magine the United States through the eyes of two-year-old David James. As an infant, he delighted his visiting grandparents with insatiable brays and stomps. Now, 18 months later, they are interlopers who interrupt him as he stares at “Toy Story” on a 27-inch flat screen television. Since discovering video six months ago, he’s watched the movie repeatedly (or “multiple times,” as it goes here). Animation has commandeered his imagination. Later, he will again bray and stomp to everyone’s applause, but not now. A “Do Not Disturb” sign hangs around his soft neck.
His young mother laments his short attention span and slow-to-form words. She wants him to depend less on slickly manufactured images. But David James eludes these concerns. Like many of his nimble contemporaries and (older) counterparts, he wants only to watch what he likes, when he pleases. The next day, after adamantly refusing to sit still for dinner, “Toy Story” is restarted on the DVD. Its mesmeric hold gives working motherhood a break. “On multiple occasions,” she says, “the boy rules.”
Which suits the times.
To appreciate America’s self-involved gusto — its “great hugeness,” as Jack Kerouac once put it — means accepting ruined attention span. In a land of boundless consumer choice (the first such grand bazaar in history), distraction is a shared state. In this sense, David James is America’s Everyman, and its perfect exhibitionist. His need is his creed. What he craves is what he thinks he’s entitled to. Unsatisfied, he wails, imagining himself a victim of dastardly forces. He’s an entitled adult in miniature. And he’s not alone.
Spend a month here — in large cities and suburbs — and you see an eager, ambitious people groping for prospects they can’t fully identify. Destabilized by abundance and hyperbole, sincere but artless, Americans are more unsure than ever what global pre-eminence entails. They cringe at Iraq, an alien and bloody slum, and embrace Italy, pregnant with imagined sophistication. The world’s convulsions (China’s and India’s ascent, noticed on product labels and sensed in outsourcing) seem either predestined or contrived by conspiratorial forces well outside the Everyman reach.
Then there’s the incendiary Internet, which has ruffled the American landscape as early television did in its heydey. “Skimmers and dippers” is how journalist Craig Stoltz labels the millions of online users and dabblers. What he doesn’t say is that skimming isn’t reading and dipping not swimming.
The Internet is a participatory comic book. Bloggers and pundits, free-form crooners of inconsistent skill, bay at each other as if trained in Latin revelry. Petulance slips into work and play. Judgment is swift and harsh. Even relationship columns spit venom: “Get out and be grateful he made it so easy. Jerk. Own your life. Some people won’t like it. Tough.”
Tough is right.
It’s no surprise propriety falters in an affluent, carb-phobic society that panders to fitness. The result, however, is a raunchy, frontier-town mood that rejects humility, mortifies shame, and (since 9/11) acquiesces to authority — a 21st-century manifestation of cultural reluctance. Dissent and eccentricity are Darwinian casualties, as is privacy. “The drive is to fit in, look good and get ahead,” writes The New York Times in a hackneyed but accurate assessment. A line from the novelist Justin Cartwright says it better: “Success, the accumulation of money, for example, depends upon narrowing the vision.”
Even Fonda-Stewart steadfastness, America’s nonpartisan postwar emblem, yields to institutional fish-mongering that mistakes data for intelligence and gossip for literacy. Quietude, except around children, is outmoded.
Fortunately, humor is not.
“What do you call someone that speaks two languages?” asks a student waiter at a local restaurant.
“And someone who speaks three languages?”
“And someone who speaks one language?”
“American,” he grins.
But wit and empathy roil the corporate grail.
A friend tells a story of his teenaged daughter whose teacher announced she needed only to finish the line “I want to be…” to write a “poem.” The girl put down, “I want to be a good person…” but was marked down and gently admonished. “I was looking for a profession,” the teacher explained.
While YouTube, Facebook, and video-game avatars monopolize impressionable minds, the virtual world is non-intimate and bereft of moral demands.
So-called “social networking” sites intoxicate supposition and satisfy voyeurism. The same with email. People communicate with increasing difficulty and confide at their own risk. Workplace decisions are the vexing product of consensus winnowed from options with focus groups in between. Professionalism ratifies shortcuts while both hopeful and disingenuous propaganda are sold as “intelligence” — witness the Iraq war.
Jargon in turn depends on words such as “awesome” and “cool,” simplified adjectives bereft of substance. The general impoverishment of eloquence (and the evaporation of discretion) permits women to bemoan overly-ample “butts” while ironically accusing the inseminating gender of vulgarity. Free time, in turn, is defined by its scarcity, encouraging the primacy of the gym-rat casual.
The adolescent vernacular also reels in teenaged adults.
“Impact” joins “contact” as a faux-verb. Pharmaceuticals are called “meds” and peddled as if they had animus. The American penis, its boldness impaired, has girding blue pills advertised with big top ferocity. Lust shops orifices for show though sex itself is transmitted impersonally — “doing it” or “hooking up.”
Ill-defined woes are “issues” or “dysfunctions” while having an “agenda” is to possess goals. “Bonding” passes for cameraderie and “demographics” is a catch-all euphemism for public preference. “Like” temporizes idly, “totally” emphasizes sillily, and “whatever” (kin to “stuff”) honors imprecision. “Way,” “so,” and “hot” dunk further hurry into speech that reveres exclamation points. To paraphrase novelist Lorrie Moore, conversation has lost its composer.
Meanwhile, redundancy’s composure remains intact.
An email from one George Devois is signed “Jaxon Commercial Finance, Healthcare Financial Services, Finance” (a slang retort might be, “D’ya think!”) Then there’s Gene Cohen, a Harvard-trained expert on aging — self-styled experts proliferate — who recently told Washingtonian magazine that elderly people living alone can learn to adapt. How he explained himself was another matter: “You can’t look at decrements in isolation because they’re accompanied by positive adaptation.”
In fairness, Cohen’s brain-fog is the norm. Obfuscation is wisdom to the multi-tasking awestruck. Since few demand clarity, fewer feel compelled to deliver it. Amid slang and fashionable dissembling, lucidity and structure become obsolete. The musician Donald Fagan, a founding member of the band Steely Dan, sensed this long ago. “Americans have always had an essentially anti-intellectual character,” he told music writer Mike Zwerin in 1993. “One of the good things about that is they never let thought get in the way of action. They go ahead and do things other people would just think about.” But the downside worried him: “You end up with no content, no values.” He rued the day when indiscriminate sentimentality would break art’s heart. It has.
“Today’s students and academics,” John B. Judis wrote recently in The New Republic, “don’t appear as interested in fundamental questions about life, death, love, and history.” A disciple of social anthropologist Ernest Becker (for whom mortality was life’s fossil fuel), Judis suggests that the September 11 attacks furthered the “ascendancy of politicians who exploited the fear of death that lies within us all.” A frightened public urged an otherwise ordinary leader to establish himself as a headstrong if tacky pater familias.
According to Judis, the mood has changed.
Yet nameless nervousness persists. Thwarted terrorist schemes are broadcast in lurid, clarion tones as if post-9/11 menace required reverberation to sustain and satisfy the hyperbolic zeitgeist.
Even the 2008 presidential campaign — though not yet at a gallop — is closer in spirit to “Toy Story” Technicolor than to the “fundamental questions” Judis raises. Front-running Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, though luminously alert, suffer from inevitable overexposure. They are “emoticons” — geek-speak for email faces. Contending Republicans, less adept at self-promotion and saddled with an ostracized president, read tea leaves cluelessly. Both sides know that only gaffes will stir public opinion before the anointed candidates face off in high-profile televised debates a year from now.
DAVID JAMES’ FATHER isn’t holding his breath. He loathes federal interference, deplores Washington bailouts, and says bad loans are as much the responsibility of those who apply for them as banks that default. He’s a 37-year-old firefighter who watches the History Channel and admires China for pulling out the stops to become a world power. He wants David James to learn Chinese. “He’ll need it,” he says.
His apparent populism might seem odd in a liberal Massachusetts setting. In truth, it’s less contingent on political allegiance than a belief — a Puritanical nod to self-reliance — that Washington (whether Bill Clinton’s or George W. Bush’s) is relevant to David James only in the way it siphons dad’s hard-earned tax dollars. David James’ father bemoans his fire station colleagues. Most drink and gamble, he says. Some hit their wives. All of them complain compulsively. “What do they have to complain about?” he asks.
Lately, his anti-government stance has extended to include the Iraq war, which he considers foolish, and the detention of terrorist suspects, perceived as an offense to due process. “Public safety must trump private rights,” The Washington Post editorialized in August. Not so, counters David James’ father. If public safety is important, private rights are sacred. Foreign meddling is useless. “Let them blow themselves up over there,” he says of Iraq. “You can’t make them be us. Every change-the-world war has failed.”
This from a fireman.
His Umberto Bossi-style isolationism emerges only when he denounces migrant workers, illegal aliens who have drifted north from the Americas in greater numbers since the 1994 NAFTA free trade accords. In his crewcut neighborhood, Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Peruvians do dirty work for modestly entitled locals —just as Italians and Turks once formed West Germany’s menial underclass. On the one hand, he respects the migrant work ethic (“the ones that don’t drink”); on the other he perceives them as a shiftless threat to his livelihood. He does want David James to learn Chinese; he does not want Spanish made obligatory in American schools. “Let them learn English. They came here.” The paradox nags at him.
But his most tender moments are reserved for his son. He cradles him, tosses him into the air, checks products for contaminants, inserts “Toy Story” into the DVD whenever David James points that way. If it’s not “Toy Story,” then “Dumbo.” He volunteers for extra shifts, kisses his wife in the morning and at night, sips a beer from time to time, watches no sports, and embraces contemporary documentaries like precious gifts of insight made only for him. “Did you know,” he says, his eyes bright, “that in World War II the German bombers, when they got desperate at the end of the war, actually tried ramming Allied planes? I saw a program about it. They had these old pilots, American, British, and German…”
Not once in a five-day stay does he use “awesome” or “cool”; never does he call doctors “health care professionals”; nor is “outreach” a substitute for help. I point this out. “I just don’t understand that language,” he says. “I saw where they called someone who looks at Web headlines a ‘news consumer.’ What does that mean, that he eats the news?”
Uninterested in the celebrity news his wife swears by (when she has time), he aligns his collection of fire engine photographs on the wall of the den he built from a concrete basement. In the playroom are Lego blocks and a small wooden railroad where David James can push and shove models if he feels like it. If it weren’t 2007, you might imagine the year as 1955. Which may be the father’s intention. “Does the kid love his DVD and gadgets?” he asks. “You bet. Does he still want to play around here? Yes. You can play in all kinds of ways. Kids just need to be directed. It’s up to their parents. The point is that he doesn’t become addicted to the TV or the DVD.”
I’m again reminded of Kerouac, “the tremendous energy of a new kind of American saint” — not because David James’ father is a saint, or even close, but because a citizenry by definition admits both the loutish and the compassionate.
We are interrupted by David James’ mother, who enters the room slapping the pages of a magazine. “Listen to this,” she laughs. “When Paris Hilton was released from jail she had 698 BlackBerry messages. She says they made her decide who was important and who wasn’t… I guess that means she’ll have to work on her address book…”
But the very young American pops up behind her. He surges with smiles and runs great rings around the kitchen in shoes that glow orange and white. His grandparents chase him merrily. Suddenly, he’s in the yard, naked, with a plastic baseball bat and a ball.
“Throw,” he commands.
And he swings.