Not too long ago, American citizens of all races, creeds and colors had the deportment of a significantly more dignified human species. They were proud of themselves and proud to be Americans.
That mega-trend has been reversed. It took more than two generations, but we have come to the point where many Americans — too many — have lost their pride. They don’t respect themselves or their nation. Literally and figuratively, they can hardly stand on their own two feet. Plagued by obesity and other preventable diseases, Americans can barely carry their weight.
A couple of generations ago, whatever one’s economic class — upper, middle, lower — “class” mattered. And with class came dignity. Jane and John Q. Public cared about how they looked, how they spoke and how they presented themselves in public.
Once upon a time in America, not too long ago, from the captains of industry to the janitorial staff, dignity and style were essential elements of self respect. Whether it was a night at the opera or “take me out to the ball game,” theatergoers and sports fans dressed with the appropriate degrees of formality and care.
Back in the early 1970s, when I was a young executive jetting across the nation on business trips, passengers dressed up for the occasion (in those pre-Gestapo-frisk-grope, body scan x-ray days when flying was still fun, “first class” meant it and coach wasn’t steerage).
As a young man, I quickly learned that fine dining establishments required fine dressing. No suit or sports jacket meant no seating. More than the cuisine was superb, so too was the service and atmosphere: elegance, grace, quiet voices from patrons whose conversations rarely left the confines of their table and soft music that stayed in the background.
I remember the department stores and retail shops, in big cities and in small towns: Be they upscale or middle class, they were staffed by ladies and gentlemen and designed with tasteful décor that reflected the retailers’ price points.
Before the days of pumping your own, the gas stations attendants that filled your tank wore uniforms, as did ushers at the RKO theaters.
In the states, even in the “worst of times” during the Great Depression, it was Swing time.
From Bourbon Street, to Beale Street, to 52nd Street, to Mississippi juke joints and everything in between, side by side, the low-brow and high-brow — Jitter Buggers and Lindy Hoppers — decked out in their glad rags and dressed to the nines, danced away their cares and woes. America was down, but it wasn’t out.
How far we have sunk
Look at America today. A night at the opera is a paradoxical experience: The finest orchestras and most accomplished vocalists give meticuously crafted performances to sizable audiences dressed in attire more suitable for a hike in the woods or cleaning out the garage.
Sporting events? Slob-wear everywhere: Team shirt, t-shirt or no shirt. Sometimes it seems that being loud and obnoxious, looking sloppy and being disrespectful, are what matters most to the spectators.
Air travel? It’s a flying circus. The unkempt, ungroomed, the just-rolled-out-of-bed could care less if their smelly bare feet and grotesque appearance offends fellow flyers.
Fine dining? Unquestionably, on many levels restaurant cuisine has reached new heights. But so too have the ear-splitting decibel levels from boisterous patrons who have no concern for others or are oblivious to them. And then there are the restaurants that blast music from cranked-up sound systems to provide the all-important buzz that signifies a happening establishment.
At the hottest “in” place in town or in the average restaurants anywhere, neither dress codes nor codes of respectful conduct are enforced.
When local meant special
And what about those hometown department stores, main street dress shops and haberdashers that were locally owned, tastefully decorated and professionally staffed? Gone! Replaced by bottom-line-driven, cookie-cutter national chains. Everwhere you turn you see cold, tasteless big-box outlets and down-market dollar stores staffed by clerks so poorly paid they must buy their groceries with food stamps.
Along with retail consolidation, comes limited choice and branded style. With the chains in charge and the mom-and-pop shops few and far between, the boutique fashion houses that could make a decent living supplying small retailers with unique style have also disappeared. Today, one-look-fits-all is the reigning principle of American style: “Navy blazer, olive slacks and brightly colored sneakers,” that’s what the “experts” now call classy. (“A Rubber-Soled Revolution,” The New York Times, 12 June 2014).
At the bottom end of the fashion spectrum is the gangsta style that was derived from the most violent criminals in the prison system — inmates stripped of belts and shoelaces because they could be used as weapons. Packaged and promoted by warped marketing minds in the fashion and music industries, the worst elements of society have now become the American style-setters.
A trip to the gas station? Back in the day, it was a place to fill up your tank, not fill your stomach with low-quality convenience store “food.” Take a look around and look at the people. See what they’re eating and buying (besides lotto tickets) and see what they look like.
“Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es” (Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are), wrote Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, in Physiologie du goût (The Physiology of Taste, 1825). Brillat-Savarin believed that the simplest meal satisfied, as long as it was executed with artistry, an approach that’s the antithesis of fast, junk, canned, frozen, microwaved American food.
“Man is what he eats,” wrote Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach in his essay Concerning Spiritualism and Materialism, 1863/4.
Both men maintained that the food one eats has a direct bearing of one’s state of mind and physical health.
But not according to the US food industry.
“The baby boomers want it to taste good first. They’re not necessarily interested in eating it just because it’s good for them,” declared Kellogg’s spokeswoman Karen Macleod. “To suggest that there are good foods and bad foods, we reject that entirely,” admonished Drew M. Davis, Vice President of the National Soft Drink Association. (See Trends 2000, Warner Books).
Lost that swing, America
It’s long gone. America “ain’t got that swing,” and it’s not rockin’. The club scene is scene-less, hot spots become instant flame outs. There’s no “in with the in crowd,” there’s no place where the “in” crowd goes. From coast to coast, no class act like Ciro’s, no happy feet Stompin’ at the Savoy, no Peppermint Lounge twisters, no Studio 54 magic. Motown is no town. The beat is gone, the sounds are mostly synthetic, and it’s always over amplified.
Although melody has mostly vanished, jive’s alive.
Speaking at a Democratic party fundraiser in May, President Barack Obama told the Hollywood crowd that he was “optimistic about America’s prospects.” The President told the donors, who paid from $10,000 per person to $64,800 per couple, that he didn’t buy the notion that “America was on a downward trajectory.”
Two weeks later at West Point, President Obama told graduating cadets that “by every indicator, we are better positioned than any country on earth to succeed.” He said “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.”
With every synthetic fiber of the Con-Man-In Chief’s “being,” he delivers hollowed-out lines to fill up the party’s political war chest and pump up gung-ho cadets to obey whatever orders they are given all in the name of American exceptionalism. Masterful. Master Race 2.0 rhetoric.
retreads getting old
Go back to the 2012 race for the White House. In virtually every debate and at every major stump speech, candidates from both sides of the political aisle played the American feel-good exceptionalism card to pump up the masses. What masses are those? The economically ravaged, buried in debt, morally destitute, culturally poisoned, corporately cultured, federally dictated, consumer branded, intellectually starved, mentally depressed, overworked, underpaid, physically unfit, fast-food fattened, homogenized, pasteurized and undernourished complacent majority.
Lacking the civic courage to take a moral stand and the dignity to respect themselves, a majority of Americans continue to pin their hopes on a corrupt political system and rotted presidential timber to build their future.
See it as you wish, take it as you will. You know the Trends Research Institute’s motto: “Think for yourself!”
As a trend analyst, I am neither “optimistic” nor “pessimistic. Those are attitudes. Whether a patient is mortally ill or extremely healthy, a doctor’s optimism or pessism will not change the diagnosis. Facts are facts. Thus, when we add up the socioeconomic facts and crunch the numbers, from top to bottom, we see America as a culture in steep decline.
While the cliché “you can’t judge a book by its cover” may apply to books, considering the interlocking societal trends, it does not apply to people who, indeed, often can be judged by their covers. Language, body language, dress, art, architecture — the good, the bad and the ugly — are telling reflections of the society that produced them.
Who’s to blame? How did it happen? Them, you and me. We all do our part to create the conditions that exist. The inner spirit creates the outer world.
Can the negative trends be reversed? Yes. Defintely, yes. I believe that individually and collectively we create our personal future and also contribute to the destiny of our world by our actions and inaction. As history has long proven, when a critical mass moves, for better and for worse, the nation moves with it.
What will it take to reverse the negative trends and replace them with elements of joy, beauty, grace and prosperity? As I see it, everthing begins and ends with the inner spirit, the sanctum where courage, dignity, respect, integrity and passion reside.
Until a critical mass embraces those attributes and finds its “self,” don’t blame Obamacare, don’t blame Big Brother, don’t blame your father, mother, or Lady Luck for not showing up — blame “I don’t care.”