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Commentary: Chasing light on water

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 10, 2010 - Let’s get one thing straight at the outset: Despite what you’ve been told, life is not a cabaret, old chum. This self-evident fact — for which there is abundant evidence in every edition of your morning newspaper — seems difficult for many Americans to grasp.

Item: Dennis Hopper is dead. While there’s nothing particularly remarkable about the passing of a 74-year old man suffering from prostate cancer, there is a cruel irony at play in his case.

By the end of the gifted actor’s checkered career, he’d become the spokesperson for a financial products firm in TV spots intended to convince aging members of the Pepsi Generation that their glass was still half-full. Our last public glimpse of the “Easy Rider” icon was that of a '60s burn-out-turned-investment-broker pitching the counter-intuitive notion that old age is just another road trip — an anticipated adventure to be prepared for with zest and enthusiasm.

Happiness is the light on the water./The water is cold and dark and deep. - William Maxwell

You thought LSD blew your mind? Wait till you try senility! Maybe you really shouldn’t trust anybody over 30…

The bizarre denouement of Hopper’s stage life is symptomatic of a common American malaise — namely, the national misconception that life is supposed to be fun and, if yours isn’t, you somehow got screwed.

I can’t state with certainty what spawned this collective delusion, but my prime suspect is Madison Avenue. Its commercials all tend to follow a similar plot line.

In the beginning, the protagonist is confronted with some problem — toe nail fungus, yellow teeth, ring around the collar, erectile dysfunction, whatever — that prevents him from fully participating in the American Dream. Next, he’s introduced to a reasonably priced product that will remedy the situation. By ad’s end, our formerly troubled citizen is seen with clear nails, a gleaming smile, sporting a freshly laundered shirt with a happy female companion clinging to his arm.

The message is always the same: The perfect life is yours for the taking; all you have to do is buy the right stuff. Existential dread, spiritual angst, mortal limits and the fact that pharmaceuticals probably won’t find you a soul mate are rarely mentioned because these sorts of ruminations don’t promote sales. We gotta move these refrigerators, we gotta move these color TVs…

People raised in this kind of consumer culture tend to view immediate gratification as a birthright, a phenomenon that helps to explain the staggering load of private credit card debt that Americans shoulder. It also helps to explain the generally disparate achievement rates between recent immigrant groups and their native-born counterparts.

I was a cop on St. Louis’ near south side when the boat people began to arrive from Vietnam. These forlorn souls had nothing. Their former homeland was occupied by hostile communist forces, and they’d just been transplanted penniless into a declining neighborhood in an alien country on the other side of the world where most of them couldn’t even speak the language.

Twenty years later, they’d help to transform the area around South Grand into a thriving community of small businesses, restaurants and shops, inhabited by a predominantly law-abiding and tax-paying population.

One thing these people had going for them was the generally high regard that Asian cultures place on family structure and teamwork. Another advantage they enjoyed was that no one had ever bothered to tell them that honest labor and frugality were beneath them. Because they didn’t know that they were entitled to prosperity, most of them went to work and thus actually became prosperous.

Predictably, our “you-can-have-it-all” mindset is reflected in our politics, where public sector excess has engendered burgeoning national debt that makes the average, over-extended private consumer look like Ebenezer Scrooge before the ghosts arrived. Our “leaders” whistle past the graveyard as they borrow ever-more alarmingly to continue spending beyond our means.

Yet, we still routinely refer to ourselves as the “richest nation on earth,” although by any reasonable measure of national wealth that is clearly not the case. The world’s “richest nation” will borrow $1.2 trillion this year just to pay its bills. This is what it’s like to be wealthy?

It strikes me that the time is ripe to re-examine our assumptions about American exceptionalism—not because America is not an exceptional nation, but because the people who made it so shared none of the modern hubris that we are a uniquely charmed lot entitled to the best of everything and predestined to always succeed.

On the eve of the Normandy invasions, Dwight Eisenhower met with troops of the 101st Airborne. Afterward, he reportedly wept in his staff car because he knew that most of the boys he’s just talked with would be dead within 24 hours.

The next morning, as he launched history’s largest armada against Hitler’s Europe, he held within his pocket the text of his resignation in the event the invasion was repelled.

The point here is that our real heroes were keenly aware of the limits to their power and of the distinct possibility of defeat. Their ultimate triumphs were wrought by their willingness to pay the terrible price of victory.

Today, we tend to dodge payments and chase dreams. While our volunteer forces wage interminable campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, the general public remains largely uninvolved. The treasure expended has been charged to the national credit card for future generations to pay; for most of us, the blood comes from somebody else’s kid. We support the troops with metallic car flags and barstool bravado as we hustle to sustain our flagging pursuit of material utopia.

Indeed, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, G.W. Bush famously called upon citizens to support the war effort by shopping. The Charge of the Light Brigade was thus reformulated into the Charge of the Credit Card Brigade, chasing the light on the water. Somewhere, I fear, reality lurks…

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.