Everywhere there’s signs…”

 August 8th 2011

 About 25 years ago, I was at an airport on the west coast and overheard two travelers, apparently from Germany, being greeted by their host, a local resident and presumably an American. They had been voyaging around the US for a couple of weeks, their first visit here, and their host asked them what they thought of America.

Since I had nothing better to do than wait for luggage, and no morals to speak of, I eavesdropped shamelessly. The two Germans, speaking accented English, were effusive in their praise of how friendly Americans were and the rich variety of items to be bought anywhere. This was early in the Reagan presidency, when America still indisputably had the highest standard of living in the world and the middle class, unaware that they had passed their peak, were living high.

Then one of the Germans said something that brought me up short and forced me to stifle a laugh. “Oh, but there are so many signs! Every where you look, there is a sign for everything.”

“I’ve never been in a place so regimented,” the other chimed in.

That’s when I nearly laughed. The stereotype of Germans is that they are very officious and controlled, and nothing is permitted unless there are direct orders permitting it. Like most stereotypes, it was a mass of unthinking malice surrounding a small grain of truth, and my upbringing in post-war London had not taught me any great love of German culture.

But I met many Germans since my childhood, and traveled through Germany, and the war-tinged caricatures of my childhood had eroded. But I still thought of Germans as being somewhat anal, so the complaint about signs and regimentation tickled my funny bone.

Then I looked around myself. I was in an airport. Even in the 80s, the place was a forest of signs, telling people to do this here, and do that there, and what you couldn’t do here you could do over there…parking, lining up, getting luggage (“don’t take someone else’s luggage”) – hundreds of signs with velvet ropes and bored looking airport cops to enforce the signs. American airports have not improved in this regard since 9/11, mind you.

For the rest of the evening the lyrics of one great old song were going through my head. “Signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs. Fuckin’ up the scenery, breakin’ my mind . Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign …” The problem wasn’t limited to the US, for what it’s worth: the song was written and performed in 1970 by the Five Man Electrical Band, a Canadian group from my home town of Ottawa. It’s pretty bad up there, too.

Those German tourists did to my awareness what the Sixties could not, and made me aware of just how authoritarian the American culture was becoming. It took someone whose very accent conjured up impressions of blind acceptance of arbitrary orders to make me aware that it was happening all around me, and the song later to make me realize that it had been going on for some time.

Which brings us to 2011, a truly dismal year in American history. Once again, I’ve had a German voice point out an ongoing trait here that, once pointed out, is obvious.

At least this time around, I wasn’t amused by the fact that it was a German who said it. That stereotype died in 1985. Indeed, the fact that it was a German who said it added legitimacy, rather than seeming vaguely incongruous.

Jakob Augstein, writing for Der Spiegel, said, “The word ‘West’ used to have a meaning. It described common goals and values, the dignity of democracy and justice over tyranny and despotism. Now it seems to be a thing of the past. There is no longer a West, and those who would like to use the word — along with Europe and the United States in the same sentence — should just hold their breath. By any definition, America is no longer a Western nation.”


He’s right, of course. More and more, America has assumed the role of a cautionary fable. “Don’t be that guy.” I see it in the blogs on the Guardian, where bloggers point to American politics and media as examples to avoid for Britain. I see it in popular shows on the BBC and Canada’s CBC, where American officials are often portrayed as heavy-handed, bullying, authoritarian and doctrinaire. The US has, to an extent, replaced the USSR as world heavy in TV series.

It seems the Enlightenment has continued on without America. To the rest of the world, America is reminiscent of a massive super store at closing time—the crowds disperse, underpaid security guards lock the doors and check the hundreds of security cameras, and with loud clacks, bank after bank of lights are extinguished, leaving only a few to stand guard over an empty parking lot.

Americans, never celebrated for sophistication, are now viewed as loud oafs with an active antipathy toward knowledge. Europeans are amazed and perplexed that items such as evolution, climate change, and history are controversial in the United States. One Briton, returning from a summer sojourn in the American South, famously remarked, “It’s not the heat; it’s the stupidity.” If they find the ignorance perplexing, they have absolutely no idea how to handle the fact that in so many cases, the ignorance is both self-imposed and deliberate. These Americans don’t know commonplace truths because they haven’t been taught; they refuse to learn them because they conflict with crackpot religions or maniacal political ideologies that teach that any societal achievement is at best suspect and at worst evil.

How, they ask, is this even possible in a land that recently boasted the finest system of higher education in the world? Americans have even turned on their own schools, hideously underfunding half of them and then blaming the schools and even the poor kids for the results.

Augstein noted another element in the shocking decline of America: the huge gulf between the very rich and the rest of America. This, he feels, plays a big role. “The country’s social disintegration is breathtaking.” The rich take everything from the poor and the middle class, and then contemptuously sneer that they are the “job creators” (despite an actual unemployment rate of about 20%) and that the rest of the country they have robbed blind are parasites who don’t deserve “entitlements” such as pensions, health care, education or much of anything. Some of the class warriors in America are only a few steps away from telling the other 98% of the population they should count themselves lucky they aren’t simply rounded up and gassed. There is a class war in America which has been intensifying since 1980, and the vast majority of Americans have all but lost that war without so much as loud grumbling. To Europeans, who have all fought and won similar class wars in their past, the American passivity toward a contemptuous and undeserving elite is beyond comprehension.

Augstein concludes, “From a European perspective, it all looks very strange: it’s a different political culture. There are other rules at play, different standards. More and more we view America with the clear notion that we are different […] at least one good opportunity springs from America’s fate: The further the United States distances itself from us, the more we will (have to) think for ourselves, as Europeans. The West? That’s us.”

It’s a view widely shared outside of America, and, odd as it may seem, among the financial elites of the world. Capitalism is all fine and good, they feel, but America has lost its grip and come unraveled.

Say what you will about Standard and Poors. You can call them inept, crooked, morally and ethically bankrupt, incompetent and dishonest. I won’t argue. But a lot of what goes into their ratings of countries is based on purely subjective views of a national psyche. They consider the stability, even the basic sanity of a nation, perhaps even more closely then they do the balance sheet.

In the past few days they’ve caught flak for that, and not just from America. Often, S&P don’t have representatives in or even from the nations they are judging, and so really don’t know what the fuck they are basing their ratings upon. They are capricious and greedy, which is always a bad combination, and they don’t hesitate to screw countries that are vulnerable and in need.

But America’s dysfunction is so visible, so evident to all the world, that it’s nearly impossible to argue when Standard and Poors opined, “We lowered our long-term rating on the U.S. because we believe that the prolonged controversy over raising the statutory debt ceiling and the related fiscal policy debate indicate that further near-term progress containing the growth in public spending, especially on entitlements, or on reaching an agreement on raising revenues is less likely than we previously assumed and will remain a contentious and fitful process…The political brinkmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America’s governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed. The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy…We have changed our assumption on this because the majority of Republicans in Congress continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues, a position we believe Congress reinforced by passing the act.”

America is dysfunctional, and has gone astray from the values that made it great. In particular, it has lost the unique American trait that government is there to serve the people, rather than the other way around and that government should respond to the people, and not corporations, aristocrats, or churches.

The world knows this, and is getting very alarmed. They’ve seen it happen many times before, and the route back from such a decline is lengthy and painful.

And it is American voices that are making them unsure that America can pull back from the precipice on which America has placed itself.

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One Reply to “Signs”

  1. Discouraging but true. Well – written synopsis of things as they are and where they’re headed. We need to wake up from our torpor and rouse some People Power. Hard work but it’s possible…

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