On this blog, it is my prerogative to have epiphanies about things everyone else already knows and understands and accepts, and then write about said epiphanies as if what I have written is a revelation of some sort and I am a genius. This tends to happen to me most of all when I read anything old, such as old literature, or old non-fiction books, and I realize that the world has never really been any different than it is now, and the ways of the righteous, the progressive, and the liberal pretty much always win out in the end because it is, in fact, the prerogative of evolution to be inherently liberal. This happened to me in a very big way this week reading Travels With Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck, in which Steinbeck, in 1960, with his poodle, Charley, drives in a camper 10,000 miles from one side of America to the other, then back again. It’s a fascinating travelogue filled with lots of witty, sensitive insight about this great and tragic country we call the United States of America.
What I think I found most interesting were his complaints about the homogenization of America; the obliteration of regional dialects because of television; the new big business agriculture which was just starting to take hold in the country, and which Steinbeck quite rightly predicted would eventually make us all sick and kill us; how bland the food is; and how vehicles, traffic, highways, and the rapidly expanding suburbs were beginning to strangle our culture and lifeblood and turn our once vibrant, diverse and exciting cities into lifeless tombs.
What aroused in me something besides smug validation, though, was the fourth part of the book, where Steinbeck writes extensively about traveling through Texas (a land he says people either passionately love or passionately hate, and while he kindly withholds judgment, he makes it pretty clear where his feelings lie), and then through New Orleans to witness a group of women who call themselves “the Cheerleaders” in action. At the time these “bestial and filthy” women were making national headlines by standing outside a federally segregated school (it must have been nice to live in an era when politicians, and especially presidents, had a spine) to daily scream at, harass, curse, threaten, and try their damnedest to intimidate a single tiny (described as a “mite” by Steinbeck) black girl attending an all-white school. Steinbeck’s account of being privy not only to these women but the crowd of hundreds who came every morning and every afternoon to cheer the “cheerleaders” on, is heart-wrenching. The hate and fear that resided in all of these people’s blackened hearts must have been a terrifying sight to behold, and while I was reading this chapter with an increasingly heavy heart, it reminded me of what is happening in the United States today, most notably the feverish bile on full and proud display in the “town hall meetings” happening around the country. As my new favorite writer Joe Bageant wrote recently regarding health care reform:
Ideology has utterly triumphed. It has separated us from ourselves and built itself a home inside our consciousness, from whence it operates now as our reality. There is no going back, only forward. Given that we are a nation of children who prefer to close our eyes and make a hopeful wish with Tinkerbelle, rather than give hope the piss test, then let us hope to high hell. We may as well go for broke. So let us hope that, in going forward, new and unforeseen developments in the national consciousness occur. Developments that offer an escape from this one so deeply colonized by the corpo-political machinery we created — and which in turn recreated us. One that will break us loose from enthrallment. Maybe collision with a giant asteroid. Or that Garth Brooks will be barred from making a fifth comeback tour. That’s one hope. A consciousness shattering event by American standards.
Another hope is for an absolute and total collapse of the system.
“Progress” has been referred to in metaphor as giving birth: it’s ugly, noisy, and messy, and god damn, it hurts like hell, but in the end, it’s worth it. This has been the case throughout history.
Steinbeck makes the astute hypothesis that the South is so unwelcoming to outsiders because when a person (or a society) is ashamed of what they are doing, they don’t like to have witnesses to said shameful behavior because they then view the witnesses as the ones causing the trouble, like the guy Steinbeck meets in Louisiana who, when he sees his New York license plates, says to him, “It’s the goddamn New York Jews cause all the trouble.”
As scary as the South is now, it must have been one of the scariest places on Earth in the early 1960’s. Steinbeck was so disturbed and troubled by his experience in New Orleans that he aborted the rest of his trip and drove straight home, deflated and depressed, back to New York.
Many things have changed and improved in the United States since 1960, but there will always be new enemies, new progress to fight and rebel against, and new groups of people to hate and oppose and fear. But always, the rage, the bile, the hatred, the violence, the fear, the clinging to the old and inefficient ways of conducting business, is a direct response to progress, to the inevitable march forward and on to better things.
There is at least some comfort in that.