Bipolar America

Sam Smith

Some days, when I finish editing and writing stuff about our nation and its politics, I get in my car and drive “up street” – the five miles on a two lane country road to the center of our Maine town. I am on my way to run  errands or to meet someone, but also because the trip between the virtual nation I’ve just been describing and the real place toward which I’m headed is like crossing the Atlantic.

It’s not a matter of culture shock. More a matter of culture recovery. Rediscovering what it really means to be human and an American and to be around people who actually practice those things the people I quote on the computer too often only pretend to do.

I was born in Washington and lived there most of my life. But about thirty years ago I began realizing that it wasn’t my town any more. In 1981 I wrote an article about it for the Washington Post:

Could you stop the renaissance of Washington a minute? I want to get off. I have to run down to People’s and restock my inventory of Rolaids before reading one more article about how the city is being reborn, revived, and revitalized. This city – the Paris of prevarication, the London of dissemblance, the Florence of deceit – has outdone itself: It is telling itself and the world that it is getting better.

The much touted physical changes of the city have produced little other than rampant displacement, creeping homogeneity and an overabundance of automatic teller machines. Washington’s “greater sophistication” is virtually indistinguishable from rampant cynicism and mindless profligacy, and its autoerotic fascination with power for its own sake threatens to prove that masturbation does cause insanity.

The real story of the new Washington is that the told story is a lie. Strip away the icons of progress and you will find a new Washington that is not vibrant; it merely vibrates. A Washington that is not more sophisticated but comprehends and considers less. A Washington whose interest in culture is marked more by acquisition than by appreciation. And a Washington whose power is, in truth, declining because it has lost the key component of respect. . . .

The new city is one of real estate dealers rather than merchants, the city where you damn well better not leave home without it. It is the clone of Gotham, sire of scandal so tawdry that it has discredited political corruption, the city in which a day’s work can consist of a memorandum revised, a two-hour quiche lorraine and martini lunch and four phone calls to say you’re all tied up.

Yet I hung in there until four years ago before moving to Maine, a place I had learned to love over many a summer vacation. I considered it both an act of exile and of liberation.

But it has also left me a bit bipolar, trying to describe a false world while living in a true one. That’s why I enjoy watching my screen go blank and driving to town.

Admittedly we have a remarkably dumb governor, but I have been delighted over the past four years by how few scoundrels, hustlers and incompetents I have run into. These are not highly valued attributes in Maine and folks tend to spot them early around here.

The Washington crowd is more like Willie Loman: “He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’ s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine.”

Or, more politely, as James Kirchick of the New Republic wrote of our then new president:

Obama is, in his own words, something of a Rorschach test. In his latest book, “The Audacity of Hope,” he writes, “I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”

And we’re still doing it.

The other day I began wondering how the national icons paraded before us by an obsequious mass media would get along here. John Boehner would clearly be the town undertaker. Michelle Bachmann, I guessed, would run the tourist trap gift shop. Bill Clinton would be the salesman you’d avoid when you went to the Suburu dealer to buy a new Outback. Hillary Clinton would be the realtor concentrating on newcomers since the locals had learned to go elsewhere. John Kerry would be the self-absorbed preacher to whom Jesus was only the penultimate savior. And Barack Obama might be the manager of the local Hampton Inn who lived 30 miles way and had little to do with the town’s residents except when they parked in his lot. Or maybe the lawyer you’d use for a real estate settlement but look elsewhere in case of a pending divorce.

There were a few people who might actually fit in. I could see Joe Biden sitting every night at the bar at Gritty McDuff’s, trading sea stories with whoever was next to him. Bernie Sanders would make a good chair of the town council and Elizabeth Warren would be a great principal of the high school.

But on the whole, the most prominent people running the nation would not be particularly useful around our town. That’s because things like integrity, cooperation, competence and reality still matter.

Which is why the economy, our school system, the condition of the roads and what’s happening because of climate change – including the eastward drift of lobsters and crabs – are a hell of a lot more important that what someone says we should be doing in Syria.

But that’s not true in Washington where the powerful get to invent crises so they don’t have to solve real problems.

And they have the arguments, the numbers and studies to back them. But in the end these are designed not to find reality but to market a political Disney World.

You can’t get away with that in our town. Perhaps one reason is that they used to build ships here, and as Joseph Conrad once noted, “Of all the living creatures upon land and sea, it is ships alone that cannot be taken in by barren pretenses, that will not put up with bad art from their masters.” The capital could never go to sea.

The other morning I listened as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes spewed numbers as though he was trying to ace yet another standardized test that passes in his mind for real life.  His hands were waving, his voice was excited and yet his message was hard to discern or remember.

Listening to him, I thought of the saying someone had passed on to me a few days earlier: “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not using one in a fruit salad.”

Washington is full of knowledge without any place to go. My town is full of wisdom and all I have to do is drive up street to find a bit of it.

One thought on “Bipolar America

  1. Go, Sam! We arrived in DC in 1969, left for nearby Arlington in 1989, and left the metro area for upstate New York in 1999.
    We have never looked back. We miss the National Gallery and the Phillips but little else, certainly not the road rage and
    the bloviators in the restaurants and offices. We are only two hours from the city so the Metropolitan and the Frick and MoMA
    nurture us from time to time. I have a cousin in Portland who grew up in Charlottesville VA and she treasures Maine and it is
    easy to see why.

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