Thursday, July 21, 2005

US environs

Ambitions are low. I’ve been derelict from duty for the past two weeks for two very good reasons: a) Visiting family in Connecticut, and b) catching up with friends in Toronto. To say the very least, the time away was constructive -- and calming. The day I arrived in Hartford was the day of the London Bombings and, naturally, security was tight. My sister recalls hearing F-14 fighter jets flying over-head as she came to pick me up from the train station; and surrounding the station were numerous members of the US law enforcement apparatus, bomb-sniffing dogs, first responders, and, possibly, characters in radiological suits. (Though, this may have just been a peculiarly dressed individual.)

Somehow the overall mood seemed to be tepid, as though absolutely no threat existed, even though the transit systems are likely the most porous and vulnerable when it comes to point of weakness -- but nevertheless.

Connecticut is a breath-taking vision of pastoral with its Classical, Colonial and Victorian architecture, expansive and florid green-spaces, and historical landmarks. I had the opportunity to pass by Mark Twain’s Manor. And interestingly enough, I passed through the Berkshires, a prominent local in Saul Bellow’s Herzog, a novel that I’m currently reading.

There were, of course, no shortage of American flags; and the national pastime, contrary to popular falsehoods, is not baseball but shopping. I truly believe that ‘Hearts and Minds’ could easily be won over if detractors of all things Americana were sent through the extravagance of a shopping mall. Shopping is good -- but good for a reason. I now understand why Americans are the most productive people in the world -- their stores, it seems, never close. Consumption is a socializing and collectivizing force, first, and a patriotic refrain, second. The sales tax kicks in only after a certain amount, making many of my purchases incredibly economical.

But then there is the inequality. Almost as stark as it is in Washington, Connecticut could move quickly from uber-affluence to desolate squalor. It’s only a two minute drive from the Governor’s Mansion to crack-houses and car-jackings. This is the Two Americas that John Edwards so breathlessly and eloquently speaks of.

And yet, what struck me as constituting the underlying ethos of America was its entrepreneurial verve. Literally everyone is trying to make a dollar -- trying to attain that upward mobility so embodied in the American dream. The pitiful thing that stuck with me is how unquestionably popular Bush is when it comes to the economic argument. The 'Ownership Society' rhetoric has been appealing to the middle class, pinched on both sides by the vast entitlement tax-encroachment and the tax-avoiding, tax-sheltering, tax-haven plutocrats. But Bush’s 'Ownership Society' rhetoric is just that: rhetoric. The substance, pace R. Salam, has been a thin greul.

Unless they’ve already been obsolesced, the Democrats need to speak bread and butter to the electorate -- pocket-book issues resonate. Though, this is far easier to say since, as Kulturkampf persist, the Republicans have been successful at framing the debate around values—a debate they’ve soundly thrashed the Democrats in. On balance, my time in Connecticut was good.

Toronto was altogether another story. The city is always beautiful, always vibrant. The nightlife is extraordinary, there is too much to do, too many places to go. Celebrities and athletes mix with quasi-celebrities and quasi-athletes in clubs that putatively have guest lists but admit commoners. The city pulses at two-thirty-am when the bars and clubs let out, enveloping its denizens as they wander the formidable maze of heated concrete and elevated steel at altitudes close to Olympian. There is a depth and context to one’s surrounding, as if this is the three-dimensional and anything else you’ve otherwise encountered is ersatz. It is a city, in a continent, in an era whose history is being debated, written, shaped. For a moment, one is on history's stage, involved in a series of events with no particular coherence to their agents (us). Are we history's objects, simply being acted upon, or are we the subjects pushing the narrative? What will they say of our generation, of our culture?

My friends are always my friends and the city is always hot.

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