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Land of Discontent

Binary logic is common in America. Us versus them. Republican versus Democrat. BLM versus BLM (that’s Black lives versus blue lives). Love it or leave it.

I remember as a teenager reading a coda to that saying: Or change it. If you don’t “love” America, you shouldn’t have to leave it. Indeed, if you truly “love” America, you’d want to change it to make it even better.

This idea was on my mind as a I watched a couple of videos on YouTube by Americans who’ve been living overseas for many years, only to return recently and reflect on how life in America seemed to them after being away for so long. Here are a few notes I jotted down:

  • Features of America: Consumerism. Materialism. Advertising everywhere, especially for prescription drugs. Fast pace of life and a stress on competition. A mainstream media that’s propagandistic — and that pushes fear and outrage. Only two major political parties that stifle debate and change. Constant divisiveness.
  • Features of Americans: Stress on individualism and ethnocentrism. Empathy and our common humanity is downplayed. Sense of entitlement. Lack of curiosity about the wider world. A lack of purpose in the sense of living a life of meaning. Lack of integrity, especially at the higher levels of government and the corporate world.

Americans are kept divided, distracted, and downtrodden as a way of preventing meaningful, organized, societal change.

These observations reminded me of Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next” (2015). Moore goes to various countries (Germany, France, Italy, and so on), looking for ideas Americans can steal as they “invade.” I recall German workers who only had to work one job to make ends meet (roughly 37 hours a week, if memory serves), and also German workers who served by law on the board of major companies like Mercedes; I recall school lunches made for French kids by chefs using local ingredients (the contrast with American school lunches was stomach-turning); I recall Italian workers with six weeks of paid vacation per year, as opposed to American workers who are lucky to get two weeks. Why can’t America change to be more worker- and kid-and family-friendly?

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The female leaders of Iceland, if memory serves, put it well near the end of Moore’s excursions. They said America is a me-me-me society, whereas Iceland prefers “we” to “me.”

I’ve written before about how Americans are kept divided, distracted, and downtrodden as a way of preventing meaningful, organized, societal change. Another “d” word related to this is discontent. Americans are often discontented in ways that inhibit change. It’s something Tana French touched on in her novel, “The Likeness,” from 2008. Here’s an excerpt:

Our entire society’s based on discontent: people wanting more and more and more, being constantly dissatisfied with their homes, their bodies, their décor, their clothes, everything. Taking it for granted that that’s the whole point of life, never to be satisfied. If you’re perfectly happy with what you’ve got—specially if what you’ve got isn’t even all that spectacular—then you’re dangerous. You’re breaking all the rules, you’re undermining the sacred economy, you’re challenging every assumption that society’s built on. By being content, you become a subversive. A traitor.

To which another character replies: “I think you’ve got something there. Not jealousy, after all: fear… Throughout history—even a hundred years ago, even fifty—it was discontent that was considered the threat to society, the defiance of natural law, the danger that had to be exterminated at all costs. Now it’s contentment.”

There’s a potential paradox here. Won’t the discontented favor positive change, whereas the contented will favor the status quo?

But French’s insight suggests otherwise. The discontented are so busy trying to become contented, most often through a me-first consumerism and materialism, that they can’t come together and mobilize for change. Fear drives them to pursue what their “betters” have, and to admire those people as well.

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It’s the contented who are dangerous, the ones who’ve left consumerism and materialism behind, the ones with the confidence, time, and independence of thought to contemplate a changed world, a better world. Perhaps even a better America.

William J. Astore
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