Saturday, February 18, 2012

In light of the fact that our American “frontier” is gone…

…it's time to look for some alternative models. In one instance, we can look to England, not “Great Britain”, for her greatness is a meaningless adjective now. In England, the classes know their class or lack thereof, and their place(s). Except for a few “kerfuffles”, like the recent summer riots in London and other cities, people generally behave. They police themselves. They understand “who owns England” (over one-third by the aristocracy). England has no frontier. That “colonies” thing didn’t work out well, did it?

Our American frontier is gone. Gingrich’s idea about a moon colony was pretty funny. Seriously, we have no place to go, but here. We have a distinct class-system. Yet we’re in denial.

In another way, I’m reminded of Saul Bellow’s idea of the ghetto. It makes sense to me because I grew up in an Irish one. Bellow’s idea, his experience of ghetto, is not one of noise, chaos and violence. Rather it’s a place he (and I) knew of cultural richness, education, cuisine, and dreaming. He speaks of the ghetto as a place where one looked up to dream. He left his ghetto and I left mine. It’s still a part of me. Sometimes I long for it, but it’s literally gone.

Today the word “ghetto” has negative connotations.

Francis Fukuyama, the American futurist and writer, is still wrestling with his end-of-history theory. His latest essay muses upon the lack of ideas purveyed by the liberal democratic stratum of America. I think he’s digging into a stratum that no longer exists. I wish him luck on his archeological dig.

We don’t like to look back to Europe. It’s quaint and culturally rich. We love the travel programs, the food excursions, the cathedrals and castles, the PBS manor-housed dramas, but it’s all just intellectual tourism. We’re Americans. We’re the new Jerusalem as the old English hymn (and unofficial national anthem) goes. We don't know the song. We have baseball and unique musical genres. We have that “American Dream”, right? I don’t think so.

I lived in England and experienced the “class thing” first hand. It was awkward at first but after a while it made sense. I learned to navigate well in and between the classes for I was an indistinguishable American without a pedigree. Watch the Westminster Dog Show to watch pedigree and class in action; a veritable parody of English society. But it works.

It works there due the fact that most people understand class. Here, we’re still in denial. In America, we’re “occupying” places in attempt to destroy a very robust and ingrained class system in America. For many reasons, the occupiers will fade away.
In England, the classes have dignity and identity. Because there’s no frontier, no real opportunities for true upward mobility, the classes have a quiet pride, each and every one; even the so-called “Gypsies” in England who happen to be in-vogue (see Gypsy Boy by Mikey Walsh) in English literary circles now. We could learn a thing or two from the English class-conscious landscape.

Or, we could consider Bellow’s “ghetto”, and learn from that place.

(from a poem by William Blake with music by Sir Hubert Parry, 1916)

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountain green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

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