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Brian Algra
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Being a Stupid American
'Lady Liberty had gone corporate—and the symbolism of her sell-out was a bit too much for me to bear. '

Picture the Statue of Liberty, exhausted after a hard day’s shopping, lingering on the sidewalk outside Bloomingdale’s. Her tablet has been replaced by a gift box, and her lamp is held aloft as a beacon to passing taxis. Or imagine her, if you prefer, collapsed in the back of a cab, where she is sleeping serenely, surrounded by a sea of brimming shopping bags.

These were the scenes that met my incredulous eyes last month in New York City—not, of course, on the streets of Midtown, but on the covers of the Christmas cards for sale at Century 21 in Lower Manhattan, across from where the World Trade Center used to be. At the time—and apparently alone in my alarm—I panicked at the sight. "Can it be," I mused, in my best imitation of Henry James, "that the mighty ideals of 1776 have been supplanted by a gift-wrapped parcel, and that Liberty’s once-eternal vigil slumbers now beneath the spell of a department-store sale?" It appeared that, whether she knew it or not, even Lady Liberty had gone corporate—and the symbolism of her sell-out was a bit too much for me to bear.

If this reaction seems like paranoia to you, then at least consider my situation on the day in question. Just the night before, while preparing to leave Great Britain (where I’ve been living for the last three years), I’d been challenged by a friend who’d chuckled at my eagerness to travel home for the holidays. "Come back to us in January," said she, "and explain to me how a smart bloke like you can be so proud to be a dumb American."

Her comment may have been a lighthearted one, but there was no mistaking its grounding in decades’ worth of bitter anti-Americanism. Indeed, in a sense, my friend was confronting me with little less than a pan-European idea of our country. To her, as to her cronies on the Continent, the United States was an aggressive, imperialistic big-business bugbear, an Evil Empire populated by fat, cretinous boors who were too busy slurping up Big Macs and Burrito Supremes to recognize their complicity in the dollar-driven rape of the world.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that, as far as I was concerned, my little English rose wasn’t exactly seeing the total picture. After all, world-raping is only one aspect of American identity. Surely there were others she should hear about, and surely it was up to me to carry back the message! So I took up her challenge, and set myself to spend my holiday season playing Paul Harvey to her Noël Mamère—to seek out, that is, "the rest" of the American story.

It was in this spirit of determination that I arrived in New York, and made my way down to the Trade Center site. There, I felt—there at Ground Zero, where it all went down—I’d be able to locate the foundations of a true American identity, and discover the proof that this great nation stands for more than just warmongering, capital gains and the Colonel’s secret blend of 11 herbs and spices.
At first glance, such proof seemed self-evident. Taking note of the site’s solemnities—from its lists of fallen ‘heroes’ to its grim-faced souvenir vendors, its scrawled messages of sympathy and patriotic fervor, and its congregation of transients playing ‘God Bless America’ on salvaged flutes—I was nearly stirred into a complacent faith in the Bush-proclaimed American values of "courage, compassion and resolve."

But then, alas, I crossed Cortlandt Street, stepped into Century 21, and stumbled across that godforsaken shopaholic Statue of Liberty. As the weight of her store-bought parcels started to pull at my mind, I found myself growing heavier and heavier with doubt. I came to wonder, for instance, whether those same grim-faced vendors, as they tried to sell their 9/11 postcards and programs, weren’t doing more for American retail than American "resolve." I wondered too about the constant choruses (both written and performed) of ‘God Bless America’: were they really anything more than mindless regurgitations of media-sanctioned clichés? And I even questioned those somber lists of September victims: by indiscriminately labeling the dead as ‘heroes’, didn’t they somehow belittle the individual scope of the tragedy, and practically prohibit us from interpreting their deaths as anything other than valiant sacrifices to "freedom?" In sum, I mused, weren’t all of these people—and all of these principles—merely the unwitting pawns of a corporate culture which packaged everything as a product to be sold to a pliable public?

I suddenly feared that my friends in Europe might be right. Perhaps the business of America really is just business; perhaps (as FDR once said) the epitome of our civilization really is the Sears Catalog. And perhaps it really is our collective duty, as good Americans, to reduce ourselves to mindless cogs in the spending machine.

If so, then I guess I should have whipped out my wallet and joined the holiday ratrace. But instead, during the weeks that took me from New York at Thanksgiving to L.A. by Christmas, I found myself sinking deeper into disgust at the utter extravagance of American consumption. How, I fretted, could so many otherwise reasonable people believe that they needed holiday-printed Pampers or extra Lexuses to make their lives complete? I was disgusted, alright: disgusted with the sheer excess of it all, and disgusted with the vacuousness of the masses who’d been fooled into buying so much stuff they plainly didn’t need.

Mostly, though, I was disgusted with myself. I was ashamed to feel so alienated, so out of the holiday loop, so desperate, so depressed, so European. I felt, in fact, like a Frenchman; like I was sitting at some Parisian café, reading Foucault and spitting at the passing American tourists for their ignorant enslavement to the power structures of the corporate élite. With each passing day, I shuddered still more at my ill favor, and I veritably prayed for deliverance. All I wanted for Christmas was redemption—a restoration of faith in my country and countrymen, as well as in my own place among them.

As things turned out, I got exactly what I asked for. My repatriation kicked off on Christmas morning, when, while perusing the community briefings in the LA Times, I discovered that firemen in Monrovia were handing out Barbies and Harry Potter dolls to kids without families. I saw too where a pair of young pianists, after playing holiday music in a Lakewood nursing home, capped off their performance with a rousing rendition of ‘God Bless America.’ And I saw that the homeless population of Manhattan had pooled its resources to present a book-loving cop (who had been suspended without pay, for refusing to arrest them) with $3000, and a gift certificate to Barnes & Noble. These people were using the products of a standardized American society, all right, but were their actions the actions of a people enslaved to the monarchs of Wal-Mart and Wall Street?

No, I thought: better to say, along with Mary McCarthy, that Americans "live among these objects, rather than by them." If we are sometimes blind to the insidious influences of our industrial civilization, it’s not because we want (or are compelled to want) its products so badly that they themselves become the focus of our desires. It’s because, in the sort of society we’ve created, we tend to trade those products as tokens of esteem for ourselves, and for those with whom we trade them.

Nowhere, I found, was this more evident than within my own household, on Christmas Day. Like the good folks in the newspaper, we too spent our morning swapping corporate products—products from The Body Shop, from Niketown and The Gap; products which, no doubt, had made themselves known to us via specially-engineered sales floors and advertising campaigns. And yet the atmosphere around our tree that afternoon was never one of avarice, of alienation or, as Louis Althusser would have it, of degraded "subjection to a ruling ideology." In our family anyway, no one really cared where a present actually came from, or how it was called to the giver’s attention—all anyone saw was the happiness it brought to those involved. Indeed, as gifts were exchanged and smiles spread about the room, I couldn’t help but notice how much better our so-called American imbecility looked from up close. So what if our optimistic outlook was founded upon a fundamental insensitivity to the Newspeak of the modern military-industrial complex? So long as it keeps us from moping around like French intellectuals, German politicians, or the entire population of Britain, then by God, I say, vive le stupidité!

Don’t get me wrong: I could never condone the material consequences of our national lapses of vision: our carelessness with the environment, for example, or our cynical exploitation of foreign labor, or the way we bring Burger Kings to the darkest corners of the earth. These, of course, are unacceptable injustices…but they’re not my current concern. Right now, I’m only worried about the European critics who contend that American life, as a result of its inattention to the social realities of a corporate culture, is singularly meaningless and debased. To their insipid accusations, I reply—in the grand tradition of General McAuliffe—"nuts."
Our particular brand of oblivion, if it even exists, likely enables the better parts of our nature; and it stems, in any case, not from evil or uncaring, but from a sort of blithe assumption that, when it comes to people and products, the most flattering explanation is probably the right one.

This Ockham’s-Razor sense of optimism is rare in the rest of the world, but here in these United States it is manifest in almost everything we think and do, both good and bad. It’s there in our determination to see our fallen friends as ‘heroes’; it’s there in our security failures, in our chirpy certainty that we live in "the greatest country in the world," and, as I have lately learned, in many a Christmas living room.

And it’s there, of course, in beginning of the year articles like this one—in articles which no sooner undercut our "American way of life" than—like Paul Harvey’s Algeresque radio addresses or Garrison Keillor’s small-town homilies—they turn around and prop it right back up again. Yes, it’s a rhetorical trap, the optimism that this column represents; it’s a quintessentially American cast of thought. Inevitably, it sucks us in; it packages us in its image and slings us into the back of that cab with a snoozing Lady Liberty. But hey—if nothing else, it preserves in us the expectation that people are good, and getting better. And this, I think, is not just something to hold on to—it’s something to be proud of.
That’s what I’m going to tell them in Europe, anyway.

© Brian Algra 2003
Edinburgh, Scotland
email your comments: banquos_ghost@hotmail.com

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