Monday, 13 December 2010

Dealing with American Dreams

Dear Der Spiegel: Thanks for your thoughtful cover story on the American Dream. As a retired university professor of American Literature, I used to tell my students that Am Lit was the greatest “unread” literature in human history, and that a people who didn’t read their great writers would eventually lose their minds.

Three generations of infantilizing television have done the trick, as my former English professor colleague Neil Postman predicted in his prescient book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death”. Alas, that is our current predicament. Instead of the wisdom of our great writers like Whitman, Twain, and Melville, our lazy sandboxed masses listen daily to media morons like Rush Limbaugh whose shtick the last time I tuned him in was repeatedly referring to our President as Imam Obama. For such trash, Newsweek just reported that he made $53 million last year as well as that magazine’s cover story on American “leadership”.

I came to Weimar ten years ago to research the idealism of Walter Gropius. In graduate school I was taken by Nicholas Pevsner’s observation that Pius wanted to create a school where art and technology could fuse “to bring good design to the working classes”. Alas, that still pertinent ideal was scotched by the Cleveland parvenu Philip C. Johnson, who talked MOMA/New York into underwriting his obsession that only Art, capital A, not the client’s needs and desires, mattered in Architecture. Luckily for US, the brand new MOMA leadership with Barry Bergdoll has changed their tune to “humanitarian architecture”. (See my blog www.MyGobal a homeless working class boy in Depression Detroit( I worked the auto factories to finance my doctorate) that Bauhaus ideal was irresistible. When Weimar became the Cultural Capital of Europe in 1999, I came to visit—and stayed!

America’s “Exceptionally” sad story begins with the seventeenth century Puritan hubris that we were an Exceptional People God blessed to lead the world. Eventually this self-bestowed arrogance was deployed to cover up our two Original Sins -- Indian genocide and black slavery. Indeed we have become a schizoid nation, alternating between bold initiatives like the Peace Corps and perennial outbreaks of anti-immigrant violence. The current Tea Party frenzies led by that zero from Alaska is the latest manifestation. There, sad to say, will be more and more such outbreaks if America never grows up.

Look at the math. Top executives outearned workers 30 to one in the 1970’s. Now it’s a scandalous 300 to one ratio. Ronald Reagan that glib B actor unleashed the madness when he proclaimed a return to an era where Americans could be rich, breaking the air controllers union as his first maneuver. He urged overpaid execs to kill the other unions that had made a growing middle class possible by outsourcing, first to Mexico, then to Asia. And he jettisoned regulations that led Wall Street to concoct hateful “derivatives” with which finagling financiers could even make a bundle betting on bad investments. And Wall Street’s response was outrageous bonuses after Obama bailed them out.

Ike warned Us about the dangers of the military-industrial complex in his final address to the nation. But we ignored his warning as every congressional district maneuvered by gerrymandering their cut of the expenses of war. Nixon cynically rejected the draft because he (correctly) predicted the anti-Vietnam students would stop bellyaching if they didn’t have to join an all volunteer army. So America built a two class army, working class soldiers and elite commanders.

While every congressional district got their cut of the boodling war budget (Cheney cannily made it possible for his Halliburton and their Blackwater to steal freely as mercenaries beyond the law) and his lapdog “superior” landed on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln to declare so very prematurely” Mission Accomplished”, wrapped in the flier gear he went AWOL in during the Vietnam War. Meanwhile our infrastructures deteriorate at an increasing rate! Our schools are jokes. And our rhetoric unbelievable.

One final note: “The American Dream” as a national motto dates only from our 1930’s Depression, a facile whistling in the dark slogan, trumped only by ad exec Fairfax Cone’s silly bleat about the 1957 recession: “Don’t worry: America is still the All Time Hit on America’s Hit Parade”. It was the headline the night I got my Ph.D. Whew! They had me worried.

Meanwhile, back in my 1784 villa, upgraded in 1999, Seifengasse 10, Weimar (Goethe lived a #1 and his rich, untouchable girlfriend Charlotte von Stein at #25, where she covered for the secretive Duchess Anna Amalia), I flinch at the way Germans seem to spell Goethe God! (I’m a Schiller man, ever since I learned how Goethe exploited his working class lover, Ms. Vulpius, marrying her after twenty years, only to de-bastardize his son.) And I thrill at the way the general public here are fighting to keep Hellmut Seemann, a superb administrator, head of the Weimar Classic Foundation, against the machinations of an uppity legislator. Now there’s healthy politics. Oh, and I just sold my Louie Kahn house in Philadelphia. I’m here to stay, Johann!

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