical way. Ask yourself "how would I obtain a pair of socks without using my car?" (of course you'd jump on amazon, tsk, but amazon would use a truck in the end anyways.) In the United States, for most people, that is a virtually intractable problem requiring half a day of bus travel if it is even possible.

We've built a nation around the car. It is, for all practical purposes, impossible to live here without a car. You cannot hold a job, you cannot purchase food and clothing, you cannot obtain medical care, without a car. Certainly there are a few people without cars, who beg rides and use public transit. They are miserable. There are a few places in which walking or bicycling to much of what is necessary is possible, I live in one of them. But mostly, Americans rely on The Car. 95% of American households own a car. And The Car is completely crazy. It costs the average American something like $8000 a year to own a car. This is a crushing burden for all but the best-off of us, and yet we shrug it off as a simple necessity.

Ordinary people cannot imagine going to work by bus, "What if I want to run an errand at lunch?" and so on. Our personal liberty demands the ability to simple go when and where we choose, at any moment. Public transit systems across the nation are dead or on life-support, the country is enmeshed in a web of highways, interchanges, streets, parking lots, gas stations, repair shops, car dealerships, car factories. Trillions of dollars of infrastructure exists so that we can go when and where we want.

The United States sees almost 11 traffic-related fatalities per 100,000 people, per year. We are by no means the worst here, but that is because of our safe cars, safe roads, and fairly thorough enforcement of traffic laws, not because we're not driving the damned things basically all the time.

There's nothing inherently wrong with The Car. Cars are ubiquitous, globally, and in the end they're just a thing we use to move ourselves and our stuff around conveniently.

But. But.

The Car is central to our identity, here in the USA. It represents freedom, it represents our selves. The American passion for Liberty has, to our detriment, caused us to view The Car as the answer to many problems to which it is not necessarily the best one. The Car has cost us, and cost us greatly.

It should not be the answer we treat it as.

The Dollar

Ahhhh, money. Everyone wants it, everyone needs it. Nobody even knows what it is. It's a medium of exchange. It's labor distilled into convenient chits. It's the only known way to efficiently compute solutions to the problem of distributing goods. It's power. It's speech. It's lovely. It's sex.

It's a government plot to control us all.

Money is global, it's not a uniquely American invention. One might argue, though, that it is in America where we have most perfectly distilled the cold pursuit of it against all opposition, against all common sense. America has 5 times as many billionaires as the next nation in line, and our per capita billionaire count is ridiculous.

Money isn't a bad thing, we need it. You cannot run an economy -- in the most basic sense of a system that gets food into the mouths of people, at scale -- without money. The ruthless pursuit of money, on the other hand, is not particularly good for anyone. Not even for the billionaires who are a famously restless and unhappy people.

The trouble is that people in general, and Americans with their infernal pursuit of Liberty more than anyone, sometimes perceive money as the answer. "If only," we imagine, "I could get a million dollars" or a thousand, or a hundred, "then my problems would be solved." More often than not, it isn't true. Money, it is said, cannot buy happiness. Americans, there is no kind way to say it, do not believe that.

Lottery winners are famously less well off 1 or 2 or 3 years after winning, as a class. Billionaires cannot give up the relentless pursuit of more money, far past reason. Men so rich that they cannot purchase more power, more sex, more influence because there simply isn't any more for sale cannot give up the pursuit. Money, in the worst cases, makes heroin look benign, except that the victims are all too often everyone except the addict.

Money should not be the answer we take it for.

The Gun

Whether the second amendment is really about militias, privately owned guns, or donuts does not matter. We have internalized it as a central idea of gun ownership as American. Some deplore it, and some approve it; all agree that it's deeply American. The myths and legends of the American West helped entrench these ideas, our heroes are soldiers, sharpshooters, experts with the rifle or the pistol.

Sergeant Alvin York is famous as the pacifist who became a war hero, because of his skill with guns. A pacifist. They made at least one movie about him.

Guns, guns are just tools. They're things. They're not more dangerous than chainsaws, or cars, or fire, or poison. Wags are fond of saying "guns don't kill people, people do" or sometimes "bullets do" or something.

In a literal way, these things are true, but the deeper truth is that whoever says this is looking for a way to not talk about what it is that kills people. Guns kill people in a lot of ways, but the uniquely American way they kill is enabled by their power as a fetish object. Little kids raised on videos are fascinated with Dad's gun. Unhinged men collect the things and purchase gimmicks to enable them to shoot them more efficiently. The suicidal snuggle their gun, the solution to all of their problems except one.

The trouble arises not with gun use or gun proliferation, it arises when someone gets the idea that the answer is embodied in the gun. Perhaps the answer is to put the gun to his own head, or to shoot his girlfriend, or his dog, or a whole batch of people at a concert. Perhaps the answer is to shoot that cop, or that perp, or that enemy.

In America, The Gun, like The Dollar, and The Car, are sex, power, independence, Liberty.

The Gun, like The Car, and The Dollar, enables me to choose. The Gun enables me to make choices that are denied to people who do not possess The Gun.

In this world there's two kinds of people, my friend. Those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You: dig.

This is baked in to our culture. How often do we think or say "man, if someone would just shoot that guy things would be so much better."

If people would only stop thinking that the gun is a mystical object which can, somehow, make things OK, they'd stop shooting so damn many of one another. The Answer is not to be found in The Car, in The Dollar, or in The Gun. Our Liberty, our Personal Freedom, is surely larger than these fetish objects in which we see such power.

It is true that each of these objects truly does enable choices, each enables a certain kind of Liberty, of Freedom.

Those with loaded guns do not dig, those with running cars do have jobs, those with money make the rules for everyone without it.

These are all terrible ideas, and they're rotten ways to engage in the Pursuit of Happiness.


  1. I'm staying well away from this one... Except to say I enjoyed the FB meme circulating that says, "Nuclear bombs don't kill people, people do! See how stupid that sounds?"


    1. It's not the bomb, it's the sudden intense heat and flying debris! And the radiation!

  2. I thought your photo-esay was well done. Thoughtful and thought-provoking.

  3. The American way of thought perplexes me in the same way that 19th century laissez faire capitalism perplexes me.

    When the Madras famine happened, grain continued to be exported. Why? Malthus and the invisible hand of the market. Much gnashing of teeth in the papers of the time as to how nothing could be done, when anyone can see that simply distributing and allocating grain would solve the problem. And then Kipling goes and calls Indians heretics of blind faith. Fine, better blind faith in a god then inuring oneself to human misery in favour of a... market.

    I leave you to draw parallels to the current mess in your country.

    1. One doesn't notice ones own blind spots so much, but everyone else's are obvious. I confess to an affection for Kipling, but obviously he had some flaws (to put it mildly), and vacillated from stone blind to remarkably clear eyed apparently at random.

      My intention with this piece is specifically to point out to Americans one of our blind spots, as well as perhaps to help the rest of the world understand a little better the peculiarly American brand of craziness.

    2. ... apparently at random? How so? His views are totally in line with what he was, an imperialist and an orientalist.

      The British were a strange folk, I'll never understand how you combine extreme cultural supremacism with extreme unwillingness to go about spreading the same. And I refuse to believe it was only racism that accounted for this.

      Lesson in this for you Americans. Cultural supremacism doesn't work unless you have enough people and the right people in said culture. Otherwise, you'll end up like old Britain: irrelevant.

    3. Kipling's views on the Boer war were very interesting and, mostly, clear eyed.

      A Sahib's War, for instance. It perfectly illustrates Kipling's notions of racial hierarchy in the usual offensive way, but he had the political situation quite clear and it's not at all favorable to the British. While still wildly racist, he states plainly that deploying the Indian regiments would have sorted the whole thing out promptly and efficiently, because the Indians aren't a bunch of gullible idiots, like the British.

      Although, of course, they're still inferior.