Quantifying Culture

Living up to its name, Yahoo News is
more jive than jazz. Recently, it featured a "human interest" story
of an American who had traveled to every country on earth but three.
At each, he tended to stay no more than three days, eating strictly
American food at the hotel or McDonald's. This lawyer from Minnesota
is not the most well traveled on earth, however. Not by far. That honor
belongs to another American, Charles Veley, who has been to 821 countries,
states, regions and territories, including nearly impossible to reach
atolls and reefs with no human population.

Veley also maintains a website, Most
Traveled People. Among the top ten, only three are not American. What
we have here is not just wanderlust but the need to tick off one's
conquests, a trait that is most pronounced in the American character.
In sports, we are the most obsessive of statisticians. No one else even
comes close. Compare the bare bone box scores of soccer, for example,
to the labyrinthine tallies and measurements that accompany our baseball,
basketball and football. Foreigners only care who scored. We keep track
of anything that could be counted. When it comes to trivia, we know
all the numbers. Your average American has memorized the height, weight
and years played of many sport stars. Concerning issues that truly matter,
like the corporate looting of our treasury, the real unemployment rate
or the federal deficit, projected to go over 1.6 trillion this year,
we don't give a puck. What's a trillion, anyway? The Flyers came
back from a 3-0 deficit. Now, that's impressive. Drowned in inconsequential
digits, we are oblivious to figures that could illuminate how up the
septic creek we really are. Our deceivers do have a sick sense of humor,
though. For their core inflation index, food and fuel costs don't
factor in, but what are those if not "core" expenditures?

In football, the one American sport to
which the rest of the world except Canada is completely indifferent,
many players are given credit for "yards gained." This is only too
appropriate for a highly mobile people inhabiting a near continent size,
still sparsely populated country that was frontier not that long ago.
Many of us, if not our fairly recent forebears, have also traversed
great distances to get here, so yards gained indeed. For Native Americans,
it's yards lost, however, as it is for Hawaiians, Samoans and other
miscellaneous beneficiaries of big box shopping, Jerry Springer and
SPAM musubis. But stop moping already. Better luck next century. Think

The open road is a metaphor for endless
possibilities. In the American context, this elation was first and best
articulated through Walt Whitman: "Afoot and light-hearted I take
to the open road, / Healthy, free, the world before me." Whitman's
entire oeuvre is one sustained song of the open road. Life is defined
and renewed through intercourse with the multitude, just out there.
Born in Brooklyn, Whitman got as far as New Orleans, then as now the
most exotic of American cities, but for his last two decades, he was
confined to Camden, New Jersey. For amusement, he rode the ferry back
and forth between it and Philadelphia, enjoying the crowd and not getting
off. It was sort of a bargain cruise for our aging bard. Unlike more
affluent contemporaries, Whitman never made it to Europe. The poet may
have sung of India and China, but he never left this country.

Eighty percent of Americans don't own
passports, so most of us haven't gotten very far either. For many,
the easiest way to escape Quiet Desperation Township or the inner city
is to join an Army of One, or the Few, the Proud! Este e mi Pais! With
737 military bases in 130 countries, that's a lot of exciting destinations.
Adventure galore! While the rich gargle chianti in Florence, you can
immerse in the richness of Helmand or Fallujah. There's nothing like
depleted uranium in your coffee, Ma, Cynthia McKinney be damned!

When Whitman did travel, at least he
didn't do so in a private steel box hurling past the same corporate
signs from sea to shining sea, with their huge letters, designed for
speeding motorists, blighting the landscape. To encourage recreational
driving, car companies made films promoting the Sunday drive. To sex
up their products, they sponsored races. The open road became circular
and led nowhere, yet millions continue to pay to stare at vehicles going
round and round, wasting fuel and befouling the atmosphere, for hours.

Acceleration has become its own religion.
Faster! Faster! Leaving Whitman, I present to you the Black Eyed
Peas: "We are the now generation / We are the generation now / This
is the now generation / This is the generation now / I want money //
I want it, want it, want it / Fast internet, / Stay connected hit eject
/ Wi-fi, Podcast / Blastin' out a SMS / Text me and I text you back."
Enough, shoot me already.

As the oil age winds down, the road movie
fantasy, starring each one of us, no longer has much traction. There
will be no economic recovery, no more growth, because the cheap and
most versatile fuel for it, oil, has reached peak supply. As the oil
pump looses pressure, money itself sputters. There is also peak water,
peak minerals, peak fish, peak top soil and just about anything else
you can think of. On a finite planet, there can't be infinite economic
or population growth. At some point, resources will start to run out,
and that moment happens to be now.

There are those who still think that
technology will save the day, but technology is only the means to use
what you already have, not replenish what's being depleted. Again,
we don't need to run out of oil, only to have demand outstrip supply
to cause a chaotic and violent global plunge. For many, this has been
a thrilling roller coaster ride. For others, only degradation and death.
For a century now, oil has been the unspoken subtext behind too many
wars to list.

Since 51% of Americans don't believe
in evolution, they apparently cannot comprehend that we are squandering
millions of years of carbohydrate in one bloody speed orgy. Having a
telescoped notion of the past, they also cannot project into the distant
future. Hankering for the world to end, obsessed with end time, they
are counting the days and don't care that this earth is being destroyed.
Drill, baby, drill and climate change is merely a hoax. We're leaving
soon, anyway. In the 1940's, the Turkish poet, Nazim Hikmet, wrote:

    This earth will grow cold,

    a star among stars

    and one of the smallest,

    a gilded mote on blue velvet-

    I mean this, our great earth.

    This earth will grow cold one day,
    not like a block of ice
    or a dead cloud even

    but like an empty walnut it will roll along
    in pitch-black space ...

    You must grieve for this right now

    -you have to feel this sorrow now-

    for the world must be loved this much
    if you're going to say "I lived"

[translated by Randy Blasing and
Mutlu Konuk]

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