Not long after the needle dropped on the new Wilco record, Schmilco, I heard the pejorative lyric “Always afraid of those normal American kids.” It’s a good song, for those of us alt-rock, alt-country, noise-rock fans (which I think has now become “Dad-rock”), but I immediately reacted negatively: do we have to have another cultural critique? Jeff Tweedy is a little older than I am, a GenXer in his 40s (he’s 49), so I know he’s heard how bad America is his whole life. When it comes to American culture, I have never seen or heard anything but criticism. What cultural or popular fad, meme, or trend has there ever been, in my lifetime, that praises normal American kids? Still, it’s a great song, very appropriate, reflecting my own experiences, yada yada yada…
When I was 21, I visited my uncle, who lives in Munich, a large city in Bavaria which has its own nefarious near history. In fact, at the time, he lived in a large house, even by American standards, on the Starnberger See, very close to the Schloss Neuschwanstein, Crazy King Luey’s swan song, before he kinda sorta drowned/was drowned before he could drain all the money from all the pockets in Bavaria to build it, and which inspired Walt Disney. Before both my feet had crossed the threshold to his home, my uncle declared, in his very best broken English, “George Bush is evil.” Those were his first words to me; I’d never met him before. Here is my nephew, the son of my beloved sister. I shall greet him, I the son of two Nazis, by deeming his head of state evil.
This is the milquetoast George H. W. Bush, by the way.
Eventually, I shrugged it off, the offense redeemed by some grilled weisswurst and enormous pretzels. Oh, and beer.
It is my great fortune to work in Canada three days a week, but Canadian cuisine is not quite enough to redeem the same offenses, which are given on a weekly basis, especially now that Trump is threatening to take over the nuclear codes, surely damning the world to a nuclear winter. But even twelve years ago, long before Trump was a national political figure, the greeting was tinged with America is evil.
A student of mine this fall, even, a gentleman from Punjab, an immigrant to Canada, one of those fellows who really is smarter than the professor (and by a long shot), but who is kind enough not to shame me, said, when I first introduced myself to him, without any context nor any provocation, “America can’t be number one. No way, not with seventeen percent literacy. American can’t be number one.” Perhaps he said seventy-six percent; I don’t remember. I shrugged, being a guest in a very nice country Nevertheless, this unprovoked outburst against America was telling, and it did fertilize a few thoughts.
Why did he instantly refer to America’s literacy rate? That was interesting. His rhetorical move, there, was reminiscent of that notorious clip from The Newsroom, in which Jeff Daniels lists off all the things that demonstrably takes America down a few pegs. How long ago was that? Five years ago? Who was expressing pride in America five years ago? When was the last time you heard anyone of any intellectual or cultural capacity uttering the jingoistic “We’re number one!”? Donald Trump’s campaign slogan assumes the exact opposite! Jeff Daniels’ speech, of course, is an American Left wet dream, filled with metrics. America can’t possibly be number one. I mean, you’ve got to watch out for those normal American kids.
I was visiting other family over there, in Germany, which put me in the working and middle class neighborhoods throughout the region of Baden-Wurttemberg, you know, Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, and Baden-Baden. Traveling back and forth to see grandparents (divorced), uncles, and cousins put me on the mass transit system many afternoons, where I could witness the behavior of normal German kids, just released from their literacy-building centers. Lookit, you’ve got to believe me when I tell you: German culture has never actually forsworn pagan culture. After seeing that unceasing cacophony day after day, I honestly don’t know how Western Civilization is going to survive, guided by those normal German kids.
Why literacy? Why did he glom onto that metric? How is literacy associated with greatness? When was America ever first in literacy? Was America ever great?
It must be discomfiting for the many non-Americans who must answer to this great nation, the United States of America, observing that it is truly ruled by stupid and superstitious people. And I know, for example, that my Punjab student, like so many who were given just a tiny advantage in birth, who took care of that advantage so that he might by careful living and hard work emigrate from a crowded, impoverished, violent hellhole to a great nation of peace and freedom like Canada, must be infuriated to see Americans laze about, scratching their full bellies, living like kings, and squealing about the unfairness of a little state redistribution, the hypocrites. There’s no way America can be number one, no way, not ruled by people like that. My God, they might even elect Donald Trump!
Is America great? It can’t be, can it? Not now, not run by those whose names appear on the first page of the Boston area phone book. It should be run by those whose names appear atop the Dean’s List at Harvard and MIT; then America would be great. In that day and at that time (may it hasten unto us!), policy would align with carefully investigated and researched university and foundation policy papers, and America could truly take its place in the pantheon of all the other run-of-the-mill social democracies, without error and with social justice. That would be greatness, greatness which can be measured according to so many delightful metrics.
As for me, I far prefer pursuing happiness, over against just about anything else. To me, true national greatness is a nation whose domestic policy is less policy, more distrust of government implementation, whose justice is worked out as locally as possible. I suppose the vestiges of that ideal are being cleaned up and swept away, regardless of whichever evil we choose this November. I think it is true now, as it was true then: “Always afraid of those normal American kids.”