It's Hard to Be an American

In Sunday's New York Times, in the automobile section, there is a rapturous review of a $130,000 Maserati Gran Turismo.

One hundred and thirty thousand dollars and worldwide sales of a mere 8000, for 8000 people one would be uncomfortable breaking bread with. The reviewer loves cars, (as do I, when it comes to say, a creaky old Karmen Ghia or a rusty '68 BMW 2002, both of which I have owned). He writes nicely, in the feverish thrall of a great swoon gliding and surging whilst evocatively plunging through the Italian countryside, listening to Verdi's Aida at full blast. He exults in the experience, writing, cringingly, "this is the way opera should be heard." (In fairness to him, listening to music while driving is a blast, but some of us like the spectacle and ritual of the performance just as much as the sound. And there are still cheap tickets to the opera, and for most of the world, a free ride in Maseratis are unlikely.) As the economic crisis continues to corrode the hopes and daily working lives of men and women and their families across the country, it seems depressingly tone deaf to indulge in the promotion of mad, blind excess. (The magazine section also has yet to really adjust to The Way We Live Now, veering schizophrenically from strong serious reportage to celebrations of $20,000 dollar dresses.) As Detroit lists dangerously into self-made redundancy and stage 4 fiscal cancer, as millions of American still do not have health insurance, as California hovers on the edge of economic catastrophe, the Maserati review seems akin to the tone deaf disconnect of the GOP senators puffing and swanning for the cameras at the Sottomayor hearings. They just don't get it.

It is hard to be an American. I think this more and more lately. Our mainstream culture encourages an anodyne internal shut-off of the heart, and of the senses by which we see and hear that which is real, that which matters. The Mobius-strip like ubiquity of news cycles runs every possible iteration of Michael Jackson's sad death in digital loop. (HuffPost to wit). More money vanishes. Soldiers enlist and go off to war unnoticed, and return, mostly invisible. The notion of national service has yet to catch on as a saving grace. It is hard to be an American. It requires concentration. You have to be able to think about out what it's like to live on a salary of $7.25 an hour, even if you never have to actually have to do it. You have to be able to be concerned for men and women whose jobs are never coming back. If you can, you have to help in some way, through charity, or volunteering, say. You have to be outraged in order to be an American, and you have to be hopeful, and work hard to make this country better, or it is not going to survive.

Salivating over a grotesquely out of sync absurd joke of a vehicle while auto workers sit at their kitchen tables in despair is not acceptable in the America of 2009, if it ever was. Maybe the automotive editors at the Times forgot this week that relevance means nothing without soulfulness and humility. That the Maserati review is another leading indicator of disconnection, as the Times itself hangs at the precipice, while her journalists wait in fear, worrying about what will happen next, is saddening. Especially galling is that it is at a moment when the Times has done much to repair the costly missteps they made at the approach to and onset of the Iraq invasion. The work of Dexter Filkins, Nick Kristoff and Frank Rich alone is almost reason enough to look the other way. Yes, the world is a place of sickening ironic dualities, but still.

It's hard to be an American. For many people, this is a literal truth, born out of staggering unemployment, miserable wage-slavery, privation and homelessness. For others, perhaps the comfortable readers of the Times, say, it takes a little more work. Who amongst us, (and I include myself more than anyone), can say we're actually doing the hard work of being an American? When President Obama spoke of the importance of empathy vis-a-vis a Supreme court nominee, why didn't the literalists who decried that proposition really get what he actually was saying? He was saying, "It's hard to be an American. You have to know what life is really like."

And it ain't like listening to Verdi while on a Tuscan road trip, in a car that costs more than many Americans can ever hope of saving, or even making. There's something seditious and pornographic about it, in fact, in 2009.