Friday, December 14, 2007

The Politics of Atomization

When the individual assumes everything that's crumbling in his/her life is solely his/her own doing, then the political powers that be have already secured an enduring victory.

Self-reliance is a major American value, as is "the buck stops here" acceptance of responsibility. Great stuff, these values. But on the other hand, when the bartender hands every social drinker in the place a free bottle of their favorite liquor, don't the bartender and bar share some responsiblity for the ensuing orgy of bad judgment?

In a strict accounting, the answer is "no." Every drinker had the option of refusing the free booze. But "something for nothing" remains a pretty compelling deal, and so it is rather predictable that a certain number of patrons would accept the deal and slide down an "irresponsible path" of partying.

The Powers That Be oversaw and profited immensely from just such an offering of "free money" via cheap, easy credit and home equity extraction. Common sense rules were relaxed, set aside or ignored as the "booze"/free money flowed freely.

In a fully atomized society such as the U.S., the blame is now being heaped on the individuals whose judgment was overcome by the easy money and partying going on around them. By partying, I mean your neighbor/colleague just flipped two more houses and made $100,000 on each one in less than a year, using no-down no-document financing.

Was the lender taking a responsible path in not collecting any documentation other than the tax map key of the property and the borrower's signature? How far would the bubble have expanded if every speculator had been required to put down 20%-30% cash, and had his/her tax returns, credit reports and payroll records pored over, as was standard practice just a few years ago?

"The ideal is to create a completely fragmented atomized society where everybody is totally alone, doing nothing but trying to pursue created wants, and the wants are created."

Here is a fully atomized life, in my view: a worker who commutes a long distance from a stressful job he/she doesn't find fulfilling to a suburban cluster of houses with no town or social center nearby. A supermarket/superstore and a strip mall or two provide groceries, pizza, etc. but no social life. Churches are far away and disconnected from everything around them.

The primary "social connection" other than work colleagues is disembodied, essentially ersatz "loyalties" to pro sports teams or college teams from a distant alma mater, or some equally ersatz political "party" or cause, in which the primary mode of connection is the donating of money and the consumption of rabid diatribes of simplistic ideology via mail or the Web. There are no meetings of real people and no action taken but empty Web-based petitions which are ignored by politicians of all stripes.

Family life consists of stressed-out parents transporting kids to a whirlwind of classes and "enrichment" to keep them busy and away from the temptations of drugs and sex--a futile hope in a society drenched in drugs legal and illegal and a media which sells everything via a relentless barrage of sex; but neither parent plays an instrument with the kids, or attends the martial arts class with them, or plays the sport with them; the parents are passive observers and taxi drivers.

At night, rather than play music with the kid who is learning to play an instrument, the parents collapse in front of the TV to zone out. Despite the cliche that Americans are health-obsessed, the parents and kids are in poor physical shape; the adults feel guilty they don't spend an hour in the gym every morning at 5:30 a.m. like their more driven colleagues, but they don't go out for a walk because there's no sidewalks, there's no place to walk to, or the neighborhood isn't safe after dark--or they're tired and sleep-deprived.

An assembly of barely-used exercise machines clutter the garage, alongside the bicycles nobody uses, the jet-ski and sled which get used once a year at best, and the usual detritus of lesser "recreation equipment" that collects dust.

Dinner is a slapdash affair slammed together or microwaved at the last minute by the least-exhausted adult; the kids wander in, deaf to conversation due to the iPod buds in their ears, to grab something and go back to their own TV/PC. The parents barely know their own kids' friends, and have only brief "who's picking up who?" contact with other harried parents/step-parents.

To help them get to sleep, the adults swallow a sleeping pill or two, while their teenagers fall asleep with their cellphones to their ears, half-listening to a meaningless "conversation" with a friend, e.g. "whatcha doing, nothing, did you see Kylie today?"

The family budget is in tatters, with the more responsible parent complaining to the other one that "we really need to cut spending" as the credit card debt keeps rising, and the home equity line of credit has been tapped out. The freer-spending spouse grudgingly admits they can't afford $40 takeout dinners so often but he/she is too tired to go grocery shopping or cook real food.

One parent, or perhaps both, wistfully recall life before it became so crazy, and one or the other wishes they could quit their job or cut their hours. But the mortgage has to be paid, and the hundreds of dollars of classes and lessons for the kids have to be paid, and what's life without a grand vacation every year, or skiing trips?

The household receives no newspaper or magazines except a professional journal, and a weekly news magazine nobody reads (paid for by Grandma). News consists of 30 seconds of radio sound bites and the headlines on yahoo. Homework is done using Wikipedia. Nobody reads in the house, expecially now that the Harry Potter series is complete.

The War is terrible, but other than hoping the cousin's son/daughter serving there comes home with all limbs attached, the family feels no impact and has no time or energy for anything to do with the war or any other issue. The upcoming presidential election draws tepid interest; maybe one of the adults is thinking of voting, but none of the candidates seem qualified or appealling. It's easier not to vote.

None of this is new, of course; books on the same theme include Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community and The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character

It seems the trends have only worsened as commutes have lengthened and workloads have increased. So what happens to such a precarious edifice when the recession causes one adult to lose their job? If the family's emotional and financial health is already stretched so thin, what will happen when 1/3 or 1/2 or 3/4 of the family income disappears?

When I think of this, and recall the depth of the 1981-82 recession, I worry for this nation, for there seems to be so little emotional safety net or political awareness of the causes of the coming meltdown.

Thank you, Richard H., ($21), for your generous contribution to this humble site. I am greatly honored by your readership and support. All contributors are listed below in acknowledgement of my gratitude.

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