Thursday, October 16, 2003

I figure at least half the readers of this blog are American, so I'd appreciate some answers to the following questions: Are you unhappy? Anguished? Anxious? Nervous? Insecure? Frightened?

La Vanguardia thinks you are, and they're telling their readers that you are. 200,000 buy the paper every day and probably double that number read it, maybe more; it's a local custom here in Spain, the country where people don't buy the paper daily, for the cafes and bars and lunch counters to have a newspaper for their clients' perusal. That's a lot of readers. In addition, the Vangua is considered to be the most prestigious of Catalan newspapers (not Catalan-language, since 98% of it is in Spanish).

The Vangua has been firing out this trope or meme or whatever the hip word is these days full-blast for years, but they seem to have decided to pour on the heavy artillery recently. You're probably bored with my writing about it, because it keeps coming up and I keep denouncing it. I promise this is the last time for a couple of weeks, no matter how persistent they are with their propagation of their "Americans are unhappy and frightened" theme.

What I bet you're wondering is why this is so important to them. I mean, an article every few months on this subject wouldn't be too big a deal, but they're hammering this one home almost every single day. This image of America must be very dear to their hearts.

I suspect that it has the same cause as a lot of anti-Americanism, envy and jealousy (which you can see dripping off the first two sentences of the interviewer's introduction). Catalonia is a medium-sized region of a medium-sized European country, and Barcelona is a medium-sized European city. In the eyes of the world they're no big deal and they know it, and they don't like it. It's a self-esteem thing. In order to make up for their relative political and economic insignificance, one of the things that Catalans insist on is your agreeing with them that Catalonia is the most wonderful place in the world to live. We may not be the richest or the strongest or the best-educated or the most powerful or the most creative ethnicity in the world, but goddammit, we have the best lifestyle. This is very important to their viewpoint about the world.

Now, it's perfectly reasonable for Catalans to want to believe this. The problem, though, is that they want other people to accept the "fact" that the Catalan lifestyle is "the best". Well, actually, everybody believes that his neck of the woods is the best. Now, I like Catalonia very much, and that's why I live here, and I enjoy the Catalan lifestyle, but I don't rank it as the best lifestyle in the world and this is what really bothers Catalan nationalists about me.

I don't think you can rank lifestyles. I like the lifestyle pretty much everywhere in North America and Western Europe. If you told me to go live in Montreal or Denver or Charlotte or London or Milan or Madrid or Toulouse, I'd be just about as happy, probably. Each of those places is going to have its advantages and its disadvantages, just like Catalonia does.

Oh, well. Here we go. The interviewer is Lluis Amiguet and the interviewee is Mark Costello, billed as an American author of crime fiction of some significance. He is an ex-DA. I had never heard of him, but he gets the daily back-page interview today.

The power of nations is not that of its armies or companies. The measure of the greatness of a country does not come from its area or its budget, but from its capacity to provide well-being to all its citizens. The United States is the first military power, but today it is vary far from being the happiest country on Earth, and because of this the novels of Costello, De Lillo, or Franzen are the grain of sand in the gearbox of the American happiness machine. They uncover the anxiety vomiting hidden behind a Mickey disguise in some toilet at Disney World...

Q. I don't think you're an optimist.
A. I'm not. I had my first war against terrorism long before Bush. The gangs in the ghettos were direct terrorism against the poorest Americans who are shot dead every day, but the millionaires who sent an army to Iraq don't care about or worry about these deaths.
Q. The surveys supported that war.
A. Really? Everything is virtual. Now those who rule can conveniently label anyone with a foreign face a terrorist and continue leaving our neighborhoods abandoned in terror.

Q. There are secret agents in your novels.
A. Yes, but they're not the ones that appear in Tom Clancy books or the movies.
Q. They're bored, fed up, anxious bureaucrats. They seem like spies out of Sartre.
A. America has given its culture to the world, a culture of instant gratification until you're sick. Thirsty? Have a Coke. Hungry? There's a McDonald's. Nervous? A cigarette. Bored? Read Tom Clancy. That's literature in my culture.
Q. A best seller can be entertaining.
A. It is. And Americans learn to believe that the immediate satisfaction of every need is happiness. If you're not hungry, thirsty, nervous, or have a headache, if you never get bored because you always have something to do or at least to look at, you must be happy.
Q. However...
A.We share with you the human condition of postmodernity: the citizens of the opulent world live dispersed, anxious, nervous, because this anxiety is the price of so much supply.

Q. What kind of supply?
A. Hundreds, thousands of products you can buy and an infinite variety of travel, of TV channels, of movies, books, museums, theaters, shops...
Q. And, unfortunately, Visa cards to spend with without stopping.
A. We're overexcited and overinformed. The result of so much opulence is that we always feel as if we should be somewhere else.
Q. And maybe we should be.
A. We should certainly start by turning off the TV and looking at the sky. This anxiety caused by the pressure of the supply of consumer goods day and night in the form of thousands of daily advertising impacts is universal and I see it portrayed by Gunter Grass, Primo Levy (sic), or Eduardo Mendoza, but in America we give it a different answer.

Q. Do they eat more?
A. Of course, but above all it's the violence and the constant fear of violence. Obsession about security, paranoia toward all the real or imaginary dangers that threaten us. Because, in addition, they teach us from a very young age that everything is possible and the past does not exist. This is very democratic, but it causes us a lot of insecurity.
Q. "The Frightened States of America".
A. Yes, the bad thing is that we've caused the whole planet to feel our fear. And if a country doesn't feel like us, threatened by the terrorist who are no doubt out there in some faraway country, it is our enemy. That's why today to the Third World we don't stand for liberty or democracy, or even soda pop: we stand for armies and bombs. We are terror.

Q. Cheer up, mate. things will get better.
A. My job is not selling happiness. I'm not Tom Clancy. I can't say do your job and you'll get your reward and you're in the best country in the best of all worlds. I can't say that because it isn't true.
Q. Are things getting worse?
A. Americans and Europeans are getting more and more different, we're going in different directions, and it's going to be more difficult to understand each other.
Q. Everyone could change for the better.
A. I love my country, the country of Jefferson and Lincoln. the country of refugees from all dictatorships, but not that of George Bush, who hasn't even won a clean election, at least not yet.

No point responding to this guy. He's full of half-baked rewarmed Chomsky and thinks he's cool for being able to refer to "Candide", as if he were the only person who'd ever read it. I imagine all of you can take Mr. Costello's ravings apart just as well or better than I can, so I won't bother. I do believe all moderate Americans, mainstream Democrats or Republicans, would consider this guy Costello to be an extreme leftist whose ideas are not shared by most Americans or by most foreign observers; he's not representative. Yet by giving him the back-page interview, that's exactly what La Vanguardia is presenting him as.

And boy, they're insistent about finding any source possible of the "Americans are a miserable sad frightened people" meme or trope or libel or stereotype or insult or condescension or whatever you want to call it. Wonder where they dug this Costello guy up?

No comments: