"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Our Worried Society–What Ever Happened To Joie de Vivre, Que Sera Sera, And La Dolce Vita?

If progressives are to be believed, the world is beset by existential problems – climate change, perpetual war, income inequality, social immobility, and persistent racial prejudice.  The environment is being despoiled, women are being abused and oppressed, black people have been further confined to inner city slums and ignored  by an increasingly white supremacist oligarchy.  Tens of millions of Americans are worried about something.

If that weren’t bad enough, Donald Trump’s election has caused more anger, anxiety, and bilious hatred than any in recent memory.  He was characterized by the Left during the campaign as a misogynistic, homophobic, racist xenophobe.  A caricature of every nasty, forgettable American trait – bombast, bourgeois taste, superficiality, greedy ambition, and conspicuous consumption.  A crude arriviste with Hollywood pretensions and no qualifications for any public office.

Progressives never thought he could win.  “How could he possibly win?”, they asked, especially when his opponent was a woman with a long legacy of public service, commitment to bedrock liberal values with a loud vocal support for the marginalized, disadvantaged, and neglected. 

So they piled on, and the election became less a contest of political philosophy and one of moral principle.  Donald Trump, they argued, was not only a vaudevillian, a bourgeois political poseur, and an incompetent; but a man with no moral center or foundation.  The election was clearly one between right and wrong, good and bad, morality and immorality.

Given the fact that so many millions of Americans had vested so many of their most personal and intimate convictions in the election, their shock, grief, and total disbelief at Donald Trump’s victory was completely understandable.

The Right is delighted of course.  Finally they have a President who is far more radically conservative than Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, Curtis Lemay, George Bush, and the Tea Party all put together.  They have found in Donald Trump the answer to their frustrations, resentments, and anger at the intrusive liberal agenda imposed upon them in increasing doses over the past eight years. 

There are grousers on the Right of course.  A rollback of the progressive agenda cannot come fast enough for them.  It will take decades to cleanse academia of liberal cant and presumption; years to slow the race-gender-ethnicity juggernaut that is transforming the ethos of the Republic; to stop criminal violence and to restore America to its legitimate, former role as unchallenged world superpower.

For many voters Trump is not conservative enough.  Businesses, usually strong supporters of the GOP, are unhappy with his immigration policies which will stem the flow of cheap labor.

Corporations are unhappy with his mercantilist approach to trade.  They cannot do business without access to foreign markets, foreign goods, and foreign investment.   Religious fundamentalists have always been concerned about Donald Trump’s faith – or lack of it.  They are suspicious of his invocation of God and find his references to God and Jesus Christ far too oblique to be fully believed.

Millions of Gen X and Gen Y Americans are upset less about political issues than those which they feel will have a more profound and lasting impact.  GMO products are polluting the food chain with a new, especially pernicious virus – twisted, deformed, and unpredictable genetic compounds.  Bees are dying, the inventory of hearty, un-manipulated seeds decreasing, pesticides and chemical fertilizers are killing fish and wildlife, and soon the planet will be an ecosystem of frankenfish and sere prairies.

Loggers are destroying both old- and new-growth forests.  Land developers are turning pastoral land into strip malls and condo developments.  Air traffic is becoming dangerously congested; ground traffic gridlock is permanent.  Work hours increase with little reward; children have become dependent pests; and……

There is no end to the list of assaults on American society.  Everyone has a grievance or  a pet peeve.  Just to read the list is exhausting let alone to hear the litany recited. 

What ever happened to joie de vivre, que sera sera, and la dolce vita? Well, the first answer is that we never had any of those foreign ideas in the first place.  America was founded on the Puritan values of hard work, parsimony, abstinence, and a strict, confining moral code.  Good Protestants were not meant to have fun only to serve God’s will, have faith, and await the bestowal of his grace. 

Luckily we never had to deal with Southern European idleness and vanity until much later on; and suffered Mediterranean immigrants, their garlic, intemperance, and Catholic attitudes only because we needed their cheap labor. 

Today’s Latino immigrants are no different.  They bring in chipotle and chili pepper instead of garlic; a more animist Catholicism; and a let-it-be attitude which may be of a different cultural origin but fundamentally no different from the Mediterranean combination of historical realism, climate, and a relaxed moral  and social code.

A few decades back when foreign travel became more affordable and easier, Americans discovered the good life of France. Cafes were filled at all hours of the day, workers had their café Cognac before heading of to the factory, the cinq-a-sept hours of assignation were honored, mistresses accepted, two hour lunches de rigeur, visits to museums, attendance at concerts and plays routine; and best of all a one month paid vacation enshrined in French law. 

“We can do that”, returning Americans said.  How difficult can it be to let up on the throttle, kick back, and enjoy life?

Very hard indeed, these returnees soon found. A cultural ethos – a cultural lifestyle – cannot simply be transplanted or even overlaid.  Forget the half-hour lunches, precarious jobs, long hours, short vacations, and few breaks that are a part of our work routine.  It that old, dogged Puritanism that keeps us at our hamster wheel – that nagging guilt of lingering over a coffee at Starbucks, taking off early for a movie or a few drinks with friends.

‘Children are to be seen, not heard’ is taken seriously in France. Children do not belong in an adult world, disrupt adult pleasures, and offer little in return.  They are necessary appurtenances, important for lineage, but largely supernumerary.

Of all things perplexingly American, the French cannot understand how children have become the center of attention instead of sitting properly and quietly on the sidelines.  They will have their day, say the French.  Just not now.  Yet Americans think maternity is a special gift from God, paternity a joy as well as a responsibility, and parenthood an unalloyed pleasure.

Out of which ethos come helicopter and snowplow moms, non-stop soccer games, ballet lessons, painting classes, group outings, children’s theatre, and cooking. 

Although perplexing to the French, it is very normal for Americans.  It is never too early to give children the keys to success – an appreciation for performance, intellectual diversity, and overall excellence that will give them a leg up on the competition.  Children should not be just clones of their parents, but environmentally modified to suit the 21st century.

Bars are for meeting potential partners.  Vacations are for taking the edge off while not completely abandoning the office.  Cooking has become cuisine, morphed from simple satisfaction to presentation and cachet or compulsively healthy.

Physical activity has evolved far from hoops on the playground, bike rides in the country, pick-up softball at the park, or ice-skating on the town pond.  Sports are serious business.  Not only have traditional sports – basketball, soccer, football, and cycling – become competitive; but they have been complemented by serious workouts at the gym.  Number of reps are recorded, effort measured, time clocked.

A Healthy Lifestyle has replaced joie de vivre.  What use is idleness or sybaritic pleasure when extending one’s lifespan is at stake?  A hidden secret in America is that we can actually cheat death.

So with all the whinging, worrying, and social activism; and with the high stakes races to beat the Grim Reaper, there is no time for enjoyment let alone anything more profound.

The best we can seem to muster is a meditative distance – a temporary retreat and refuge from the noise and aggravation of everyday life.  If pleasure can’t provide the balance to the demands of modern life – a la dolce vita and joie de vivre – then disengagement might be the answer.
Of course it is not, for we approach yoga and meditation no different than we do anything else – competitively. 

Even Stoicism and Nihilism – the refuge of intellectuals – doesn’t seem to work here.  We must study these philosophies, get on top of them, understand their principles and purposes before signing up – all of which, of course, are completely antithetical to the idea that nothing matters.


So, we’re stuck.  A few of us have managed a “Fuck it” attitude – a bit more dismissive and cynical than que sera sera but akin to it.  At least get rid of the unhealthy preoccupation with problems, solutions and progress, and take things in stride.  History always repeats itself, progress is a chimera, salvation an encouraging myth, and pleasure was dunned out of us 250 years ago. 

“Fuck it” is not exactly what one might have hoped as an anodyne to troubles after a visit to Paris, but it’s satisfying.  And who knows, maybe a baby step to real Stoicism, que sera sera, and maybe even pleasure.

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