I was in the city of the grassy knoll a few years ago, attending a builders’ conference. My colleagues and I were on one of those all-important quests, in search of some inviting looking, lone star-evoking restaurant where we could kick back for purposes of consuming good Texas grub and to wash the long day away with the help of a few cold ones. We assumed it would be an easy thing to find an establishment that would at least appear to be indigenous to the area and a treat for our Midwestern, rather Yankified constituency. We drove for well over an hour through one predictable commercial district after another, whose formulaic streetscapes were lined with retail stores and restaurants with which we were only too familiar. The endless lineup of prefabricated, thematic buildings played out like the repetitive background loops of the cheaply animated Saturday morning shows of my ever more distant youth. Sadly identical to the commercial districts we had back home despite the fact that we were hundreds of miles away, we continued on our search, soon willing to settle for anything that presented itself as even remotely authentically Southwest/Texan/Hey Y’all to our Hoosier sensibilities, ignorant as that desire itself may have been. It took a while, but we eventually found our restaurant. The place resembled an old-timers’ saloon, strategically tucked into the historic district a small distance from the downtown proper. The meal may have been mediocre, the waiter attitudinous and my steak overcooked (as usual) but at least there were peanut shells on the floor and country music in the air.
So much for great grub. I pondered the pseudo-local superficiality of our destination, so like its food and entertainment brethren in cities everywhere. The conclusions I would eventually draw, based on the disdain I first felt that night, would serve as one of the springboards that would in time lead me to a broader point of view, which I would attempt to literarily encapsulate in the following pages of this book. The newly coagulated reality of that evening formed the foundation of my impression of an obvious permeation and permutation, a commercially induced homogenization of my homeland, the United States of America. I believe this homogenization clearly reflects what Paul Fussell aptly anointed the Dumbing Down of America (Bad, or the Dumbing of America) back in 1991. The Dumbing Down of our nation was brought to full, resplendent and official fruition with the election of an affable, frat rat son of privilege, George W. Bush. Dubble-Ya the boy king, his Administration and the faithful who continue to believe in him and all that he hath wrought forge ahead to this day in the name of the GOP, the Right, the Neo-cons and their various evangelical religious factions, all with heads down and blinders on in strictest formation.
Not that I gained any sort of impression of the Texas city that was singularly negative. It was a lovely place, as great and as ordinary as any other place anyone might call home. But the sense of a societal homogenization I so keenly felt that night, that relegated this fine town to the ranks of just another pre-fab haven for the masses, has unfortunately had opportunity to manifest itself to me over and over again just about anywhere I have been since then. The same few dozen stores, businesses and restaurants have so infiltrated the collective landscapes of our nation’s crossroads that to get to the personality and to the unique heart of any one area one must use real navigational effort and engage in what often winds up being a futile search. But for historic designations and destinations with tourism – as in commercial – potential, sporadic avenues and high-end neighborhoods of protected historic residences, America’s physical architectural and cultural slate is being wiped clean over and over again as cost-cut mandated construction practices create ever-more disposable and temporary building designs and their execution. Each time a new project goes up with the primary intent of lining a select few pockets with disproportionate wads of proverbial gold – or green as it were – history and indigenous character are replaced with ever- increasingly repetitive franchise macrophage. With the exception of a small assortment of signature cities and choice architectural showpieces, too much of the United States has become a realm o’ plain chains and Lego-land cityscapes.
Judging from the ubiquitous, painfully familiar commercial districts in one town or city and the next, it also becomes evident that the masses themselves have dictated this homogenization through complacent acceptance of the chosen few retail, food and entertainment establishments they frequent. Complacent acceptance is a major characteristic of the American masses, and this complaint will rear its ugly little head time and again in this treatise. Here, as with the basic notion of tangible manifestation by way of the very roofs that cover our heads, the buying folk who either live in or frequent the generica we are finding ourselves plunked into must apparently neither look for the unique nor miss it enough to insist there be some protection of community individuality or unique urban and commercial environments. And neighborhood activists are often either branded as stalwart and stagnant souls and summarily dismissed by the Godzilla-like representatives of the behemoth enterprises whose big box stores rule this great land, if not the world. The omnipresence of the few dozen corporate giant food and retail enterprises is proof in itself of their success as businesses that have become part of our vocabulary and modern American way of life. Why, the most successful products ascend into the realm of colloquialisms and thus become the markers of the ages with their interchangeable nouns, verbs and images. The permeation of such enterprises and their products is as much a part of the homogenization that we, the consuming population of this country, have allowed it to become, for the gauge of any capitalistic society is its ability to draw quid onto itself, and the consuming masses are the most eager divviers of it all.
That our society is content to live with the virtually choiceless consumption of these same establishments and the easy availability of their foreign mass-produced, generic goods is quantity over quality in its most pervasive form. It bears further reflection that the minds and bodies of the consumers who have created the mega-brands have been left fallow for so long that the prevalent obesity problems in this country, the self-imploding public education systems and even our current political climate can all be tied rather easily in with the stereotypical American preference of said quantity over quality. It is not only the assembly line cityscapes but also the rote lifestyles lived within them that dictate a staled national picture that will have become a contemporary American hallmark for the junction of the two millennia we find ourselves in.
Most citizens are simply too dulled by their full bellies and the varied, other comforts of the American everyday, where the discomfort of excess and over-ease is the evil, unacknowledged twin of the excessive comforts pursued on a daily basis. Discomfort’s wicked cousin, selfish entitlement, follows close behind. The easy appeasement of superficial wants and perceived needs creates a sense of entitlement in American consumers that is itself taken for granted. Its worst perpetrators lose the ability to even recognize their idle-man’s condition amidst all that consumption, materialism being fraught with the constantly rekindled distraction of more, more, more. The notion that those drowning in their own consumptiveness might want to a stand against it as intelligent beings who should prefer to own the ability to create and control their lives and lifestyles and want things to be better and not just bigger, is soon a lost cause.
The vestigial remains of a hearty American Middle Class that spawned a sweat-drenched cross section of citizenry who for a time could lay audacious claim to rewards for the very work they produced for Industrialists big and small has waxed and waned over the decades in the name of investor deference. Those who once manned the ranks of that beefy hard-working middle class have been likewise re-defined as a class of consumers of that which they neither build with their own hand nor shape by way of investiture in said manufacturer. The Middle Class as we have known it has been swallowed up by an even greater, all-encompassing class, one that is defined only by what it consumes, not by what it is or who is in it.
Americans as shoppers are consumed by all they fervently believe they need and want, and so they consume in accordance with the methods established to attain the quickest possible appeasement of those wants and needs – Buy It Now and fast before it’s gone. What a happy vicious cycle is thus created for the supply side of the free market: while the many gather useless shit and debt onto themselves, the very few who remain the providers gather ever more obscene wealth to themselves, particularly as they consume smaller providers along the way in the name of efficiency (a.k.a. shareholders’ outstretched hands). American capitalism’s greatest achievement (and by that I do mean biggest and not best, which in itself is commentary alluding to quantity and not quality) is the creation of a colorblind, meta-faith, all-inclusive Shopping Class. Who needs to wrangle an invitation to the Jones’ country club when one can secure a charter membership to a wholesale club all by one’s lonesome self? “Keeping up” – never a philosophically evolved mindset – has been brought to new lows by becoming the Shopping Class mantra.
Aside from aisle browsing and mall walking, the otherwise sedentary slugdom that exists in our country is a result of the pursuit of that comfort coming full-circle. The more comfortable we believe we are, the less we rise up off of our backsides. The less we rise up off our backsides, the bigger we become and the more miserable we eventually are. The lives of too many people have been affected by a self-induced, utter and chronic lack of motion. Too many of us are sitting around far too much of the time. We are becoming progressively more bored without fully realizing it, and in our jaded states less easily phased by any of the regressive schlock we are fed in the guise of entertainment. Ill health and lack of inspiration have continued to dull our minds with the very mundaneness in which we subsist. Wicked discomfort reigns supreme in the guise of supreme comfort. We have become the mattresses.
This chapter and its companion essays are also my lament to that mediocrity of mind, body and creative spirit that have become so “middled” within the collective psyche of this American Shopping Class: in our pursuit of ease and comfort we are also resorting to ducking behind our fear of upsetting authority, and willing to hide behind our prejudices against anything new or unlike ourselves. These anti-qualities make our existence an easier and simpler thing; hence our free time is open for more absorption of the above-mentioned schlock. The narrow path to the creation of our brand of Comfortable is made to be the shorter one; the exclusionary blinders of moralists and fear mongers make it the easier one.
A quasi-contented American population can also more readily convince itself of the adequacy of the pithy scraps of benefits and decreasing rights and choices tossed in their direction by a conglomerate of politicos and elected officials who are more self-serving than they are any vestigial remains of Servant for the People. Representation on behalf of only that which our elected ones’ most ardent followers fear and feel prejudice towards has apparently been sufficient representation for too many for too long. It has earned their vote before and might, amazingly, earn it again and again. This well-intended, faithful but underserved-and-OK-with-it voting constituency is the group of people I call the “Republican Serfs.”
I see George W. Bush on the television these days, and it seems as if the sum of his growing legacy of destructive, self-aggrandizing and frighteningly pseudo-Christian agendas seems to finally be taking a toll on him. He stutters more than ever before, even though the multi-syllabic words and poetic phrases of earlier speeches have been sharply reigned in by his speechwriters over the years – they finally figured out that the man can only handle three syllables at a time. George W. appears clearly more aged with each appearance, perhaps even more so than past presidents have aged during their home stretch tenures as President. I realize, as many of us do, that George II has been little more than a puppet and mascot for the true foreign and domestic powers behind the scenes, but that is still no excuse for all that he is and all he will have represented by the time he is finished. This simple minded, elementarily devout man has signed his name to orders and statements with the same gusto that Faust once would have. As the Bush II Administration has decreed, ordered, coerced, fabricated and pocketed an unprecedented mess of historic proportions, our most comfortable American public and too many politicos have remained stupifyingly acquiescent. Therein lies one of our great country’s biggest mysteries. Why do a free and able people put up with so much crap? Is everyone just too materially satiated and too cozy in his or her imperious ignorance to care enough to have their comfortable existences disrupted?
Americans have become so accustomed to the Bush Administration’s grievous and numerous faux pas that people are doing little more than sighing and staring deeper into their favorite “reality” shows in their pursuit to forget the issues at hand, thanks to the focus of the fresh-scented, comfortable and simple lives they strive to achieve and maintain. We have grown numb in the same way a slapped hand eventually ceases to feel the pain. Americans also benefit, whether consciously or not, from the great geographic and psychological distances granted to one and all on this continent by the sheer size of the land mass we live upon. It is sadly easy to digest and file away the images and memories of 9/11 from one’s perch in the quiet, open-air divide that is the Midwest, and it is certainly easy to distract ourselves with the tools this materialistic world affords us. How little time and how much comfort-shrouded distance does it take to gloss over all sorts of bad, sad and destructive issues, events and states of being? As trivial, day-to-day priorities take over because we wish it so for so many reasons, awareness and the empathy it engenders evaporate all too quickly.
Then there is the complacent citizenry who from beneath their veils of self-induced ignorance and short sightedness continue to vehemently and blindly defend this administration. Despite their voracious efforts to suggest otherwise, they reach deep down into their foundations to produce the prejudices and ethnocentricities that will adequately justify the righteous rightness of all that which George II and others of his ilk render. No wonder the rest of the world views us with such disdain! If their political views were to be paralleled by historic examples of prejudicial ignorance, then the sun would still be circling the earth and Galileo would be a fraud. By defaulting as passengers or by actively participating as crew members in the Bush II Administration’s ’round the world ego trip, our nation is bringing itself full circle into a veritable modern Dark Age, where independent, free thought is demoralized as unpatriotic, liberal thought is misbranded as heathen, and barely literate, kick-’em-in-the-ass patriotism and an us-against-them philosophy lauds itself as that which is truly American.
I also address a modern-day Serfdom that exists by virtue of its lethargic non-response to the dark side of power. These Serfs have become the bread and butter followers of the authoritarian culture (see John Dean, “Conservatives without a Conscience”) that flourishes in our nation and in the world around us. For authoritarianism to exist in its varying degrees and incarnations, there needs to be an eagerly obeisant segment of society willing and able to lay itself down at the feet of those leaders who have too easily bowed to corruption and self-serving cults of personality. The largest segments of this society of followers are found within the less educated working masses who are the heart and gut of the world’s population. It is sad but it is true. These “lesser beings,” these followers through thick or thin, who the despots and dictators the world over need in order to maintain their contradictory lifestyles from within their totalitarian regimes – the United States included – are the hapless facilitators of it all. It is a symbiotic relationship that has launched ten thousand ships.
This authoritarian fan base, the voters and the ignorant devout, are the political and religious groupies who comprise the core of what I have labeled the modern-day Serfdom. The aspect of Serf, if we are honest with ourselves, can be found in every segment of society and in varying degrees within each and every one of us. A population such as ours, chock-full of faith-based narcissists who intentionally prefer ignorance, will also allow religion to pick up with a vengeance where enlightenment far too quickly drops off. The visionary personal equinox perceived as one’s greatest inner strength is more often than not the very source of the weakness upon which the authoritarian personalities feed.
Like a Renfield to his Princely Dracula, the Serf willingly settles for grubs as he seeks his immortality, content to watch as his patrician boss gets the girl each time. The Serf maintains a life-delineating comfort zone that is kept within the tight tradition of Hatfield and McCoy-style familial elevation and fear-bound parameters of organized religion and self-righteous prejudice. The Serf refuses to look at tomorrow (save for that last, mythical shoot-out in which he will play a key role), and he views the past from within the confines of a non-scientific timeline that reads more like a blip on a football field. Seven thousand years? Seven thousand?
Nature and her ward, our planet Earth, and all those who are different from the Serf are irrelevant to him, for the Serf feels righteously justified to view the remainder of mankind as such from the small portal of his puckered little perspective, and he continues to devour it in accordance to the spiritual food chain rules to which he religiously adheres.
In the meantime, the modern world continues to grow smaller and smaller, and it should be impossible for anyone who has any shred of a clue to completely ignore any one of its last corners. This Earth is also the only one we have, and she isn’t feeling too well these days. Serfdom’s steadfast denial of global climate issues only serves to support the gluttonous consumption of the limited natural resources we are so addicted to. Our small slice of the world population, approximately 2%, consumes almost one-quarter of the world’s resources! The United States’ unilateral global attitude, most obviously currently manifested in the self-serving, futile Iraq war in which we are hopelessly entrenched is another state of denial for which the total price is yet to be determined. But, so long as there is no direct contact with the problems at hand, the core Serf constituency continues to sleep well at night, oblivious to the problems that swirl around him and beg for acknowledgment; his blinders work amazingly well.
The Serf refuses to consider that it is not the United States’ job to force-feed our token political systems and capitalistic ideals down the throats of cultures so foreign to us that all we really accomplish is a violent gag effect. That we cloak capitalistic opportunity in the guise of “democracy” is one thing; that we market it as “freedom” to both the hostile and ungrateful foreign recipients and to the American voting masses in order to keep selling wars and their companion oil-based ventures is an even more vile sales job. America betrays her Serf-like ignorance by presuming that, as a nation, we can even begin to understand the cultures of the people we invade, enough to think that we could possibly begin to know what is best for them. In an alternate reality, with tables completely turned, if an eastern, Muslim nation were the world’s super power, what would we welcome their presence and agree with them if it were decided that it was in our country’s best interest that we be invaded and have our leaders and random citizens sent to jail, and that we be set up as an Islamic nation with a theocratic Muslim government and our women be without rights from now on – that they must cease their education and their voting and wear burkas from now on and be assured that they would be better off for it? How would we like them apples?
Why does it seem so hard to grasp the inevitability that each and every nation, with its cultures, corresponding religions and respective histories, has a certain right to exist – good and bad, right or wrong – and evolve within the parameters of what it holds true and not what we hold true, even if we don’t like it? No true evolution can occur from without – that is merely window dressing. True societal evolution must start from within, and it must be spurred for both men and women, especially women. So long as testosterone maintains any dictatorship at all in terms of which gender calls the shots, such advancement will not happen. It is no accident that two types of humans exist to balance the scales. If outside nations ever undertake any infiltration of any sort, the most efficient path to societal mentorship is the one that leads directly to the empowerment of women – their dignity, their safety, their autonomy. Men against men – which is to say war – simply lines a select few pockets and fills graves with the sons and daughters of mankind. So, why is there virtually no focus on the fact that any country’s evolution must start organically and from within? The militant, conservative Christian movement within the United States is instrumental in our nation’s inability to grasp such a perspective, for it is a Serf-based philosophy of solidarity that decrees the eventual destruction of all those who do not comply. Hmm. Where have we heard that one before? Many aspects of the current culture of our nation and what we undertake in its superlative name are no better or more evolved than the countries we are trying to “reform.”
The stubborn single-mindedness of this democratic, capitalistic drive for attention on the world’s volatile stage wears such flagrant, monastic blinders that the likes of, for instance, a big, curvaceous girl named “Katrina,” who waltzed over our very own bayous and cities in the waning summer days of 2005 was not even enough to distract our star-spangled, super hero-administration from its Herculean task of saving the disparate world from herself. With manpower, funds and allocations already in place in the Middle East, what’s an attention-starved girl to do? Like a woman scorned, Lord knows, Katrina tried. Just ask the scattered, tattered remains of New Orleans, where a photo op with a fashionably late, khaki-clad President didn’t quite do the trick for the starving and dying victims of that hurricane. But really, how bad could it be, and how much more important could a disaster on home turf be than something on the far, other side of the world, geographically and metaphorically speaking? The Queen Mother Bush pondered this herself after touring the Astrodome complex in Houston, Texas, where hurricane refugees were being housed. During a subsequent radio interview with the American Public Media program “Marketplace” on September 5, 2005, Barbara Bush offered up a piece of proverbial Let Them Eat 21st Century Cake when she said, “What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.” (Boston Globe, September 8, 2005, NPR, September 5, 2005, Associated Press) Spike Lee’s take on Katrina, entitled, “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” fills in the blanks (August 21, 2006 HBO debut).
The bastardization of the word “liberal” needs to also find some rest. The Serfs who fancy themselves Conservatives need to be reminded that Liberals are simply not the heathens the conservative organizations and politicos have so self-righteously accused them to be. The religious smoke screen that hangs over our country these days is a heavy curtain replete with bitten-apple, childish name-calling, confusion and fear tactics. The Right Wing spin on liberals and on the Democratic Party in general is a play on some of the most vulnerable emotional, faith-based principles that the bulk of our population holds near and dear to its heart – it’s a shrewdly thought-out strategy, and the arrow has found its mark, and by that, I really do mean hearts and not heads, for facts and factual discourse have nothing to do with its implementation.
The definitions of “conservative” and “liberal” now overtake the original, fiscal and governmental philosophies they once represented, having morphed symptomatically with the growing educational and intellectual divide, part of the lamentable dumbing down of America as it was explored decades ago by Paul Fussell in his book entitled, “Bad, or the Dumbing of America.” As our situation is reflective of the diminished reconstitution of the American Middle Class, I will address this by attempting to re-illustrate the American class system within a revised spectrum of categories that will better define what had previously been regarded very simply as the middle-of-the-road, working segment of American society.
The honest and ignorant masses, these Serfs, have unwittingly joined forces with the cunning and hypocritical Neo-Conservative Right-Wingers and Christo-politico zealots to form a formidable constituency that, with the help of under-handed tactics in the presidential re-election of 2004 (Florida), put into office an administration whose eight-year tenure swung open wide the door to righteous nationalistic standoffs and implemented a multitude of time- and tax-wasting vanity issues and crises both at home and abroad, which helped not only to fill the coffers of loyal Bush courtiers but also to feed the fires of hatred and vengeful acting out against the United States by religious and political extremists everywhere else. With the help of an outdated voting system that nicely complemented insider machinations, we apparently got what we appeared to have asked for. Liberals and otherwise “thinking” people, counting among them those silly fools who prefer peace, have been drawn into the fire as collateral damage for all that the Right Wing continues to dish up, all while droves of its under-qualified, ultra-conservative home-schooled offspring are placed neatly and quietly into government positions.
It is time to take a look at the sociological makeup behind the forces that dredged up the sedentary masses who voted into office this Bushian administration (at least the first time around) and to try and identify its legacy as societal guide in order to avoid repeating our mistakes over and over again until there are only shells and hulls left of us all. The United States were never intended to be a theocracy, yet, this is what we have at the dawn of the twenty-first century – it is indeed possible to travel back in time. We as a nation must try to outgrow this condition, both philosophically and politically, and I want to posit some of the questions and images that I feel need presenting in order to help the forward process along.
Words in the text of this book, such as God, Christian, Republican, their companion pronouns and a few other words similar to them will remain capitalized, as is traditional. It is not my intent to lend some of these terms, especially in their varying contexts, too much credibility or to be too reverential with the simple indication of a capitalized first letter. I just don’t want to be too distracted by the squiggly red underscores of misspelled words as they appear to me on the screen of my Macintosh.
Republican Serfs of the United States be assured. Not one of us is completely devoid of the Serf within. The Serf condition is one that resides in varying degree within every last one of us, including me. The Serf is the complacent self, the mediocre mensch, the human space-filler in all of us. We can’t all be neurosurgeons, astrophysicists or even good teachers. Whether we filter definitions of our humanity through faith or through secular philosophy, we can rest assured that we could all be be fully occupied until the day we die in hot pursuit of our own shortcomings. Decent is in actuality a noble level of attainment for the bulk of mankind. At the same time, while sailing along in the materialistic mode of American life as we know it, we need to settle for more than our Lazy Boy- , super-sized, flash-frozen, fried food object-condition. I wish to call attention to each and every one of us that a Serfdom exists within a climate that has enabled the self-serving powers that be to spit out a cornucopia of promises that their flocks believe are sent straight from heaven’s gates, when all they are really offering are hungry grimaces that expose chiseled pearly whites, ready to bite.
This book is my cattle prod, a bit of slightly obnoxious prose that I hope will allow me to participate in some new dialogue and even better, some enlightened, heated debate. Perhaps a few of my concepts can become part of an updated school of thought that will better illuminate and more accurately illustrate contemporary American society as it moves further and further away from a merit-based, work and lifestyle-defined class system to a simpler, consumer-driven societal model that is more purely categorized by the tangible superficialities borne of a Darwinian capitalism as our nation has perfected it, one that has at the same time become too susceptible to endless affectations and poorly presented pretense.
If I am really lucky, someone will be angered enough when they read this that they will be driven to write a clever book disputing everything I will have presented in these following pages. If my viewpoints can be proven wrong, then we as a society will have shifted with the force of a major, new batch of ideological trade winds and be once again, perhaps, headed in the right direction.
In the meantime, we are all so busy preaching to our respective choirs and so busy patting ourselves on the back that little new seems to be accomplished. It is time to address the anti-choir and to ask what makes it tick and why. It is no accident that the satirical, comedy news-spoof shows hold the ratings and the sway they do these days. They are indicative of the ridiculousness of our times and deliver therefore some of the most perceptive editorializing to which we are privy. More importantly, they reach a bipartisan, crossover audience in what proves to be an almost palatable way for both sides – something the Hatfields and McCoys on the Hill can’t even touch. They would do well to take notes.
The Phenomenon of the Republican Serf, © 2006-2009
by KA Schultz. All Rights Reserved.
Previously available at Amazon, this edition has been retired.