So, rather than the careful, sober analysis that such a trip deserves, I offer up a few random thoughts on things that captured my imagination.
The United States is a sick society, caught up in a pique of hyper-consumerism in an unsuccessful attempt to fill the psychological void of post-industrialism. It's nothing new to suggest that literally everything is for sale in the US, but it's still unnerving to see it close up.
A few examples help illustrate the point.
Inside many trains on the New York subway is wall-to-wall advertising for self-improvement of all kinds, from hair regrowth to breast enhancements to anxiety medication to eyebrow threading to hokey Jesus-love. Staring at that for an hour commute day after day can't help but leave you feeling woefully inadequate about things that are perfectly normal. Buying your way to physical and mental perfection is destined to fail, but it doesn't stop people buying and selling the dream.
Enormous serves of food are the norm, as if the mound of fatty morsels on the plate are an emblem of prosperity and success. An abundance of fast food outlets sell an abundance of sheer mediocrity, and people lap it up unthinkingly. Overwhelmingly, these places focus exclusively on the quantity of the food sold and make no claims as to it's quality.
Unthinking displays of patriotism dull the critical senses. The ubiquity of flag needs to be seen to be truly understood, with flags on most buldings, appearing on many cars and incorporated into a large number of corporate logos. Sadly this jingoism corrupts public debate, with ideas evaluated not according to their inherent value, but according to their degree of patriotism. One need not show that an idea is a good one, but that it is "the American way" or that it is "what the founding fathers intended". Witness the debate over the troop surge in Iraq or gun control. Patriotism, not efficacy, becomes the most important measure of worth.
Interest in celebrity has reached the point of obsession. America has spawned a generation of deeply vain but utterly talentless fresh meat who become famous for nothing more than their own vacuousness. The latest generation of celebrity themed reality shows insult their makers, their participants and their viewers, but still they are enthusiastically lapped up. I'm still not sure whether the reality TV show idea I heard was satirical or genuine: a group of nerds compete for the right to lose their virginity to an attractive celerity. Such an obsession with the famous surely reflects deep personal inadequacies amongst those who gawk admiringly.
Individually, these examples mean little, but taken together they present a picture of a society in a deep malaise. Accepting the massive difficulties of generalising about an entire nation, especially one as diverse as the United States, it seems that American society has entered an intellectual paralysis and has lost the ability to reflect on itself. Headstrong consumerism, with a foreign policy to match, has become a substitute for taking a long hard look in the mirror.
There are, of course, a few noble exceptions to the slow collective suicide of American society. A spectacular array of street press provide witty, incisive commentary on the state of the nation, and show a keen eye for feature writing and investigation that their more conservative daily newspapers could learn from. Kudos ought go to papers such as The Village Voice, the Austin Chronicle, the Chicago Reader and New Orlean's Gambit Weekly. The indefatiguable folks at The Onion still continue to pump out satire that hits just the right note.
American society is a great society, and we ought be eternally thankful for it fighting and winning the two great battles against tyranny of the twentieth century, first against Fascism and then against Communism. We must stand side by side with it in its battle against a third tyranny, Islamic fundamentalism. One hopes that it can shake off its cultural and intellectual mediocrity, which is condemning its people to an endless cycle of trashy pop culture and unthinking patriotism.
One final snippet comes in the form of a minor controversy over the lack of release for of a subversive black comedy my Office Space director Mike Judge. According to John Patterson at The Guardian:
The plot: in the future, the educated and intelligent will be massively out-bred by moronic A-type prison-fodder and Nascar idiots, to the point that all knowledge of engineering, agriculture, medicine and literature will be lost to misty memory. Luke Wilson plays ordinary Joe Bowers, chosen to be frozen by the military in 2005, who accidentally wakes up in 2505 to find a broken-down, thuggish America where language has become a patois of football chants, hip-hop slang and grunts denoting rage, pleasure and priapic longing, where citizens are obese, violent, ever-horny and narcotised by consumerism, TV and fast food. Everything's branded, and people have names such as BMW, Mountain Dew and Frito. TV features the Violence Channel (its signature show: "Ow, My Balls!") and the Masturbation Channel ("Keepin' America 'batin' for 300 years!"). The President's a Smackdown champ and porno superstar, and there's a mulleted wrestler on the billion-dollar bill. And everyone in the future thinks that Joe Bowers, suddenly the smartest man on earth, "talks like a fag".
There is venomous anti-corporate satire throughout the movie, remarkable mainly because Judge names real corporations. I was astounded - and invigorated - by the sheer vitriol Judge directs at these companies, who surely now regret permitting the use of their licensed trademarks. Like fast-food giant Carl's Jr, which in 2006 sells 6,000-calorie burgers the size of dictionaries under the slogan, "Don't Bother Me, I'm Eating". In Idiocracy, this has devolved into "Fuck You! I'm Eating!" And every commercial transaction has been sexualised: at Starbucks you can get coffee plus a handjob (or a "full body" latte).
Forget straight-to-DVD: this thing should be compulsory viewing.