December 13, 2013

The Dregs of Humanity

Every once in a while something happens to remind me of why I left the US. I have a US mail drop in a town that is an ex-pat haven, about 1.5 hours from here, and drive over there to get my mail about 2-3 times a month. I try to go in and out very quickly, because I don’t like the place: it’s overrun with gringos, and the ambience is similar to Los Angeles. The other day, as I was leaving to go back home, I came to an intersection and drove through it (no lights; it was just my turn), but because of the car ahead of me I couldn’t get all the way across. Which thus blocked a woman (gringa) of about 30 years of age who was trying to go across at a right angle to me. Frustrated, she yelled “Stupid!,” at which point I didn’t miss a beat and yelled back “You are!” (There wasn’t enough time to add, “Douche bag!”)

On the ride back home, I reflected on how awful Americans are as people--really, a disgusting collection of human beings. Whereas I literally never have interactions like that with Mexicans, this sort of thing is coin of the realm in the US; I probably had 2-3 exchanges like that per week when I lived in DC. I tried to recall the last time someone was this rude to me down here, and then I remembered that it was about 6 months ago, in the same town, and also in an incident involving a gringa. I realized that in the more than 7 years I’ve lived here, no Mexican ever cussed me out--not once; and the only such behavior I witnessed between Mexicans themselves was when I was in a taxi in Mexico City and someone cut my driver off. He leaned out the window and yelled “pendejo!,” or something like that. That was it: one time in 7 years.

Back home, I went to a supermarket to get some groceries, and as I walked by a 20-year-old Mexican woman coming from the opposite direction, I unexpectedly sneezed. “Salud!” she cried. And it was such a wake-up moment, for me: Yes, this is how people in a decent society treat strangers—not like strangers. We’re all in this together, is the feeling; your health is my concern. You can say that this is "pro forma," but man--it counts. This is precisely what Robert Putnam, in his famous book on the collapse of community in America (Bowling Alone), referred to as “social capital,” and he argued that it made a huge difference for the health of a society.

In any case, I happened to be carrying a copy of the New Yorker for December 9, so I sat down at a café within the market to eat something before I started shopping. There was an article on what is known by the police as the Reid Technique for obtaining confessions. It includes bullying, lying, and manipulating until the suspect breaks down and “confesses.” Recent research has turned up the fact (what a shock) that a large percentage of these confessions obtained under duress are false. The Brits, in the 1990s, began to worry about these sorts of heavy-handed techniques as making criminals out of innocents, and instituted a more “journalistic” approach in which the cops just gather information, then point out inconsistencies. It’s working a whole lot better, according to the essay; and when Saul Kassin, who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in NY, was asked about the possibility of replacing the Reid Technique with something like what England had instituted over here, in the US, he replied that it was unlikely: The culture of confrontation is too embedded in our society, was his reply.

I do understand how strung out Americans are, even down here in Mexico. The culture of confrontation is all they know, all they’ve known all their lives. Also the culture of anger, the culture of entitlement, and (Lasch) the culture of narcissism. They are hurting; their lives are meaningless, for reasons I’ve written about at great length; and they walk around with a short fuse. So if someone inconveniences you for a moment at an intersection, God forbid, you lash out, because this is what Americans do. That it might not be such a big deal, and that you can choose—as Mexicans typically do in that situation—just to lean back for a moment and wait—why, that never even enters your mind.

Sitting in that café, and reading about the “culture of confrontation,” I couldn’t help thinking: What was God up to, when he made the US? Did he decide to gather up all of the trash, all the human garbage from the planet, the dregs of humanity, and plunk them down in one particular country? Was this His idea of a joke, or was he trying to create an object lesson for the rest of the world: Don’t be like this!? It makes you wonder.

I also couldn’t help thinking about the intangibles that make up such a large part of our lives. They don’t tell you about the courtesy and graciousness of various nations in travel guidebooks, nor about the rudeness and boorishness (and sheer stupidity) of Americans, in guides to the US. And in making assessments like “We’re No. 1!,” Americans never factor in the intangibles such as lack of elementary courtesy or lack of basic decency, because all they know in terms of criteria is material wealth. But you can’t eat your stock portfolio; and having people yell at you (or act friendly toward you) on a daily basis makes a big difference in the quality of your life. I finished the New Yorker article, and felt so happy that I was not living in the US, or in that pathetic mini-gringolandia where I have my mail drop. I have no interest at all in the culture of confrontation, in a society described by the biologist David Ehrenfeld as "a collection of angry scorpions in a bottle.” Let them attack each other all they want; I'm not part of that sad, destructive way of death anymore.


©Morris Berman, 2013