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Friday, May 28, 2010

Quantifying Culture

As published in Common Dreams, Counterpunch, Dissident Voice and Online Journal, 5/25/10:





Living up to its name, Yahoo News is more jive than jazz. Recently, it featured a “human interest” story of an American who had traveled to every country on earth but three. At each, he tended to stay no more than three days, eating strictly American food at the hotel or McDonald’s. This lawyer from Minnesota is not the most well traveled on earth, however. Not by far. That honor belongs to another American, Charles Veley, who has been to 821 countries, states, regions and territories, including nearly impossible to reach atolls and reefs with no human population.

Veley also maintains a website, Most Traveled People. Among the top ten, only three are not American. What we have here is not just wanderlust but the need to tick off one’s conquests, a trait that is most pronounced in the American character. In sports, we are the most obsessive of statisticians. No one else even comes close. Compare the bare bone box scores of soccer, for example, to the labyrinthine tallies and measurements that accompany our baseball, basketball and football. Foreigners only care who scored. We keep track of anything that can be counted. When it comes to trivia, we know all the numbers. Your average American has memorized the height, weight and years played of many sport stars. Concerning issues that truly matter, like the corporate looting of our treasury, real unemployment rate or federal deficit, projected to surpass 1.6 trillion this year, we don’t give a puck. What’s a trillion, anyway? The Flyers came back from a 3-0 deficit. Now, that’s impressive. Drowned in inconsequential digits, we are oblivious to figures that could illuminate how up the septic creek we really are. Our deceivers do have a sick sense of humor, though. For their core inflation index, food and fuel costs don’t factor in, but what are those if not “core” expenditures?

In football, the one American sport to which the rest of the world except Canada is completely indifferent, many players are given credit for “yards gained.” This is only too appropriate for a highly mobile people inhabiting a near continent size, still sparsely populated country that was frontier not that long ago. Many of us, if not our fairly recent forebears, have also traversed great distances to get here, so yards gained indeed. For Native Americans, it’s yards lost, however, as it is for Hawaiians, Samoans and other miscellaneous beneficiaries of big box shopping, Jerry Springer and SPAM musubis. But stop moping already. Better luck next century. Think Cubs!

The open road is a metaphor for endless possibilities. In the American context, this elation was first and best articulated through Walt Whitman: “Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, / Healthy, free, the world before me.” Whitman’s entire oeuvre is one sustained song of the open road. Life is defined and renewed through intercourse with the multitude, just out there. Born in Brooklyn, Whitman got as far as New Orleans, then as now the most exotic of American cities, but for his last two decades, he was confined to Camden, New Jersey. For amusement, he rode the ferry back and forth between it and Philadelphia, enjoying the crowd and not getting off. It was sort of a bargain cruise for our aging bard. Unlike more affluent contemporaries, Whitman never made it to Europe. The poet may have sung of India and China, but he never left this country except for one brief trip to Toronto.

Eighty percent of Americans don’t own passports, so most of us haven’t gotten very far either. For many, the easiest way to escape Quiet Desperation Township or the inner city is to join an Army of One, or the Few, the Proud! Este e mi Pais! With 737 military bases in 130 countries, that’s a lot of exciting destinations. Adventure galore! While the rich gargle chianti in Florence, you can immerse in the richness of Helmand or Fallujah. There’s nothing like depleted uranium in your coffee, Ma, Cynthia McKinney be damned!

When Whitman did travel, at least he didn’t do so in a private steel box hurling past the same corporate signs from sea to shining sea, with their huge letters, designed for speeding motorists, blighting the landscape. To encourage recreational driving, car companies made films promoting the Sunday drive. To sex up their products, they sponsored races. The open road became circular and led nowhere, yet millions continue to pay to stare at vehicles going round and round, wasting fuel and befouling the atmosphere, for hours.

Acceleration has become its own religion. Faster! Faster! Leaving Whitman, I present to you the Black Eyed Peas: “We are the now generation / We are the generation now / This is the now generation / This is the generation now / I want money // I want it, want it, want it / Fast internet, / Stay connected hit eject / Wi-fi, Podcast / Blastin' out a SMS / Text me and I text you back.” Enough, shoot me already.

As the oil age winds down, the road movie fantasy, starring each one of us, no longer has much traction. There will be no economic recovery, no more growth, because that cheap and most versatile fuel for it, oil, has reached peak supply. As the oil pump looses pressure, money itself sputters. There are also peak water, peak minerals, peak fish, peak top soil and just about anything else you can think of. On a finite planet, there can’t be infinite economic or population growth. At some point, resources will start to run out, and that moment happens to be now.

There are those who still think that technology will save the day, but technology is only the means to use what you already have, not replenish what’s being depleted. Again, we don’t need to run out of oil, only to have demand outstrip supply to trigger a chaotic and violent global plunge. For many, this has been a thrilling roller coaster ride. For others, only degradation and death. For a century now, oil has been the unspoken subtext behind too many wars to list.

Since 51% of Americans don’t believe in evolution, they apparently cannot comprehend that we are squandering millions of years of carbohydrate in one bloody speed orgy. Having a telescoped notion of the past, they also cannot project into the distant future. Hankering for the world to end, obsessed with end time, they are counting the days and don’t care that this earth is being destroyed. Drill, baby, drill and climate change is merely a hoax. We’re leaving soon, anyway. In the 1940’s, the Turkish poet, Nazim Hikmet, wrote:


This earth will grow cold,
a star among stars
and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet—
I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
in pitch-black space ...
You must grieve for this right now
—you have to feel this sorrow now—
for the world must be loved this much
if you're going to say "I lived"


[translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk]









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About Me

Born in Vietnam in 1963, I came to the US in 1975, and have also lived in Italy, England and Germany. I'm the author of a non-fiction book, Postcards from the End of America (2017), two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), six of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007), Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009) and A Mere Rica (2017), and a novel, Love Like Hate (2010). I've been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around the World, etc. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013). My writing has been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Reykjavik, Toronto, Singapore and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.