So much for American Exceptionalism
When and where you are born determines many of the assumptions you grow up with. For example, there’s a laundry list of things certain (white) people in the United States take for granted. Like many girls of my generation, I grew up simply assuming that one day I would marry a man, have babies, live in a house that we owned and, of course, we would each have our own car. There would be retirement accounts and yearly vacations as well.
These were not assumptions my parents had growing up even though that’s what they attained as adults. Well, not the retirement accounts bit.
I’m the oldest of four sisters. I’m the only one to — first by chance and now by choice — not follow up on (most of) those assumptions. I did get married. Twice. But the rest of the package has gone unopened. When I somehow emerged from a two-decades-long brown-out without having subjected any poor innocent to life with me as a mother I heaved a huge sigh of relief and got my backside to a lady doctor toot sweet. The Pill, please, and make it snappy.
As to owning a home or property of any kind, yeah, that’s a hard pass. Clearly, it seems to work for many people and there’s a built-in belief in this country that owning property is what one does to ensure stability and build equity.
Building equity is almost as unfathomable to me as sustained quarterly growth. Pure fantasy as we’re beginning to see.
Oh, and don’t even get me started on cars.
There are other assumptions that are so basic, so foundational to the experience of millions of people in the U.S. and much of Europe that it’s coming as a reverberating shock to find they aren’t a given. You know, like having clean water when we turn the tap in our kitchens (talk to the people in Flint, Michigan about that one). Reliable central heating when it’s cold out. Reliable air conditioning when it’s hot. Full shelves in the grocery store.
Scrrreeeching halt and double spit take.
A friend in rural Michigan recently told me that she can't find eggs or milk at the local grocery store on some days. This in the middle of farm country.
She told me about that in December but it’s not something that hit the front of everyone’s screens but then we had that sudden and inexplicable shortage of baby formula. Wha? Hell, next you’ll try to tell us that there’s a shortage of coins so stores will be asking that we use exact change when we buy that last package of Enfamil on the shelf. Crazy talk.
We — and by we I mean white tax-paying consumers with 2.5 children, 3 cars, and a home in the country — are about to run headfirst into reality (so I guess I don’t really mean “we” because that ain’t me, Ma). Reality being the inescapable fact that the center is not holding. Certain things have begun whipping off the edges of this juggernaut many think of as being our stable, predictable world.
Here’s something to make you pause before ordering that Caramel Ribbon Crunch Frappuccino® Blended Beverage: white people in the United States of America are not the only people on this planet who want stuff. And this is a surprise because…? We didn’t really think that blanketing the world with advertising porn in the form of superhero movies and re-runs of "Friends" wouldn’t give people ideas? If Joe and Jane Somethingsomething out there in Boise, Idaho expect to move into a three-bedroom Colonial on two acres in a subdivision once little Joey Jr. is on the way, you best believe Sunil and Kaashvi किञ्चित्किञ्चित् in Mumbai expect something comparable. They’ll each want their own cars as well.
It’s crazy enough that 334,569,983 people in one country — the U.S. — expect to have these things but when nearly 8 billion people want them, well, something’s got to give.
And that something is the habitable environment of this planet.
Say I suddenly had the power to snap my fingers and distribute all the resources currently existing in this world equitably among all the people (humor me here). There! Isn’t that nice? No more poverty. No more squabbling over who has what and who doesn’t.
Oh, wait. You didn’t think that meant everyone gets the house, the two-point six acres, the cars and the home in the country, did you?
Maybe you’ll need to sit down for this one, Mr. and Mrs. So-Called-Average American: these things you believe you’re entitled to? Great big stand-alone houses, luxury apartments, SUVs, cheap gas, top-name schools for the kiddies, pedigreed pooches, pedicures on demand, degree from an Ivy League university, surround-sound entertainment centers, in-ground backyard swimming pools, shopping-as-recreation, central air-conditioning, vacation cruises, personal assistants, and a pool table for the man-cave are probably making their last circle around the drain.
At least we’d better hope so.
The gods are patient. When we don’t learn a lesson the first time through — or the twentieth — they absolutely will keep repeating the lesson until we get it. It would appear that about all we have taken away from this latest lesson, meaning the visit of our friend The Virus, is how to quickly move in-person activities onto Zoom. We are sitting ducks for the next one and don’t you fear…there will be a next one.
And another apparently unlearned lesson?
This country is not exceptional. It’s just like all the other rich powerful countries that thought they would rule the world forever. Well, we do seem to excel in gobbling up resources at an unprecedented rate while neglecting to provide basics such as shelter, health care, and good food for our subjects, er, citizens. Even the Romans trotted out bread and circuses for the masses and they still only managed 507 years of Imperial Glory.
I was down in Washington Square Park recently. Watching those many, many young people pushing strollers it’s clear that all those carved-in-granite American Assumptions are still solidly in place.