Whither goes the American Rebel (guest essay) (May 23, 2009)
This essay is from contributor Subuddh P. and complements his essay of last week; you may contact him via his website honjaku.com.
Along with the Pilgrims, the other enduring dominant American story is of the rebel, the one who says to hell with the world I am doing it my way. We love stories of such rebels, those who went their own way and were successful at it. But what is the future of the American Rebel today? What is left to rebel against?
Go West young man, what did that mean? It meant pack up your bags, leave your old job, say "Up Yours"(UY) to the Boss, pack the family into the wagon and head on west. There land was cheap as the Indians were being killed off and you could start fresh. All the pain of the old could be forgotten and a new space could be created. In this new space there was a chance it could be different and there was the lively expectation that things would work better, life would be bountiful and happy.
This is the essence of the American dream that draws people from all over the world. It is not so much the political freedoms or even lack thereof in the old land but the psychic cultural space to create something new, to get away from the routines and cultural expectations of the old. In Mexico you are Mexican, in Germany you are German. In America you don't have to be anything, nobody cares.
Like all things this has benefits and pitfalls. The new cultural space allows for great creativity. But while folklore celebrates the people who upped and 'made it', it does not document the pain of the people who did not, who got lost. For leaving your culture isn't easy. There is no guarantee that when you prospect for gold you will find it. You could just as easily end up all alone in the ghost town wondering where your life went.
If you leave the old you leave its securities and its stability. What will you do with yourself in the new empty space? Before you knew who you were, now you don't.
Historically when people went west they were either the loner prospector kind or they went with their family. In every new place the church and the faith served as the fulcrum of life, and provided some stability, a space where community could be found and a new life could be built.
But the first casualty of the rebel streak was that of grandparents. When the option presented itself, it was the easiest thing to grab it and move away from the nagging parents. So for the first time in human history children grew up without any extended family close by, without any role models outside of their parents.
The next step was to say UY to any shared space altogether. Historically even when nomadic peoples moved, they moved in groups. Today people up and move all by themselves living in one single apartment after another. With widespread acceptance of no fault divorce and single working parents, even the shared space of parenting shrank.
Saying UY especially all by yourself, also created insecurity. So personal hospitality became difficult, even inviting your close friends for a cup of coffee seemed a chore. In the secure cultures of the old world personal hospitality is considered necessary and good. But to be hospitable you need to know who you are; you need to be secure in yourself, you have to see the outsider as a welcome guest, not an invader intruding on your space.
No family, no sense of duty what else is there to do but entertain yourself to death? And this we know how to do very well.
Today we elevate the rebel to Everestian heights and then enjoy hearing stories of their fall down. Our media loves it. So everyone wants to be a Rebel, wants to do it their own way.
It can border the theater of the absurd: go to a job interview and you might hear how your prospective employers are changing the world, when they really are doing nothing of the sort. You will also hear how they are looking for people who are passionate about the job. But as technology replaces jobs that humans had done, outside of the very highly skilled knowledge workers, work gets more and more tedious and routine. The lies required to maintain the fiction of passion get bigger and bigger.
Finally you can't get off on saying UY and still expect the people you have dismissed to care about you. A colleague of mine has enjoyed saying no to everything all her life. This is her badge of honor: she didn't follow conventions, didn't commit to a partner, didn't climb the career ladder and whatever else.
But as she is showing her disdain for society, going her own way, she sneaks a glance over her shoulder. Who is paying attention to her, she wants to know? After all society should care about her grand rebellion, her rejection of others. It must give her a prize and a medal, it must give her a financial reward. Of course, nobody cares, nobody is listening.
As it is then the Anglo-sphere has entered a strange intellectual detachment. The chasm between our ideas of who we are and anything we actually are, between our expectations and what life can give us is as wide as the grand canyon and seems to be only growing.
For the last five hundred years this Anglo-sphere has dominated the cultural trends of the world. My aforementioned colleague holds onto the belief that she is doing something great for humanity - that she is a trend setter and everyone should really want to be like her.
She believes this as she contemplates the second half of her life alone continuing to say UY, holding onto a meager paying job that could be cut anytime, few friends, no family. To all but the most intellectually detached this would seem extremely strange.
So what is the future of the American Rebel? What more can we say UY to? Perhaps some will say UY to saying UY and a great cry of relief will be heard. The politically correct culture is ripe to be rebelled against. Perhaps we might say thanks but no thanks to some of that virulent perfecting energy at least in places where no perfection is possible. But whatever it is, it will be interesting.
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