On being an American

What keeps us going in this country, in this world? An occurring question, one I do not like to ask. I don’t like the answers, because they seem so rough and unsuitable; like something that won’t get to the heart of the matter.

Boris Yeltsin died Monday, as I read in this evening’s paper in a biography carefully constructed to be, as we would say in Wikipedia, NPOV. (I find fascinating the practice major news sources have of keeping biographies ready for those likely to die soon; I think I first heard about it from a librarian at NPR, who was tasked with supporting research for such biographies. Anyway).

I found this obituary deeply affecting, because the Yeltsin era was such a troubled time, but also was the era I came of age in. Yeltsin, Clinton, the busts and booms of the 1990s: these are the politics that taught people my age about globalization, about economies and media-heavy cool (not hot, not cold) wars that weren’t (they were always, whether Chechnya or Somalia, actions); these were the politics of trade agreements and the start of the free-fall into ever-more self-aware youth culture, the glory days of MTV and video cameras and then a shade later dot-com madness. This is not very long ago but it feels to me like a lifetime, as I read on another page about Senate bills on five long years now of Iraq war. We are now in an era where the term ‘war,’ instead of being avoided and covered with double-speak to make us all feel better and keep the economy rolling, is instead flaunted as a sign of something we are supposed to feel proud of. At the same time, the culture of chopping things into bits and pieces that MTV was once so brilliant at has been taken to something of an extreme, where reading whole newspaper articles feels like an exercise in patience compared to the Internet now, and this small-piecing of experience, news, stories into discrete self-referential chunks is both the height of self-aware hipster irony and deeply, deeply unsatisfying.

So modern history: it confuses me, I feel disconnected. I am not the only one. Individual experience has been actualized now more than ever but into something quite meaningless; everyone’s voices can be heard now, we blog and put up our websites and Digg and dig and dig and dig for the next big thing; but out in the real world it doesn’t seem to matter, things just seem to have gotten worse, and politics feels like a glossy exercise that has been parodied so many times before that it is hard to tell where seriousness ends and Colbert begins. More to the point, it doesn’t matter. There’s a reason the Jon Stewarts are so popular, as Saturday Night Live once was: given everything, they seem so much more real, and so much more satisfying.

One of my favorite poets, Nikki Giovanni, is a teacher at Virginia Tech, and I read today on yet another page that she had both the shooter Cho and one of the dead students in one of her classes. I am so sad, she told the reporter; I knew these kids and loved them. Here on my campus, a large public school very much like VT, there is an edge of fear and sadness and inconsolable confusion — it could so easily be our quad, our students, and there’s nothing that really seems to prevent it from being our campus, nothing at all. Colleagues at similar universities nationally report a similar feeling, an edge of what we all felt after 9/11, though perhaps this is even a bit more real in some ways to those of us on college campuses, because while there is only one World Trade Center there are a thousand grassy lawns and buildings filled with engineering students. Beyond being sick at heart, while watching my students that I was one of so recently and that I have now come to feel some sort of responsibility for, beyond that immediatism of this tragedy I wonder: when was the last time we were nationally happy, filled with an edge of joy, pride and accomplishment rather than fear, grief, cynicism and pain?

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3 Responses to On being an American

  1. jtglover says:

    Nice, thinky post.

    the glory days of MTV

    That is debatable. Was MTV at its best when it was about music, or when it was building the base for reality television? If the former, it was on the way out even by the early 90s…

  2. trailofstars says:

    I think that depends on how one defines “best”–it may have been musically better earlier on (I certainly think so), but in terms of programming & commercialization, what it did in the early 90’s was even more influential, I think–it created formats and styles still being heavily utilized today. But that’s just my two cents. And certainly MTV was extremely influential in the 80’s, too…but I think a lot of that is now history and nostalgia, whereas the 90’s influence is still everywhere.

    And this was a great post!

  3. anonymous says:

    This is what I meant: glory days of being influential stylistically, in terms of video and programming formats, a combination of commentary overlapping with content, and the beginnings of ‘reality shows’ blending into everything else.

    Music? I suppose that’s a taste thing 🙂 It had certainly already lost indie cred in terms of music by the 1990s, though I remember bands being actively promoted and becoming “cool” because of MTV, rather than the other way around.

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