On Sunday Jason and I drove our loaner car the 440 miles from Spokane to the Oregon Coast. We’ll be here for two weeks with a collection of family members, plenty of sea air, and a grill. The contrast from Spokane to this holiday haven is striking, for understandable reasons. A post-industrial city in the Inland Empire versus a coastal getaway for urbane Portlanders, the odd Seattleite, the occasional Californian. The streets are clean. No one is having a public breakdown. No one is shouting. The trash is in the containers and is emptied on Tuesday morning. The cars are expensive and new. The children are clean and well cared for. This is the America that most Europeans assume is the reality for most Americans. In reality it is elite. Money can buy peace and calm in certain enclaves. I am reading The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler and her imaginative prescience is a marvel to behold. How did she imagine Los Angeles in 2024 so vividly in directions that events actually took us? The drought, the guns (the guns!), the inflation, the cost of living, the clannishness, the fear, the twisted faith. Her imagined endgame sounds an awful lot like the realistic response encouraged by a public intellectual of the left, Elizabeth Cronise McLaughlin, here.
How strange the drive on interstate highways, from Spokane to the Tri-Cities (Pasco, Kennewick, Richland), Umatilla, The Dalles, dodging speeding traffic and commercial trailers on I-84, through the Columbia River valley and past the three massive hydroelectric dams (John Day, The Dalles, Bonneville) that cut the water current to convert it into an electrical current. In Gresham east of Portland, the tent encampments appeared once more and dotted the shoulder, the underpasses, the higher fields and the margin before the fences begin. The desperation is in full view. It is hard to know if the person curled into the crook of the underpass is living or dead. It is shocking that this is the considered normal. Traffic speeds by. Suffering continues. No one slows down. No one stops. We didn’t. It is what it is. It sucks and there’s little anyone can do about it, says conventional wisdom. Drops in the ocean.
I am realizing, particularly on this trip, how the U.S. enshrines cruelty in its public policies, both affirmatively and by omission. It’s noticeable after living for six years in Italy. The U.S. is a G-7 country, so the country does not have a money problem. It’s one of the top economies globally. There are plenty of dollars, no matter what anyone says. People – people in power and with little power, people with no power – who live inside this culture turn a blind eye to suffering. There is no compassion vote. Even progressive people stop seeing the suffering. Everyone in America either has compassion fatigue or is suffering deeply. Or both. It wouldn’t be too costly to make things right for people, to ensure the dignity of people, through some basic programs. But there’s little political will to do it, and in America, much more political will to not do it. Hence tent cities, healthcare, the electoral mess, a breaking judicial system, food insecurity, uncertain or nonexistent housing, unequal access to education and childcare, no guaranteed retirement.
The meta-marketing from the U.S. about the U.S. is one of wealth and liberty. Few people outside of the U.S. would believe how the culture inflicts suffering on people, our collective wealth notwithstanding, even as American products – tech especially – are possibly our biggest export with global revenue in the trillions. Where does this revenue go? Why do our corporate successes and dominant products fail to translate into a higher standard of living? A livable life, a livable city, a manageable life. A life your grandparents would want, a life that will be kind to your children. A life that you would want your loved ones to inherit. A place where you would want to live out your days.
The New York Times recently ran a clear-eyed piece on the American scam. The American economy and system are not working for anyone except perhaps those at the very top of the food chain – the fact that I even describe it as a food chain is a sign of how deeply ingrained American culture has taught us to eat or be eaten. We all stay so busy, busy, busy in America. We have to, because if we stop to catch our breath, we fall behind, declare bankruptcy, fail to survive, disappear. We have to move far away for work. We have to keep the job for the health insurance, the 401(k) retirement plan. We can’t take days off because that might make it seem like we don’t want to work, which will negatively impact our opportunities for promotions and wage increases. And everyone in America always needs a wage increase, because no one’s compensation (or fixed income) can keep pace with inflation.
Americans do not make a conscious choice to forego compassion. Community and compassion are bred out of us by the culture. Sure, I’d like to be compassionate, we think, but I’m having struggles and troubles of my own over here that are a fairly big deal to me, so take care of it, buddy. Do you best, we wish you well. Compassion requires that we slow down, look around, take stock, but the culture does not permit us to do any of those things. It’s not ethical to forbid someone to keep their earnest observations to themselves, but it is often done when an unhealthy relationship, church, community, or nation-state insists on its self-perpetuation. But truth will out, one way or another. I fear that U.S. culture will soon breed compassion out of all its people. We will be left holding a very ugly, very cruel bag indeed.
There is a deep collective fear among Americans of slipping backwards, because there is no net. Like that American tourist in Pompeii this week who tried to take a selfie on the lip of the Vesuvian crater, stumbled and fell in. To Vesuvius. An active volcano that everyone knows is active and lethal. A rescue team pulled him out unconscious from the crater shelf 45 feet below, but had his fall not been broken, he could have fallen 1000 feet. He was hiking on a closed path. He did not wish to be taken to a hospital. He will be charged with something under Italian law. I feel this is a fitting metaphor on which to end.
Wait, except for one more point. Please slow down. See things with new eyes, for what they are.