Everything isn't everywhere

By Gene Miller, April 2011

A road trip to California prompts a pondering of the faultlines of America’s current, overwrought version of freedom.

I had a US road-trip epiphany mid-March that I would like to share before it flickers and then winks out completely (how like an epiphany). It is that…Dammit, gone already! I remember it was triggered by a bumper sticker I thought up after seeing a real bumper sticker driving south on I-5 in Oregon’s rural southern reaches: “Oppose the liberal agenda. Stop socialism now!” Mine was: “Conservatives have the best lines…and the worst policies.” Aren’t I clever? That and $2.50, and I’m on the bus.

Somewhere beside a vast orchard of nut trees flanking the interstate at the northern end of California’s San Joaquin Valley, a farmer—well, someone—had driven four shovels into the earth, 50 feet apart, handle-ends down. Painted on the working ends, one word per spade, were: America. Wake. Up. ! The exclamation point had the fourth shovel to itself.

Wake up to what? What was America asleep about? Was this a new call for Morning In America? But to all appearances this was non-ideological urgency, unaligned worry; and unless the shovels themselves, martially erect beside the interstate, were speaking watchfully, semiologically, to some political or cultural hidden elect, there was no divining their meaning beyond the exigent message itself.

Which isn’t to say that America at its most earnest and economically compromised has lost its sense of humour. A bumper sticker on the back of a pickup showed the silhouette of a stripper working a pole, beside the appeal “Help working moms.” It’s important to remember that a lot of folks down around Siskiyou and Klamath Falls have not yet made the cultural shift from Jim Beam to lattes. Another knee-slapper on a blue van said “PETA: People Eating Tasty Animals.” That would be Jim Beam talking again.

The massive billboard on the northbound side of I-5 in southern Washington State with the permanent red, white and blue Uncle Sam flanking one edge and messages that change monthly, or whenever the owner ups his meds, asked: “If China Invades America, Where Do We Go?” Of course, 50 years ago China softened up North America with egg rolls and pork fried rice, and now the invasion extends to everything we wear and use. So the answer to the question is: “Shopping.”

Ominously, a hand-lettered sign on a sheet of plywood stated: “Savings Rates Falling Again”—a sober reminder that crash diets don’t work, and that for most people thrift equates with meagreness, self-denial and diminution…not self-empowerment. And this admission is coming from a man who is halfway through a book manuscript with the working title: Radical Thrift: Rightsizing Your Life for Challenging Times. Not challenging enough, I suppose. We need better catastrophes.

From my liberal hand-wringer friend Rick Ingrasci in Seattle who is constantly parsing the catastrophic and who daily forwards the best of the bad news to his large mailing list, came word of filmmaker Michael Moore’s message of encouragement and solidarity to the protesting Madison, Wisconsin union workers whose union rights are being dismantled by the Republican governor and legislators. Writes Moore: “…and all week the right wingopoly has been upset over what I said: That the money that the rich have stolen (or not paid taxes on) belongs to the American people. Drudge/Limbaugh/Beck and even Donald Trump went nuts, calling me names and suggesting I move to Cuba.” 

Ah! My evanescent epiphany has returned—a bit rambly, and you kinda had to be there, but here goes. It starts like this: In the US the Conservative Right is playing chess; the Liberal Left is playing checkers. The Right sees the Left as folks who wish they were playing chess, but are stuck with checkers. The Right sees itself as brilliant and successful and the Left as lumpen and failed. The Right doesn’t want to play checkers though the Left thinks they should play checkers because it would make the world a better place. 

The Right, in other words (I know I’m beating this to death), sees the Left as whiners, grumblers and dangerous malcontents who wish they had more of what the Right has (money, power, access to the good life). The Left says: share the wealth. The Right says: earn it (code for “no”). The Right says: “Live the dream.” What can the Left say—“Share limited resources equitably?” That is, ideologically the Right has home-court advantage. I mean, even in the face of an economic implosion triggered by unalloyed greed and obscene self-interest, no bankers went to the gibbet. And a quarter of the populace reacted not by howling for the bankers’ heads, but by screaming “Get government off our backs!” 

Oh, for the good old days when America knew how to conduct a revolution. 

And the second part of my revelation: these lines of ideological conflict extend into a range of otherwise innocent concerns. Things that aren’t political take on a political valence. The legitimate and, you would think, universal concerns of environmentalism are seen as radical and counter-economic. Progressive policies are perceived as interventions by the state and examples of the restriction of individual freedom and enterprise. A range of well-intentioned community initiatives acquire a leftish, anti-mainstream hue simply because of the kinds of people who advocate for them, or their energetic signature, or even simply their aspirational language. I mean, activist is just another word for leftie, right? And community means weak people propping each other up. Global warming? Healthful, pesticide-free food? A brilliant medical plan for all? An alternative energy future? All left-wing tropes, yes?

My personal big deal is traffic lights and streets signs. Government telling me when I can stop and go. Traffic management: one more example of the state sticking its nose in where it’s not needed or wanted. The market can sort it out. Give people the freedom and incentives and they’ll sort things out at the intersection. We can replace stop signs with market signals….

Which raises a question or two: why do Americans need more freedom than Canadians? What do they do with it?

Approaching the Canadian border a few days later on a rural stretch of I-5 south of Blaine, just as daylight was failing, I overtook a slow-moving VW bus, the full BC package with transparent mandala and peace symbol decals pasted to windows and the rear of the vehicle plastered with bumper stickers. There were the entirely comforting “Tree Hugger” and “Buy Fresh” and the rivetingly mystical “Everything Isn’t Everywhere.”

After two thousand round-trip miles of “Obama Sucks” and “Ron Paul 2012,” and triumphalism draped in American bunting, I thought: Everything isn’t everywhere? Thank God!

Born in the USA, Gene Miller came to Victoria over 35 years ago and in the early ’70s founded both Open Space Arts Centre and Monday Magazine. More recently, he established the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.