After living in England for twenty five years I came back to my homeland, and I’m just beginning to dry out…
Seriously, I’m glad to have returned to the USA, and having lived abroad for a quarter of a century it was fascinating to observe the changes in America during that time. I left for England in 1979. That was the year Margaret Thatcher was elected. Pope John Paul the Great was elected the year before. Reagan the year after. Looking back on those years one can see what an amazingly historic era we lived through.
On my return to the USA in 2006 one of the things I noticed immediately was what might be called the homogenization of America. Because of the increase of franchised businesses, companies going national and standardized zoning regulations, every town in America looked the same. The suburbs were all pretty and had twee names like Windsor Woods, Sunningdale, Worcester Gardens or Pheasant Run. Outside town would be a motor mile with glossy car lots and just where you would expect them you would find the shopping mall and the carefully landscaped retail centers with tastefully themed artificial facades. Small towns and country life still existed, but it seemed most of America had been turned into one vast, cultivated and manicured Disneyland.
Heck, even going out to get a bite to eat was part of theme park America. You didn’t simply go out to eat. It had to be an experience. Do you want the Italian experience? Here is a fake Tuscan villa you can eat in. There’s an artificial shrimp fisherman’s shack to get your seafood. Over there is a fake hacienda for your tacos. Here’s a faux Irish pub and over there is the palace of a Chinese warlord where you can gnosh down on some sesame chicken. The Japanese steak house looked like a real minka and the cooks appeared right at your table to perform an entertaining routine with onion rings. Here in the South you had to search for an authentic barbecue joint because the fake ones grabbed your attention first.
I can remember when I lived in England, I discovered that the local aristocrat had taken his family to Disneyworld for a vacation. This, in itself, was an error in taste on his part. English aristocrats aren’t supposed to do that. They go on vacation to their villa in the South of France or get tickets to Wimbledon. He was a bit embarrassed therefore that I had discovered this forgivable faux pas. So with a bit of Yankee insouciance I asked him what he thought of Disneyworld. I’ll never forget his on target droll response, “I must say you Yanks can certainly do amazing things with plastic.”
If we are not careful our entire life becomes plasticized. Plastic surgery being the epitome of this search for some kind of American instant Nirvana.
Does it matter? Am I being a snob? A hypocrite? A grump?
I should stop and forswear such snobbery. In fact, I enjoy plastic Disney America too. How can you not appreciate the genuine benefits of an affluent, nice lifestyle?
However, what disturbs me is not so much the plastic artificiality of modern suburban American life, but the assumptions that lie beneath so much of our contemporary culture. The assumptions are that we can control just about everything, and not only that we can control things but we should. We are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and boy oh boy are we ever going to do that happiness thing!
The problem with putting happiness first is that happiness is a shifting quality that depends on external conditions. This must lead to a sad superficiality. “If I can only fix the way I look I’ll be happy” we say as we go on another diet and trip to the gym, the surgeon, the orthodontist or the cosmetologist. This holds hands with a shallow materialism. “If I only have that house or live in that neighborhood or have that car, vacation or clothes then I’ll be happy.”
When this underlying philosophy (or lack of any philosophy) is melded with relativism we end up totally adrift. Without any stability or roots in anything deeper we become subject to the whims of our emotions. Without any objective belief system what is left but subjective opinions, and when pressed subjective opinions are never more than emotions.
So, combined with the plastic world of suburban America is a relativistic philosophy of mere sentiment. That’s a long way of saying, “Our lives are governed by what we feel rather than any objective, rooted and grounded philosophy.” Now that all seems well and good as long as those emotions are nice emotions. So when things are going well it is easy to be governed by nice, tolerant, polite emotions. We approve of this objectively immoral act because it wouldn’t be nice to say “No.” We go along with that political agenda because it doesn’t feel good to be negative. We accept outrageous behavior from bad people because it feels nice to be nice. After all, America is about the pursuit of happiness and if those weird things make those people feel happy….if that is their Disneyland, well who are we to judge? That wouldn’t be nice now would it?
The problem with being ruled by emotions however, is that not all emotions are nice emotions. Being sweet, kind, polite and tolerant is just hunky dory as long as it lasts, but there are other emotions like lust, wrath, revenge, bitterness, resentment, jealousy and rage, and these emotions are only just below the surface. If we allow ourselves to be ruled by emotions, it will not be long before we discover that we have married a harridan, and not only a harridan but a sorceress.
The fun people who seemed to be looking only for acceptance and for people to be nice to them will soon turn. The mask will drop. The happy parades will cease. The smiles will turn to snarls and the knives will come out. The plea for acceptance will become a demand for affirmation and the demand for affirmation will become enforced celebration.
That’s why theme parks always have a House of Horror…
Because there is a dark side to our Disneyland.