Dark Ages America

McFarland, USA

Anthony-Freda_empty-kingdomgc2sm From the keyboard of Morris Berman
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Anthony-Freda_empty-kingdom

Published on Dark Ages America on January 9, 2016


It occasionally bothered me that I had lived for a number of years in Mexico and had published several books, none of which were about the country in which I was living. Indeed, I had spent 2011-14 sweating over a long, fairly complicated cultural analysis of Japan. Recently, I was asked to give a talk to the sales personnel at the book chain Gandhi, in Mexico City (Mexico’s equivalent of Barnes & Noble), about my work, and in the question-and-answer period that followed one member of the audience asked me how it was that I hadn't written about my adopted country. I felt somewhat guilty. 

"You're right," I replied; "I have no excuse. After all, I've been here for nine years. Maybe next year I'll move to Tokyo and write a book about Mexico."

Ha ha. Everybody laughed. But it may not be all that funny, and the question, as in the past, nagged at me. It might have been that I felt I had nothing new to say about Mexico, about which so much has been written. I mean, was I seriously going to rehash Cortés, sincretismo, Lázaro Cárdenas, and the emergence of the modern state? It didn't really appeal.

And yet, thinking I had nothing new to say didn't stop me in the case of Japan (and as it turned out, I was wrong); and in that case, I couldn't even read the language. So what was the problem? I kept scratching my head until, quite by accident (or synchronicity?), I happened to see a Kevin Costner film called McFarland, USA, released in the United States early in 2015. While not a documentary, the film is a true story, about a football coach named Jim White who accepted a position at the local high school of a dreary, 100%-Hispanic town in the Central (San Joaquin) Valley of California in 1987. He hated it, and took the job only because he had no other options. His students typically got up at 4:30 a.m. and worked as fruit and vegetable pickers—backbreaking labor for miserable wages—after which, at around 8 a.m., they went off to school. All Jim White wanted was the American Dream: to get out of this low-paying job and move up the socioeconomic ladder. The tension in the story, and its central theme, revolves around the Mexican/Chicano vs. US value-systems, i.e. warmth (the traditional Hispanic family structure and culture) vs. power (the go-go world of US capitalism).

But this tension, I realized, was an old theme for me, going back to 1981: The Reenchantment of the World, a study of the collapse of the magical tradition in Western Europe and the concomitant rise of modern science. Much of my book on Japan, for example, is an exploration of the conflict between the ancient Zen craft tradition and the imposition of modern US values that had eventually turned the country into an economic powerhouse at the cost of driving the Japanese people somewhat crazy (hence the title, Neurotic Beauty). Was Mexico so different? As the film ended, I recalled the words of Porfirio Díaz, that Mexico's problem was that it was tan cerca de los Estados Unidos, i.e. too close to the United States, and also a study by Professor William Vega at the University of California, Berkeley, which revealed that the rate of mental illness among Mexicans living in the US was almost exactly twice that of Mexicans living in Mexico. The theme of modernity vs. tradition is a very rich one, representing a conflict with no easy answers, and which is not likely to get resolved any time soon. Was it perhaps time for me to be examining it in a Mexican context? Had I finally found the topic of my "Mexico book"? Let me, then, talk a bit about the Costner movie, and the questions that I think it raises.

Of course, "Mr. White" is a rather ironic name for an American who moves into an all-Hispanic town, and in fact his students take to calling him "Blanco." Everything is alien to the White family: the language, the food, the entire way of life. Upon arriving at the house they have rented, they find a mural painted on the wall of the living room, of a beautiful indígena woman, a Mother Earth archetype, holding out a platter of fruit and vegetables and surrounded by flowers—a symbol of nurturing, sustenance, female wisdom. White's reaction is, "Paint store, first thing tomorrow!" Going to the only diner in town, they don't know what chorizo is, or what enchiladas are, and play it safe with tacos, which they presumably are familiar with from Taco Bell. And so on. It's as though they are walking across the surface of the moon.

White, in any case, discovers that while the football team is basically useless, not having won a game in decades, the school has a number of kids who can run like the wind, and so persuades the principal to launch a cross-country running team. In a series of endearing adventures, he whips his charges into shape, until they actually win the first annual cross-country state championship. (In real life, White coached his teams to victory 9 out of 14 times between 1987 and 2001.) He also gets the boys to start thinking about college, so that they don't have to remain pickers for nothing wages all their lives; and in fact all 7 of the boys (on the 1987 team) went on to graduate college and become teachers, coaches, policemen, and so on—solid middle-class jobs. The dirt-poor Chicanos, with White's help, thus make it into El sueño americano, the American Dream.

The impact White has on these kids is actually quite significant. For what was the alternative to the American Dream, if not stagnation, poverty, or worse? As one of the other teachers says to White, pointing to the building next door to the school, "That's the town prison. Handy, no?" But a few months later, she comes to White's office to read him a poem written by one of his runners, José Cárdenas (who later became a writer for the Los Angeles Times): 

"We fly like blackbirds through the orange groves/floating on a warm wind./When we run, we own the earth;/the land is ours./We speak the birds' language,/immigrants no more./Not stupid Mexicans./When we run, our spirits fly./We speak to the gods./When we run, we are the gods."

"Welcome to McFarland, Blanco," she says to White.

White takes the boys to the ocean for the first time in their lives, and he gives them a sense of pride. "You kids have the biggest hearts I've ever seen," he tells them. And they begin to see themselves that way as well, and to open their minds to the wider world.

It's all very moving, and perhaps a bit too romantic—the film was made by the Disney Corporation, after all—and falls into the very successful Hollywood category known as the "White Savior" genre. Kevin Costner is hardly new to this role, having played it brilliantly many years ago inDances with Wolves, in which he protects a branch of the Sioux Indians from an American Army intent on destroying them, and from which he deserted. (In the wake of the film, the Sioux Nation adopted him as an honorary member of the tribe.) The criticism of this genre is that it is patronizing: in order for the "natives" to be saved, a white male (usually) figure has to come in from the outside and organize/liberate them, since (the implication is) they would not be able to do this for themselves. (See also The Last Samurai, Avatar, and a whole host of American inner-city schoolteacher films.) However, a crucial element in most of the White Savior films is that the Savior himself gets saved, gets liberated in the process. Thus at the same time that Jim White's students enter the American Dream, he himself finds reason to reject it in favor of the lifestyle and values of traditional Mexican society. To my mind, this redeems the film (as well as White), and highlights the conflict of traditional vs. modern cultures. Let's look at a few examples from the movie.

-The mural of the Great Mother painted on the wall, which White said he would paint over. When he finally gets around to doing it, several weeks later, entering the room with two buckets of paint, his younger daughter tells him, "Don't even think about it." Clearly, the image has begun to percolate through the family's consciousness. (Compare this with the Starbucks computer-generated logo of the Great Mother archetype, which is nothing more than an empty corporate image. Sad to say, many Mexicans have bought into this trendy US lifestyle, sitting in cafés that have spread across Mexico like a cancer, hypnotically staring into their laptops, and drinking bad, overpriced coffee. Progress?)

-The town embraces the White family. A neighbor gives Jim a chicken. The Díaz family has him over to dinner, stuffs him with enchiladas, and gives him food to take home. "You are not family unless you eat with them," Sra. Díaz tells him. (Do even 10% of US families eat together anymore?)

-Over and over we see the town engaged in group rather than individual activities, such as a combination car wash and tamale sale, that the White family is drawn into.

-The town makes a quinceañera (coming-of-age party for girls) for Julie, Jim's older daughter, which overwhelms him, emotionally. "Gracias por todo," he tearfully announces in Spanish, to all who attended the event.

-Meanwhile, Jim comes to the attention of a rich white high school in Palo Alto, which offers him a coaching job. One of his runners finds out (from Julie, who is not happy about this), and confronts him about it: "Were you going to even tell us?" he asks, "or were you going to just run off into the sunset with those country club kids? We all get it: This is America. Gotta go bigger. Nicer place, better pay; everyone's always gonna go for the better everything. There ain't nothing American Dream about McFarland."

Jim says to his wife, regarding the job offer: "This is the situation we've always dreamed about." His wife replies: "Think of everything the town has done for us. They have protected Julie like family. You think we are going to find that in Palo Alto, or anywhere else [in the US] for that matter? Nowhere I've ever lived has felt this much like home."

-Then come the state playoffs, and Jim leads the opening cheer for the team—in Spanish: "Uno, dos, tres, McFarland!" he cries. After the match, he tells the recruiter from Palo Alto that he won't be taking the job. Jim White lives in McFarland to this day.

The psychologist Fritz Perls liked to tell the story of a Mexican farm worker who swam across the Rio Grande in search of work. Come Christmas, he swam back to visit his family, who wanted to know all about life in the mythical United States. "Well," he tells them, "the gringos are actually very nice people. There is only one thing that gets them angry: they don't like to be reminded that they are corpses."

And so the flip side of the White Savior, who breaks open a closed, dead-end life for his students, so that they can enter the American Dream, is that Jim himself becomes disenchanted with that super-individualistic, alienating dream, in which people are turned into the walking dead. He becomes, in other words, a human being.

Of course, a lot of Mexican life gets omitted from this picture. My neighbors across the street from me in Mexico are cold and rude, and used to toss their garbage off their balcony down to my front door, until a series of hostile exchanges put an end to it (more or less). In terms of being supportive as regards success, a Mexican friend told me that the society is like a pot of crabs: if one of them manages to get to the top and tries to climb out, the others pull him back down. (One of the runners' fathers in the film reacts to his son's desire to go to college by telling him, "No one needs a book in the fields".) ReviewingMcFarland, the New York Times wrote that places like McFarland are often "nightmares of crime and dysfunction," and that the film is really "a slick and safe Disney version of a fascinating and complicated reality." If the movie expresses an important truth in terms of a conflict of values, it also papers over the dark side of traditional societies as well.

As for the American Dream: it works, in this film, but by and large it is a con, as Mexicans coming up to the US (legally or illegally) eventually find out. There is the study by William Vega, mentioned above, which surely says a lot about how psychologically damaging US culture is for Mexican immigrants. And what jobs are available to them, in any case? I am reminded of that song from West Side Story, "America," in which the Puerto Ricans say that now they are free—"to wait tables and shine shoes." It goes on:

"Skyscrapers bloom in America/Cadillacs zoom in America/Industry boom in America/Twelve in a room in America!" (Etc.)

In fact, it turns out that a rather heavy reverse migration has set in, such that between 2005 and 2010, 1.4 million immigrants moved backto Mexico from the US, and 90% of these voluntarily. According to Alysa Hullett, an American reporter living in Oaxaca, these folks are lonely and miss their own culture. One immigrant she interviewed in Washington State complained that it took him eight months to meet his neighbors, whereas in Mexico City, “the whole street piles into one house for dinner.” Clearly, things have changed. A 2014 Pew Research Center survey discovered that 65% of Mexicans say they would notmove to the US if they had the means and opportunity to do so.

Surely, values must have a lot to do with this. At around the same time that Jim White was coaching his cross-country team in McFarland, Kevin Conway, owner of one of the largest farming operations in the San Joaquin Valley, was telling the American anthropologist Daniel Rothenberg:

“We’re in business to make money and bankrupt our competitors. That’s why we exist. We don’t exist for the benefit of the farming community. We don’t give a damn about the farming community. We don’t believe in promoting agriculture in general, so that all may benefit. We believe in promoting our label.”

A pretty good summary of the American ethos, it seems to me: life is about me, myself, and I; about making money, and not much else. This is the stark reality that the Mexican immigrant encounters.

As Rothenberg documents it in his book With These Hands, Mexican workers come up to the United States with images in their head of the country as a type of paradise: they are going to make a fortune up north and then return home and live like kings. It’s not a total fantasy: material life has improved for many towns in Mexico, as a result of migrant labor. But what most migrants typically get caught up in is a system of brutal exploitation—among the worst faced by the American working class. They often live in shantytowns, work 14 to 16 hours a day, make very little money, have their wages stolen from them, and are frequently subject to severe physical violence. Over the years there has been a lot of legislation attempting to curb these abuses, but as Rothenberg notes, given the “floating” nature of the farm labor system, these laws are very difficult to enforce.

There is also a heavy social and psychological cost in terms of value systems, according to Rothenberg. In Michoacán, Rodolfo Gutierrez, a student at a local university, told him: “I know a lot of guys from here who’ve gone north and returned really different, really cholo. They change—their personalities, their ideas, their clothes—their whole way of being. When they come back, they don’t show their parents the same respect.”

Also in Michoacán, Alberto Mosquera, a priest-in-training, said of the migrants that they “often lose their sense of community obligation. Their goals become individualistic and their attitudes become characteristic of North American culture. The men invest in their homes, but not in their community.”

The larger picture is that the imposition of neoliberal economics, and the American Dream, on traditional societies—whether we are talking about India, or Mexico, or Japan—allows a certain sliver of the middle class to rise to near-elite status, but at the expense of the rest of the population, and this then tears at the fabric of those societies. During the first two years of President Peña Nieto's sexenia (2012-14), 2 million more Mexicans fell below the poverty line, and Carlos Slim's personal wealth is equal to something like the combined wealth of the bottom 17 million people. This is the real upshot of the "meritocratic society," that the gap between rich and poor gets greater, not less, despite all the hype. Social mobility is largely an illusion, and certainly in the United States, which has nearly the lowest rate of social mobility among all the industrialized nations in the world, if not actually the lowest.

As for tradition vs. modernity, Oxford professor Terry Eagleton has this to say in his brilliant essay, The Illusions of Postmodernism:

"'Traditional' or pre-modern societies have a great many merits which our own set-ups lack…On the whole they have a richer sense of place, community and tradition, less social anomie, less cut-throat competition and tormented ambition, less subjection to a ruthlessly instrumental rationality and so on. On the other hand…they are often desperately impoverished, culturally claustrophobic, socially hidebound and patriarchal, and without much sense of the autonomous individual. Modernity has precisely such a sense of free individual development, with all the spiritual wealth that this brings with it; it also begins to hatch notions of human equality and universal rights largely unknown to its forebears. But we also know that this is the more civilized face of a barbarous uncaring order, one which sunders all significant relations between its members, deprives them of precious symbolic resources and persuades them to mistake the means of life for the ends of it." (Italics mine)

All I can conclude, at this point in time, is that too much traditionalism—what anthropologists call "hypercoherence"—leads to stagnation, and too much individualism and enterprise leads to chaos and alienation. Balance is finally the issue, which is one thing I took away fromMcFarland. In terms of values, Jim White was living at one extreme, his students at another. The collision of the two ways of life modified both, for the better. The real question is what this might mean on a larger political scale. For surely to have nearly half the country stuck in poverty while a small elite pursues the American Dream, can in no way be called "balance." It is, in fact, a disaster, and confronts us with a question that I, as a foreigner who has made Mexico his home, think about quite often: What would true success for Mexico be, and how is it to be achieved?

©Morris Berman, 2015


Morris Berman is well known as an innovative cultural historian and social critic. He has taught at a number of universities in Europe and North America, and has held visiting endowed chairs at Incarnate Word College (San Antonio), the University of New Mexico, and Weber State University. During 1982-88 he was the Lansdowne Professor in the History of Science at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. Berman won the Governor’s Writers Award for Washington State in 1990, the Rollo May Center Grant for Humanistic Studies in 1992, and the Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity (from the Media Ecology Association) in 2013. He is the author of a trilogy on the evolution of human consciousness–-The Reenchantment of the World (1981), Coming to Our Senses (1989), and Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality (2000)–and in 2000 his Twilight of American Culture was named a “Notable Book” by the New York Times Book Review.

Open Letter to President Putin

Anthony-Freda_empty-kingdomFrom the keyboard of Morris Berman
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Anthony-Freda_empty-kingdom

Published on Dark Ages America on October 17, 2015


Dear Mr. President:

Gaspadin:

I am writing in response to your remark–accurate in the extreme, in my opinion–that members of the American government have mush in their heads instead of brains. Indeed, Mr. Obama has no coherent foreign policy, is basically adrift, and as you have no doubt figured out long ago, is a political and intellectual lightweight. He has no idea at all of what he is doing, and this applies to the majority of American politicians. 

However, what you wrote about the members of the American government also applies to members of the country at large: they have gavno inside their heads; they are a collection of duraki. After all, as a famous American comedian once remarked, our leaders come from the people; they don't originate on Mars. The remarkable thing is that in the US, even the smart ones are dumb, due in large part to our remarkable system of brainwashing. Let me remind you of that hilarious exchange you and Mr. Obama had a while back, regarding American "exceptionalism." Your response to his speech on this topic was to rebuke him, pointing out that regarding oneself as exceptional was a potentially destructive position to take. His response–I told you, he's not very smart–was more exceptionalist propaganda. The problem is that roughly 99.99% of the American public believes this nonsense, that we were chosen by God to lead the world by example. (A bit ironic, considering the fact that that example has not been very exemplary.) There is a knee-jerk reaction in this country, whenever we have a conflict with any other country, that we are good (always innocent) and they are evil, or at the very least misguided. We don't have a great talent for looking within, and the only president who asked us to do that–Jimmy Carter–is regarded by most Americans today as a loser and a fool.

You may well wonder how this nation of "individuals" wound up with a completely uniform ideology. The Australian journalist, John Pilger, tells the story–possibly apocryphal, I have no idea–of a project undertaken by America in the wake of Stalin's death in 1953, and the beginning of a thaw or detente between our two countries. The idea was to invite about two dozen apparatchiki over to the US to view a pluralistic society, "democracy in action." They could go anywhere they wanted, unescorted, and they did: the Senate, the Supreme Court, high schools, newspapers, universities–the works. At the end of the two weeks they all convened at the White House, and the official in charge of the project, beaming with pride, said, "Well?" The response was not exactly what he expected. After an embarrassed silence, one of the Russian officials spoke up:

"How do you do it?" he asked. "To get this extreme degree of conformity of opinion, everyone thinking exactly alike, we in the USSR have to beat our citizens, send them to Siberia, put them in psychiatric hospitals and fill them with drugs, shoot them, and so on. Here, in your country, you achieve the results we can only dream about, and with no coercion at all!"

Anyway, I don't mean to condone your own methods. The assassination of critical Russian journalists under your tenures in office is notorious (Anna Politkovskaya, for example), and forgive me, but I suspect your hands aren't completely clean in these abysmal events. So quite obviously, if you want a free society that allows for real dissent, you've got a ways to go. But Pilger's example, even if it never happened, is true to the spirit of how the United States operates, and to the very low level of citizen awareness of what's really going on in the world. All of which is to say that you might as well pursue your own interests (which you are already doing), and not worry too much about what we say, because all we are doing is pursuing our interests, and it is clear enough to most of the world that American "democracy" is a pretext for the projection of power into every corner of the globe, much of it for the purpose of economic gain.

In any case, it's not very likely that you will be reading this, inasmuch as I am a very minor intellectual figure in the US, not really on the radar screen of public discussion. But if you do happen to run across this, and would like to continue the conversation, I would be glad to do so with a nice samovar of tea from Sochi sitting between us. At the very least, I can assure you that it will be a far more interesting discussion than any you have had, or are likely to have, with virtually any American political figure.

Thank you for listening (if you did). Do svidanya, and vsevo haroshevo.

-Morris Berman

 

©Morris Berman, 2015 


Morris Berman is well known as an innovative cultural historian and social critic. He has taught at a number of universities in Europe and North America, and has held visiting endowed chairs at Incarnate Word College (San Antonio), the University of New Mexico, and Weber State University. During 1982-88 he was the Lansdowne Professor in the History of Science at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. Berman won the Governor’s Writers Award for Washington State in 1990, the Rollo May Center Grant for Humanistic Studies in 1992, and the Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity (from the Media Ecology Association) in 2013. He is the author of a trilogy on the evolution of human consciousness–-The Reenchantment of the World (1981), Coming to Our Senses (1989), and Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality (2000)–and in 2000 his Twilight of American Culture was named a “Notable Book” by the New York Times Book Review.

Love and Survival

From the keyboard of Morris Berman

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 connectedness

Published on Dark Ages America on August  3, 2014

 

“When we have inner peace, we can be at peace with those around us. “

The Dalai Lama, Nobel acceptance speech, 1989


By late July, 2014, I couldn’t put it off any longer. I had been living in Mexico for almost eight years with Washington, D.C., license plates on my car, and if I wanted to apply for permanent resident status in Mexico, which I did, I would have to drive up to a Customs station at the border and “nationalize” my car, i.e., get Mexican plates. Frankly, I have never cared what passport I was carrying, or what driver’s license plates I had, as long as I could move around freely; but as I had no intention of returning to the U.S. except to visit, it seemed that the time was ripe for sorting things out with Mexico. The plates would enable me to become a permanent resident; or so my immigration adviser told me.

A little background info here: when I moved to Mexico in 2006, I was quickly “adopted” by a family in the town where I set up shop. It has been a very close relationship; I drop in on them at least once a week, and they would, and have, give(n) me their left arm if I needed it. I have already described (in A Question of Values) how they showed up in full force at the hospital, an hour away, where I had surgery in 2009, literally sleeping in my room to make sure the nurses were taking good care of me. Now, in the case of the placas (license plates), my “hermana” Raquel (not her real name) had a niece in the border town where the Customs office was located, whom (Raquel said) knew everyone and would be able to help me with the whole nationalization process. So, off I went.

Before continuing with this story, I need to say that just “coincidentally,” I was at the time reading a book by Dean Ornish called Love and Survival. It’s an intriguing study, arguing that there is much evidence to show that being immersed in a network of loving relationships significantly prolongs one’s life, strengthens one’s immune system, counteracts illness, and so on. It was first published in 1988; in the intervening years, I doubt Ornish’s data managed to impact the American medical profession in any serious way. As Ornish makes clear, this is not how the profession thinks. But let me review some of his stats and examples, in any case.

■The Roseto Study

This is an examination of an Italian-American town in eastern Pennsylvania that was found to have had a very low mortality rate for heart attacks during the first thirty years it was studied, as compared to two nearby towns. Citizens of all three towns smoked, ingested cholesterol, and in general exhibited the same physical behaviors that would be expected to impinge on human health, at roughly the same rates. But what Roseto had that the other two towns didn’t was close family ties and very cohesive community relations, including a host of traditional values and practices (religion included). However, in the late sixties and early seventies, all of this broke down. Roseto saw a loosening of family ties and a fragmentation of community relations. Concomitant with this was a substantial increase in death due to heart disease. The mortality rate rose to the same level as that of the two nearby towns.

■The Ni-Hon-San Study

This was an examination of 11,900 Japanese individuals who lived in Japan, as compared to those Japanese who had immigrated to Honolulu and San Francisco. Scientists found that the incidence of heart disease was lowest in Japan, intermediate in Hawaii, and highest in California. The closer they came to the American mainland, in other words, the sicker they became. None of this was related to differences in diet, blood pressure, smoking, cholesterol levels, and so on. The crucial factor was the degree to which each group retained a traditional Japanese culture. The Japanese-Americans who maintained family ties and community had a rate of heart disease as low as those living in Japan, whereas the most Westernized group had a three- to-fivefold increase in same.

■Ornish recounts several other studies with similar results, all indicating that beyond any physical factors, social and emotional factors—love, in a word—were No. 1 in promoting health and longevity. As an aside, I should mention a study conducted by William Vega of U.C. Berkeley that found that Mexicans living in the United States had twice the rate of mental illness as Mexicans living in Mexico:

http://berkeley.edu/news/berkeleyan/1998/1021/immigrant.html

It really comes down to the way we live.

This brings me back to my adventure with the license plates. I expected it to take two days; I wound up staying with the family of Raquel’s niece, “Brenda,” for nearly a week. The Mexican bureaucracy is something to behold, possibly worse than that of India. Just when you think you’ve got all your ducks in a row, one more obstacle pops up for you to deal with. Clearly, this was not going to be a two-day operation.

But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I don’t think I was quite prepared for what I was about to experience. Despite the fact that the family had Raquel’s word for it, that I was a fabulous guy (and who, really, could deny it?), I was a total stranger to these folks: we had never met. Yet from the moment I arrived at the front door, I was folded into the warmth of Brenda and her family as though I had been living next door to them for twenty years. It kind of took my breath away. The love that permeated this family was both dense and palpable, and I was suddenly part of it. They were literally kissing and hugging each other (and me) almost constantly. The small children related to me in the same way, not at all afraid of a strange adult, as is usually the case with American (i.e., U.S.) children. There was a coffee mug in the house that had the word “Family” printed on it (in English), with slogans like “celebrates together,” “eats together,” “laughs together,” “stays together”—a gigantic cliché, except that this family was living that cliché. If this were a U.S. sitcom, it would be regarded as a joke, a kind of satire. But this was no fantasy of some nonexistent loving community in New York, along the line of Friends. No, this was the real enchilada. (In fact, I suspect shows like Friends are popular because they depict what Americans badly want, but cannot have.)

It also turned out that family connections extended to the local bureaucracy. Without this, I could have wound up spending a month or so with Brenda & Co. (which would have been fine with them). But because business relations and official relations are not (as in the U.S.) contained in sharply different categories from family relations, Brenda was able to finesse the bureaucracy and get the job done. Within a week I had the plates, even though on the official level the obstacles were formidable. Once again, I was amazed at how the family went all out for me, ignoring their own schedules, schlepping me from one government office to another, and translating the bureaucratese into normal Spanish for me. Since they didn’t expect a peso for their efforts, I was beginning to wonder if I would ever be able to repay them. But they weren’t thinking in those terms, in any case.

A few vignettes may serve to drive home the point.

■Three doors down from Benda was a neighbor, “Elena,” who lost her daughter-in-law in a car crash fourteen months before I visited, and who (since her son was working full-time) took the two surviving grandchildren in, to raise by herself. As luck would have it, several months after that her husband of forty-one years died, and she was left alone with the two kids. Brenda’s family then swung into action, basically taking Elena and the children into their house. Elena came over several times a day, and often slept over with her grandchildren. I wish to emphasize that there was no blood relation between Elena and Brenda or her family. She was “merely” a neighbor. In the U.S., people typically don’t even know the names of the people living next door to them.

■While I was there, Brenda’s brother-in-law and his wife, who were currently living and working in China, were back in Mexico for a month’s holiday. After they came over, and after the usual flurry of hugging and kissing, “Emilio” gave each of Brenda’s kids 200 pesos. The next day, Brenda told me that “Ricky,” her seven-year-old, had wanted to give her the 200 pesos. “I don’t need it, Mami,” he said to her, “and I know you have to struggle a lot.” Brenda told me it was all she could do to keep from crying. I tried to imagine a U.S. child doing something similar, but I couldn’t. The data on the sharp decrease in empathy in America during the past three decades are well-established.

■Half an hour ago, while I was sitting in the living room writing this essay, Ricky came through, went to the kitchen, fetched himself a popsicle (bolis) out of the fridge, and then asked me if I wanted him to get me one. This to a foreigner sixty-three older than himself, whom he knew for all of three days.

■Emilio, his wife, and I had a long and interesting discussion about life in China. They were extremely intelligent and articulate; it was the kind of discussion that is generally hard to have in the United States anymore, because Americans are, by and large, not very articulate, not particularly interested in other nations, and given to “thinking” in slogans. On another occasion, Brenda’s husband, “Jorge,” said to me: “I mean no disrespect, but can you tell me why the United States always has to go to war with someone? And why it supports Israel, which is massacring women and children in Gaza?” Why indeed. Should I have replied, “Because we are a collection of ignorant, and quite violent, people, who are suffering for lack of the kind of family life you and Brenda have, and thus need to hurt other human beings as a result”? But of course, I respected his honest questions, and we had a good discussion of issues that most U.S.-persons don’t give a damn about.

Brenda told me that every time she goes to the U.S., she has the impression that Americans believe that Mexicans sit around under trees wearing sombreros and drinking cerveza all the time. But that’s only part of the stereotype, of course; overall, it’s that Mexicans are backward, inferior, living a million miles from the “progress” exhibited by the go-go capitalism of their northern neighbors. And yet, what is the family and social life of that “superior” civilization? A divorce rate of 50 percent; kids who are abandoned, both emotionally and literally; the highest number of single-person dwellings of any country in the world; the greatest amount of antidepressant use of any country in the world; and—as many studies have by now affirmed—a large population living lives of quiet desperation. In the occasional “world happiness studies” that appear from time to time, Mexico typically ranks in the top five, whereas the U.S. is much farther down the list.

All of this is not to suggest that life in Mexico is perfect. It’s not, by a long shot, and an annoying bureaucracy is a minor issue compared to the poverty, corruption, and racial bias that are depressingly rampant in Mexican society. But on the interpersonal level, the country has got things right. It doescelebrate family, as that coffee mug says; its priorities are not ones of hustling, trying to make huge amounts of money, being “important,” or getting “ahead” (of what, exactly?). I have a saying I like to repeat, from time to time, that in Mexico nothing works and everything works out, whereas in the United States, everything works and nothing works out. That’s been my experience after eight years of living here.

So yes, dear reader, I got my plates. But that was the least of what I got. Gracias, Brenda; voy a regresar.

 

©Morris Berman, 2014

Morris Berman is well known as an innovative cultural historian and social critic. He has taught at a number of universities in Europe and North America, and has held visiting endowed chairs at Incarnate Word College (San Antonio), the University of New Mexico, and Weber State University. During 1982-88 he was the Lansdowne Professor in the History of Science at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. Berman won the Governor’s Writers Award for Washington State in 1990, the Rollo May Center Grant for Humanistic Studies in 1992, and the Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity (from the Media Ecology Association) in 2013. He is the author of a trilogy on the evolution of human consciousness–-The Reenchantment of the World (1981), Coming to Our Senses (1989), and Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality (2000)–and in 2000 his Twilight of American Culture was named a “Notable Book” by the New York Times Book Review.

 

 

Our Exciting Future: 2016

From the keyboard of Morris Berman

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 Mitt-Romney-2016

 

Published on Dark Ages America on June 19, 2014

 

It's kind of fun, watching the American media getting all worked up about the 2016 presidential election, 2+ years in advance. As if it mattered, who was in the White House. As if the important national decisions emerged from a mouthpiece of the corporations, the banks, and the military, as opposed to originating with the corporations, the banks, and the military, themselves. And if the media are clueless, so are the American people, of course, who get very exercised over the differences between Tweedledee and Tweedledum. (One party is insane, and the other is full of shit.) Well, as I keep telling you guys, the American people aren't exactly a collection of Einsteins.


Nevertheless, I confess that I got all hot and bothered myself over the following article that just appeared on CNN:

 

Poll: Romney the frontrunner in 2016?

 

(CNN) – He's said over and over that he won't run for the White House a third time, but a new poll indicates that if Mitt Romney changed his mind and made another bid for president, he'd be the frontrunner among Republicans in the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire.

According to the Suffolk University/Boston Herald survey, which was released Thursday, 24% of Granite State Republicans and independents who lean towards the GOP say that Romney would be their first choice for their party's presidential nomination.

Among the potential 2016 GOP contenders, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was a distant second, at 9%, with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky at 8%, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at 7%.

While the survey may make headlines, it's important to remember that Romney's very well known in New Hampshire. He owns a vacation home in the state, has often appeared at GOP events in New Hampshire, and was governor of neighboring Massachusetts. Romney easily won the 2012 Republican primary, but lost the state by six percentage points to President Barack Obama in the general election.

Romney on 2016: 'The answer is no'

And the 2012 GOP presidential nominee has been very clear about his 2016 intentions.

"I'm not running," Romney said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," a line Romney's used in interviews every time he's asked about whether he'll make a third bid for the White House. Romney's wife, Ann, has also been adamant against another run.

"Very sorry, Mrs. Romney. We had to ask the question," Suffolk University Political Research Center Director David Paleologos joked to CNN…. Paleologos added that the results speak to "the weakness of the GOP field at this point in time."

Without Romney, Christie and Paul were tied at 11% as the first choice for the nomination among Republicans in New Hampshire, with Bush and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas each at 8%.

The Suffolk University/Boston Herald poll was conducted June 14-15 and June 17-18, with 800 likely voters in New Hampshire questioned by telephone. The survey's overall sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

 

The fact is, I was brokenhearted, two years ago, when Mittney lost. He is my kinda guy, really: a walking haircut with nothing underneath it. America deserves no less, IMO. And what's the alternative, really? Hillary, a major yawn. What is she? A lackey of the imperial state, who knows who her friends are (the corporations, the banks, and the military). All we can expect–and she's likely to win, sad to say–is an extension of the Obama presidency; which is to say, ad hoc crisis management, to no purpose at all. She's a tedious person; every time I see that depressed, pasty face in the news, I think of 3-day-old cottage cheese.

The tragedy of Mittney is that no one really understood that he stood for absolutely nothing at all, and at this juncture in American history, when decline is the inevitable order of the day, that's a good thing. Who better to lead us into the American "future," namely nowhere, than a Nowhere Man? He keeps saying he's not a candidate anymore, but if polls have him as the GOP "frontrunner," maybe he'll reconsider. Yes, he's a moron; but Hillary is a douche bag. I know whom I'd rather have leading us into the abyss. And so it is with some fervor, I hope not entirely futile, that I feel compelled to cry out:

COME BACK, LITTLE MITTNEY! WE LOVE YOU! DON'T FAIL US IN OUR HOUR OF NEED!

 

©Morris Berman, 2014

Morris Berman is well known as an innovative cultural historian and social critic. He has taught at a number of universities in Europe and North America, and has held visiting endowed chairs at Incarnate Word College (San Antonio), the University of New Mexico, and Weber State University. During 1982-88 he was the Lansdowne Professor in the History of Science at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. Berman won the Governor’s Writers Award for Washington State in 1990, the Rollo May Center Grant for Humanistic Studies in 1992, and the Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity (from the Media Ecology Association) in 2013. He is the author of a trilogy on the evolution of human consciousness–-The Reenchantment of the World (1981), Coming to Our Senses (1989), and Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality (2000)–and in 2000 his Twilight of American Culture was named a “Notable Book” by the New York Times Book Review.

[amazon text=www.amazon.com&template=carousel&asin=B00A323CPU, B00KSR2Z6Mz, B00JSZMC5E, B00I7J6BEU, B00D0O7AZ, B00HWGLW9I, B0015KGXR8, B0097DHRMK, B00J39MTF8, B00GO83VUI]

 

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