Category Archives: Nacirema

Rana Dasgupta

Christopher Lydon’s perennially fascinating Radio Open Source is doing a series of programs on India, well worth your attention even [maybe especially] if the Indian Subcontinent isn’t your usual territory. This bit of comparative analysis by Rana Dasgupta is typical of the richness:

America is a society of systems: there should be nothing that eludes the state – with systems of policing, control, regulation. That is clearly not the case in India. Indians accept that things cannot be systematized, that there is inherent chaos, that you don’t have to understand your neighbor, that he may live an incredibly different life from yours, but that’s not a problem. The incredible ramshackle bric-a-brac nature of Indian cities, where slums are next to high rises, is not felt to be a great shock. The face that people hack into electricity systems to run their slums is treated with wry humor by middle class Indians…

I suspect these things will play out to Indians’ advantage, because Indians will be much more comfortable in the US than Americans will be in India. And at a time when the new major economic growth prospects are in countries that look more like India than they do like America, Indians will be an incredibly mobile and flexible work population… Even being very wealthy they are quite comfortable living in a house that runs out of water quite often, and runs out of electricity. They’re able to go into weird places in central Asia and Africa and feel quite okay, knowing how things operate… (30 minutes into the program)


The almost-tragic rootlessness of the (North?) American psyche is mightily exemplified in a New York Times article on The Mall of America. A snippet:

Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the crux of the problem: We are reliably informed that whatever part of the economic crisis can’t be pinned on Wall Street — or on mortgage-related financial insanity — can be pinned on consumers who overspent. But personal consumption amounts to some 70 percent of the American economy. So if we don’t spend, we don’t recover. Fiscal health isn’t possible until money is again sloshing into cash registers, including those at this mall and every other retailer.

In other words, shopping was part of the problem and now it’s part of the cure. And once we’re cured, economists report, we really need to learn how to save, which suggests that we will need to quit shopping again.

So the mall we married has become the toxic spouse we can’t quit, though we really must quit, but just not any time soon. The mall, for its part, is wounded by our ambivalence and feels financially adrift.

Malls are Nacirema and Naidanac writ large, revealing all the brassy crumminess and deficiencies of taste that these societies celebrate in architecture and mass consumption (how’s that for blanket indictment?). Take a wander through, and peek into for daily doses of mallery. Note that malls are the quintessential securitized Panopticons, bristling with CCTV and private police forces. And don’t let’s get started on mall food, probably the greatest concentrations of high-fructose corn syrup dispensing on the planet (and of deep fat frying too). And mall music…

…described as “pop contemporary adult hottest hits.” South Avenue collects the upscale, chic stores and pipes in “rock adult album alternative.” East Broadway is supposed to feel contemporary and gets “pop adult contemporary/modern.”


Kunstler calls it

Here’s what Jim Kunstler said in his Forecast for 2008 (Jan 1 2008):

Has there ever been a society so exquisitely rigged for implosion? The whole listing, creaking, reeking edifice stands like one of those obsolete Las Vegas pleasure palaces awaiting a mere pulse of electrons to ignite a thousand explosive charges perfectly placed to blow away the structural supports.

Sorta makes you curious what he predicts for 2009, dunnit? Look here for that, in this overall context:

I have long maintained that life is essentially tragic in the sense that history won’t care if we succeed or fail at carrying on the project of civilization.

You don’t have to believe every word, but here and there are bits of astute observation and palpable truth (palp it yourself, you’ll see):

The tragic part of all this, of course, is that the temporary plunge in oil prices has prompted an incurious American public to assume, once again, that the global oil predicament is some kind of a fraud. Given the flood tide of fraud they have been subject to in banking and investment matters, I suppose you can’t blame them from thinking that everything is some kind of a scam…

The over-arching geopolitical theme of 2009 will be the end of robust globalism as we’ve known it for some time. Reduced trade, competition for energy resources, sore feelings over debts and currencies will drive the nations inward or, at least, direct their energies toward their own regions.

So read it and file it where you can find it next year end…

Today’s hortatory fanfare

Wendell Berry’s writing surely exemplifies the phrase “clarion call”, though I’ve often felt that it’s just not possible to live up to his level of ecological and economic rectitude. Still, there’s often a shiver of Right On! as I read his commentaries on what we’re missing through inattention. Today Tim O’Reilly links to Berry’s essay In Distrust of Movements (2000) and I’ll quote my favorite bits:

…I must declare my dissatisfaction with movements to promote soil conservation or clean water or clean air or wilderness preservation or sustainable agriculture or community health or the welfare of children. Worthy as these and other goals may be, they cannot be achieved alone. I am dissatisfied with such efforts because they are too specialized, they are not comprehensive enough, they are not radical enough, they virtually predict their own failure by implying that we can remedy or control effects while leaving causes in place. Ultimately, I think, they are insincere; they propose that the trouble is caused by other people; they would like to change policy but not behaviour

We are involved now in a profound failure of imagination. Most of us cannot imagine the wheat beyond the bread, or the farmer beyond the wheat, or the farm beyond the farmer, or the history beyond the farm. Most people cannot imagine the forest and the forest economy that produced their houses and furniture and paper; or the landscapes, the streams and the weather that fill their pitchers and bathtubs and swimming pools with water. Most people appear to assume that when they have paid their money for these things they have entirely met their obligations.

On the Nacirema

James Lileks (author of some ESSENTIAL books) is always entertaining and sometimes downright percipient in fingering the squirmiest aspects of American culture. In a recent posting he unreels Peter Lorre’s Mr. Moto’s Last Warning (1939 –and available via Amazon) and includes some wonderful stills:

of which he notes

Augh! It’s like a blow-up love toy for a planet of mimes

You might also enjoy his Coffee and Chrome: restaurants from the days before the chains among other things on the Menu at his site, like Fargo 1950 and The Institute of Official Cheer.

Jim Kunstler

The question of Who Gets It Right is always vexing, and the search usually involves dabblings at the fringes of opinion, be it in realms of food, of music, of politics, of education or whatever. As a lifelong adventurer in interstices, such territory is pretty familiar to me. I’m probably a contrarian by preference, though I’m fairly closeted in terms of expressing my views to audiences who don’t already know (and, mostly, share…) my predilections.

One of the writers I seem to be in pretty close agreement with is Jim Kunstler, author of (among others) The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape and the recent novel World Made By Hand (which I haven’t read yet) and a lively blog. From the penultimate paragraph of today’s posting:

The only “change” that America really wants to hear about is evicting George Bush from the White House. They’re sick of him and all the disturbance he has caused in their financial affairs. But beyond that, the American public is deathly afraid of the kind of changes we actually face — such as, the end of consumer culture, the gross loss of value in suburban real estate (which forms the bulk of the middle class’s private wealth), the prospect of food and fuel scarcities, the need to re-localize our lives, the need to physically shape up to stop the costly and unnecessary drain on our medical resources, to grow more of our own food, to work harder at things that actually matter, and to save whatever we can for a difficult future.

The whole posting (couched as a list “Does Mr. O know?” that’s heavy on the subject of the prospects of oil) is surely worth reading, and should be filed in the Look Again in 6 Months file. That one is beginning to bulge… and might well be turned into a blog of its own, which would deliver stuff for re-reading at a later date. Wonder if there’s any software out there to facilitate such a service?