to my "Escape from America":
Even to a superficial observer, by now it should be clear that the US is totally one-sided, imbalanced society. It is a society which built the technologically most advanced military in the World, but can make almost nobody inside the country happy. When you measure success by the power to kill, by the amount of money you have, by the energy and resources you control, you have lost touch with the human soul. A poor Afghani peasant with two goats and his large Muslim family is happier than an average US person.
Despite making almost nobody in the US happy, the US elite wants to impose the same model of misery onto the rest of the World, they want to rule the World. I believe that the US will fall apart as a society before its World-control project is completed, unless the US causes a nuclear war. Soviet Union did not cause a Global Nuclear War when disintegrating, but the US might.
Very nice essay Linh.
The people mentioned in these anecdotes come across as rootless outsiders. They comment on familial bonds in their host countries; eventually it will occur to them that they are not and never can be “family.” They aren’t part of the volk. The one guy who put down roots somewhere besides the US appears to have done so within his own ancestral group.
This rootless, atomized existence is not good for people.
Expat life certainly isn’t for everyone, and I’ve known dozens of miserable expats. Of course, one gets the sense they’d be miserable at home too.
The American way of life is unique in the world and seems less able to satisfy our human desires than most traditional societies. American life seems characterized by an absence of tradituon, custom, ritual, and aesthetics, and seems centred on money at the expense of human ties or sensuous, aesthetic, elements.
The result is a somewhat flat, dull, textureless existence which breeds anomie and boredom. Immigrants to America most frequently mention the boredom they find here.
The pay off is in material abundance. Americans seem to be hostile to pleasure – all our various diets are just various attacks on pleasurable food. And yet we are fatter than countries which celebrate the sensuousness of food. The rich and high status aren’t supposed to enjoy their wealth, but rather cultivate ‘busyness’, a constant mindless activity, and a never ceasing ‘self-improvement’ and ‘optimization’ of everything, gradually squeezing out all joy and leading to a very dreary time for all.
Another element in American life which tends to flatten out and make dreary what could be a rich human existence is our scientific rationalism which we apply in all areas of life, and which paradoxically coexist with superstition and ignorance.
America was an experiment – basically, found a society as much as possible on rationalist prinxiples, which means expunge it of the sensuous, aesthetic, ritualistic elements that are vital to emotional and spiritual sarisfaction, reduce the web of human ties that provide satisfaction, and prioritize material satisfactions above all others, which leads to the cult of efficiency, hygiene, and money.
Material satisfactions and efficiency, up to a point, are vital to happiness. American exceptionalism was to make the material element the sole basis of an entire society.
Its the grotesque extension of one element of happiness, and far from the most important, to the exclusion of all else.
Freud thought the american experiment, since it so grotesquely ignored the rich texture of human emotional life, was a gigantic mistake.
He was clearly right.
But all things pass, even grotesque miscalculations about the human spirit. Sir john glubb surveyed all known empires and found they go through predictable phases and decline after about 250 years.
And so it will be with us.
I lived one year in the States. The most miserable year of my life. I went there to improve my English (which, living in Houston, was almost impossible: everybody talked to me in Spanish, even the English-speaking people, even when I insisted they use English with me). After a year, I said “enough is enough. I want to get out of this prison”.
Although it is an oversimplification, Carl Sagan said in the “The Dragons of Eden” that there are three parts in the brain: the reptilian brain (sex, status, money), the limbic brain (emotions, feelings) and the human brain (intelligence, beauty). When I got to the States, I said to myself: “My God, this is a completely reptilian country”. Money, money, money, sex, sex, sex, status, status, status, pride, pride, pride. Intelligence? Not so much. Culture? Very little. Feelings, friendship, human warmth, beauty? Not much. Common sense? Very rare. Family? They live in the same city and see each other once a year. Driving, working and spending money? A lot. Stupid regulations? Lots of them.
I used to play a little game when I was driving the long distances between home and work. I went to the street and count the number of people that I saw until I saw somebody smiling. Sometimes I could see nobody smiling for half an hour.
Yes, a lot of immigrants go there. Only the bottom of the social ladder: the ones that don’t have anything to lose. America has a lot of money (although it is so easy to spend it). Immigrants, as people who work minimum-wage job, gather a bit of money to send to their families in their countries, because the exchange favors them. In the home country, things are cheap so their families live better.
I know that this can be offensive for a lot of people. I don’t blame Americans. They are mostly good people and the most honest people in the planet. They are mostly devoid of envy and bad feelings. They are trustworthy and trust other people (this is why they have been oppressed by the elites: too trusting). The system they live is a nightmare, that’s all. Like the frog, they don’t realize the discomfort until they are toasted.
[Linh Dinh's note: commenter is a Catalan.]
You have written it better than I have, by applying your personal experience. I have spent similar amount of time as you have in the US, mostly in LA. But I dealt with corporate individuals of the military-industrial complex and I missed to meet those US people that you describe:
“They are mostly good people and the most honest people in the planet. They are mostly devoid of envy and bad feelings. They are trustworthy and trust other people…”.
What I saw in the US was the most beautiful land on Earth, badly damaged by “civilization”. The US is a rich country for three basic reasons:
1) the US people grabbed the richest land on Earth and exploited it ruthlessly,
2) using the most powerful military they now pillage the rest of the World, mostly for oil (energy) and minerals, and
3) they do work very, very hard.
I had rough time with the roughies from the Rockies (Colorado, Wyoming and Montana), but they were honest and straight talking people. I enjoyed the friendliness of Mississippi and Georgia. But, I agree with you that the East Coast and especially the West Coast of the US are totally reptilian. That in itself was an interesting experience, because I have never met such creatures in my life before. Overall, I did not find any place in the US where I would have loved to live.
I just find the reactions of the US people in these comments immensely funny. They are just proving what Linh wrote – among other things, unjustified extreme self-confidence, intolerance, exceptionalism and xenophobia are dominant characteristics of the US character (as bad as generalizations can be). But #1 fun comes from their claims here that everyone wants to live in the US. Too many North Africans are now desperate to get into Europe as well. If you wreck a country, cause a civil war, exploit a country ruthlessly through its corrupt elite, all standard feats of the US elite, then you create such poverty and misery that people have to leave their own country and come to a place from which they can support their families back home (thanks to a pumped up exchange rate). All these anti-Linh US commentators do not have sufficient intelligence to establish a link between, for example, the US-trained death squads for Central and South America and millions who push up from down South into the US. Likewise, the US and EU wrecked Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and then the Mediterranean Sea get swamped by boat people trying to get into EU. But the reptilian brains of these US individuals are incapable of comprehending such simple causality.
And the problem is that China, America’s only credible competitor and potential successor, has adopted the worst features of American culture. The religion of soulless materialism, hard work, and obnoxious egotism is almost more developed there than here.
If you read Bertrand Russel on China a hundred years ago he describes a society that almost the polar opposite of America in its refined humanism and devotion the aesthetic and emotionally satisfying aspects of life. And yet all that is gone, and China has reinvented itself as the worst kind of second rate European capitalist power of the 19th century.
I’ve been to China, and I do business with Chinese immigrants in America all the time – they are almost worse than Americans in their bumptious provincial egotism, lack of class, taste, and style, and mindless materialism and status-seeking.
What happened to China is one of the worlds most poignant tragedies. In order to survive the onslaught of rapacious and ruthless Westerners, China out-barbarianed the barbarians and went from being one of the worlds most civilized countries to one of its least.
The traumas that Europeans inflicted on China threatened its very survival, but one wonders if they had to go quite so far in adopting the worst traits of Europeans. Japan seems to have performed that fragile balancing act of appropriating Western elements without entirely losing its soul far better.
The irony is tragic and poignant – the China that is masterfully reasserting itself is merely a crude copy of the baser elements of European culture. In other words, Chinese civilization hasn’t made a comeback, rather 19th century European materialism is just experiencing one more incarnation, like a metastatic cancer.
Perhaps culture and humanism will survive only in the periphery? Perhaps the great power centers will be given over to a new age of barbarism? Anyone who has been even to Thailand can testify that it is a far more civilized place than China.
The US was about making a country based on rationalist principles stripped of tradition, custom, and all the aesthetic and emotional arrangements and compromises that a historical nation develops over time, that are not, indeed, “rational”, but serve human needs.
In this arid environment, utilitarian considerations are the only ones that matter. The rationalist utilitarian perspective has so colonized our minds that we can’t even perceive it anymore. Take food – every healthy culture views food as having rich emotional, aesthetic, and historical associations. We literally think of food in terms of calories, carbs, fats, and proteins. It has zero spiritual meaning for us. The loss of value in terms of the texture of life can only be grasped by someone who has experienced a traditional food culture, with its rituals, customs, flavors, aesthetic arrangements, and social ceremonies.
The funny thing is that calories are supposed to be a device to help us stay thin, yet it is the cultures that resolutely refuse to reduce food to calories that successfully stay thin. Yet it never occurs to our rationalist society that the human mind isn’t designed to think of food in abstractions like calories, and the more we do so the more we will develop a dysfunctional relationship to food. Such an “irrational” idea would never be entertained or studied in America. It goes against the cultural grain.
Take clothing. There is a national prejudice against refinement or beauty in clothing, especially for men. Clothing is supposed to be utilitarian and workmanlike and utterly divorced from any aesthetic or emotional consideration. Again, the loss of texture to life is enormous.
I listed these two relatively trivial examples to show how pervasive the stripping of emotion from human life is in America – there are much more significant examples ready to hand. Emotional aridity, not by default but by conviction, reaches even the trivia of our life.
I do hold out hope that China, Vietnam, and other Asian countries will recover their cultural balance in time. I don’t think their corruption is necessarily final, and I realize its in response to extreme national traumas we can hardly imagine. China’s very survival as an independent nation was at stake, and it can’t be easy to develop a nuanced response to that.
At the end of the day, the immense history of Asia pulls against the recent changes, and let us hope that will be the decisive factor.
I’m not against hygiene and development per se [...] but when a civilization elevates them to the supreme values, as America has, they cannot form the basis for a satisfying human life. Balance in all things.
The refined humanism of the old Chinese civilization, despite rendering it helpless in the face of ferocious Westerners, was an immensely more satisfying human arrangement than anything to be found in the West. Russel was not the only person to think so – a common theme in Western writers on Asia in the 19th century was the oddly more satisfying texture of life in Asia, and the strange inability of the West to provide a spiritually satisfying counterpart. The West has bred an entire class of disaffected adventurers who sought emotional solace in the non-West – from Captain Sir Richard Burton, to Rimbaud, the likes of which have no clear analogues in other cultures. Clearly there is something inadequate in Western life. This is an almost repetitive refrain in 19th century European writings on the on-West.
The West has many glories, but it has missed something vital, and as America is the purified expression of Western values stripped of its contingent historical accretions, it amplifies this Western inadequacy to a grotesque degree.
The first step on the path of enlightenment is to read an opposite view of the world or your country [...] Even if this view is opposite to the firmly established self-preconceptions that the US nation is the savior of the World (especially savior of Africa, poor Africa with such savior). It is much more mentally comfortable to live in a mono-opinionated environment, the land of the group-think. But there is no insight in such environment, there is no progress. The opposite point a few is like a little trigger, often denied and despised, forgotten, pushed to the back of the mind. But one day, when sufficient evidence mounts, it comes to the surface and, just sometimes, become a new belief.
The only thing that your “analysis” of Dave proves is that US is just the kind of country he described: narrow-minded, shallow and full of prejudices. And the way I described the US: unjustified extreme self-confidence, intolerance, exceptionalism and xenophobia.
I wish you to never drop to the bottom of a bottle like he has, which does not make him any worse than you are, maybe better.
BTW, there is a small but growing percentage of people renouncing the US citizenship. This number has been growing so much that the US Government introduced an exit-fee. I believe that the US is the only country in the World to charge an exit fee for those leaving its claws, would love if somebody with the knowledge of this could add more info.
"I believe that the US is the only country in the World to charge an exit fee for those leaving"
The Soviets used to do this, on the theory that the person owed the government for all the educational and other benefits received, that would never be repaid by their labor if they lost him, and thus ought to be reimbursed.
But despite the steep fee, with a long waiting period, it does not relieve if granted from continuing to pay taxes to the U.S. for a period of at least ten years, possibly never ending.
If a citizen intends to leave the territory of the U.S. permanently, he cannot legally do so without first waiting for and obtaining a written waiver, a long process.
The old saw that what others are accused of, one does oneself, has been fulfilled.
As we enter the era of inverted totalitarianism, as described by political philosopher Sheldon Wolin, western government’s control of individuals becomes ever more unchecked, both expansive and invasive and completely detached from democratic accountability.
I live in NYC. The richest city in America. Bangkok has more first world infrastructure. The NY subway would put New Delhi to shame.
Personally, I like this aspect of NY, its sense of crumbling Third World decay, because it lends it atmosphere and humanizes it. I don’t like gleaming sterile metropolises.
But I often wonder, amid the appalling stench, the giant rats, the garbage on the tracks, the peeling paint, the rusted beams, the deafening shriek of subway cars, the metallic screech of the wheels, the lurching and swaying of the trains that make it impossible to relax, the subway platform that force you to walk dangerously close to unguarded tracks just to navigate your way to an exit, that as much as I enjoy this kind of decay porn, what a visitor from – not Tokyo, not Oslo, that would be too easy, not even London – but someone from India or Thailand thinks of the promise of American wealth, comfort, and material ease, the best, perhaps only, thing America is considered to deliver to its citizens.
Perhaps it brings home to their minds the fact that statistics about wealth say little about how that wealth is distributed in a country?
As America increasingly fails to deliver on its Faustian bargain – your soul for material comfort – perhaps we can find some consolation in the notion that people will turn to more enduring forms of human satisfaction?
I think too many people on this post believe this is a criticism of American people as such, or (in my case), Western people as such, but that is a misleading impression.
Americans are simply the people born here. When I spoke of a mysterious inadequacy in Western life, I never meant to imply a mysterious inadequacy in Western man as such. The fact that the Chinese have shown no ability to resist the worst forms of Western corruption, and have reinvented themselves in our image, makes clear beyond any doubt that the Chinese do not have any innate superiority. In many ways, they have embraced the corruption more deeply, and more completely, than we have, at least for the time being.
Westerners were the first victims of a humanly alienating transformation that merely began in the West. The sense of spiritual dislocation and loss voiced by the Romantic poets and countless critics like Ruskin make clear the transition to a society based on endless consumption and egotism was as wrenching for Westerners as it was any Asian. Sometimes I read in books about Japan how modernization was the grafting of a harsh foreign implant onto the Japanese psyche in a disruptive process Westerners cannot understand. Yet Westerner societies themselves were colonized by this harsh element in a process just as spiritually dislocating.
Hello George, maybe you should write an article yourself.
A case in point: the Asian craziness about brands (mostly Western brands), starting from Japan, through SE Asia, to China. Such personal insecurity reflected in reliance on Luis Vuitton, Gucci, Apple, Nike, Adidas and tens of other brands to prop up weak egos. Often, a logo splashed all over a consumption item, as if it were an advertising banner.
The current generation does not know that this was the way of the West about 50-60 years ago, when the consumerism in the West was still relatively young. Now the brands have to be discrete if they want to sell – a very small logo.
Naturally, this is only one small example, there are much bigger and much worse ways in which “the Chinese have shown no ability to resist the worst forms of Western corruption”.
May I guess that you were not educated in the US although you now live in the US?
Thanks, kiza, I feel I’ve probably written far too many “articles” on this thread already.
You are right, logo displays are a tacky indication of an immature consumer culture, and it’s a good example of how Asians can be even more ridiculous, and more status anxious, than us. Japan really has no excuse.
I was born and educated in America but my parents are European, and I spent most of my 20s travelling and working in Asia and Europe. Such a life makes for interesting comparisons. Early on it dawned on me that there is something gravely missing in the American way of life.
"..logo displays are a tacky indication of an immature consumer culture, and it’s a good example of how Asians can be even more ridiculous, and more status anxious, than us. Japan really has no excuse…"
My thoughts, you expressed them better.
Yes, you appear to be one of those US people, just like Ron Unz, with an open mind, brain capacity and developed character not to take offence from critical writing such as Linh Dinh’s. I sincerely think that people like you are the only hope of the US, to steer it out of the current deadly grove of economic, financial, social and war-seeking decline. I know that individual’s contribution cannot be huge, but every word you write does effect, so please keep writing. The biggest danger to the World now is the US, will it recover or will it sink further down into island of privilege inside a sea of anarchy? Apparently, the US “elite” is buying escape pods, the farms in New Zealand.
There are a couple of discourse techniques that the critics often use, one of them is to take a side-point and make it into a key point. The issue is not what the dominant US characteristics are (“unjustified extreme self-confidence and exceptionalism”, let us leave out intolerance and xenophobia). The key issue is what the US does! In the whole human history, it is impossible to find a nation which has brought more misery to people living outside of its borders, in both the numbers of people killed, poisoned, burned or maimed and in the frequency of starting wars (“the US has to start a new war every four years to maintain its economy” was a conclusion by an author recently). The fact that this is so often wrapped up into “self-defense against a dictator with a smoking gun” (Republicans) or “responsibility to protect against genocide” (Democrats) only shows the insurmountable hypocrisy of the US elite. But it is not only outside its borders, the US population itself is treated by a uniquely vicious para-military police and federal agencies, from FBI, through TSA, to DEA (Ruby Ridge). This is all doing of the US elite, which feeds domestic population a pork feed of ruthless propaganda laced with patriotism and nationalism. Add “suckers for propaganda” to my list of bad traits of the US people.
In short, the US is the biggest factory of human misery the World has even seen, wrapped up into “noble” and “defensive” intentions.
The biggest achievement of this misery factory so far have been the two nuclear bombs dropped on civilian population of Japan. But the main concern is that during its decline and fall, the factory could out do its biggest previous achievement by starting a global nuclear war.
You are barking up a wrong tree, the issue is not how good or bad the US people are, or what causes human diversity, the issue is what Team America does.
Thursday, July 9, 2015
to my "Escape from America":
- Linh Dinh
- 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), five of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007) and Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009), 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.