The American Dissident: Literature, Democracy & Dissidence

Suburbanitica: Journal of a Citizen Lost in Alienation in America

The following is an excerpt from Suburbanitica, a 300-page autobiographical nonfiction novel critical of suburban life in Concord, Massachusetts, home of revolutionary patriots and dissident writers Thoreau and Emerson. 

Even in our industrial bureaucracy, while we pay lip service to individuality, to private enterprise, to individual initiative, and so on, we yield more to the bureaucratically structured society in which the average person is an organization man.  He is the man who has escaped into automaton conformity.  […] For one thing, a man’s pride makes it uncomfortable for him to see that he is really an automaton, and he tends to resist even seeing that he is being manipulated by signals.  We want to have the illusion that we live by our own free decisions, and most people resist seeing themselves as otherwise.  […]  The future of civilization depends upon whether we in the West can alter this automaton tendency and return to real individualism and humanism.  We still pay lip service to individuality, but I fear we are fast losing human reality.
            —Eric Fromm, from Dialogue with Eric Fromm by Richard Evans

     I, citizen of the United States of America, rejected by and reduced to spectator of the Corporation, its ever hollow lieutenant, multifaceted and tentacular Government, and its trainer/partner Public Education, have written this journal not with bitterness, regret, nor anger, but with profound sadness, which will no doubt appear as anti-American in current as Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” and Jeffers’ Double Axe
     I, citizen lost, unemployed observer grown ever distant, dweller on the margins of Society, have written this reflection, while pedestrian voyageur ambling down amorphous suburbanitic avenues.  I, irrevocably alienated man, would beg you, dear compatriots, to pause a moment to ponder, if I thought it might help, if I thought you might actually be able to step off that rat-race treadmill, spin-wheel of ultra conformity, even if but momentarily.  Can you possibly contemplate whether you are running your own lives, or your lives being run for you?  Can you grasp just how expendable you have become… CEO, congressperson, professor, professional artiste, college president, postal worker, librarian, policeman, mom, father, boyfriend, girlfriend? 
     By the way, what is it that you do, dear compatriots, upon those green grass golf courses… so numerous have you become… standing there in white shorts with silvery clubs spewing tiny talk?  Has your time become that cheap?  What we could have become here in America… citizens of thought and contemplation; instead, but paltry unoriginal slaves to accumulation… and all things material. 
If you could only pause a moment to reflect… and stifle your automatic response.  Yes, I know damn well what you would say to me, if anything at all.  I’ve heard it too often… no argument… no debate… just unoriginal belching from behind national teamplaying, networking and fit-in personality… from behind that incessant all-too-transparent barrage of smiley face… bliss of white teeth and hair transplant, liposucked and Total Stepford Attitude.  How could you have had so much education and sunken into such a state of non-state?  What has become of your inherent humanness?  To spend your lives here in this Nation has evidently cost you dearly.  Can’t resist any longer?  Go ahead, say it then.  It will no doubt make you feel better, though further entrench you in the ever-deepening abyss. 
Yes, that’s right, I’m a loser. 
Yeah, I’m pissed off… and so were the patriots of the American Revolution.
Oh, that’s original.
Yeah, well, I’ve been hunting… but for something remotely meaningful. 
Hmm.  Sounds religious!  Well, I don’t believe in anything, but “the bottomless pool of the stars,” in the words of poet Robinson Jeffers. 
Yes, even coming from you ex-hippies turned liberal-entrenched-in-dogma Democrats.  Funny how things have changed.  How did we get so topsy turvy?  Whatever happened?  No matter.  Declarations of things not right in your beloved Republic of Work America, democracy turned blatant hypocrisy or rather hypocracy, will continue to be made... from the unsealed cracks in the Nation’s foundation… and always will there be unsealed cracks.  Those of you who are still with me—the newspaper editors who think they run free presses, the teachers who think they’re open-minded, poet society members who read Jeffers and Emerson and Thoreau without reading Jeffers and Emerson and Thoreau, millionaire techies with bowties transformed into brash corporateers devoid of that most human of traits, contemplation—let yourselves go even if for a moment.  Cast aside your cellphones, chain links of three letters of recommendation, and buzzwords that make you feel you belong. 
Delve into the very profundity of your souls, beyond the reach of colleague and peer pressure, where natural enlightenment.  Oh, the journey will be ever painful for at its end there will be no job security, no religious security of eternal life, nor social security, but only the security of the intrinsic truth of matters.  Whoever said that being human was supposed to be easy, a simple ride on a golf cart?  Take off your black sunglasses blind patriots… and see, if you dare.  Question and challenge, challenge, challenge!
What must it do to our psyches, dear citizens, to be witness day after day of community leaders entranced in inhuman denial?  What does it do to observe so much blatant lying and rationalizing when in flagrant delit, deluge of oh-so sorry?  What does it do to hear and read and watch their imbecilic statements of contrition, when business as usual is all they ever have in mind?  Ask yourself these questions if you can.  If not, then make more money, build a larger home, purchase a new DVD flatbed TV, tractor lawn mower or state of the art computer-chipped weed whacker.  America has long ceased being a Nation.  She has become but a gigantic agora, simple place to do business… nothing more nothing less.
On the Meaning of Craters
His [the democrat] impulse to tell the truth as he sees it, to speak his mind freely, to be his own man, comes into early and painful collision with the democratic dogma that such things are not nice—that the most worthy and laudable citizen is that one who is most like all the rest.  In youth, as everyone knows, this dogma is frequently challenged, and sometimes with great asperity, but the rebellion, taking one case with another, is not of long duration.  The campus Nietzsche, at thirty, begins to feel the suction of Rotary.
            —H. L. Mencken, “The Democratic Citizen”
“A small… regular, please,” I asked. 
“What?  What’s that, sir?” asked the server. 
            “Small… coffee,” I repeated.
“Tall, grandi, or venti?” asked the server. 
“Uh, give me a tall small,” I said.
            “You want a tall?” asked the server with a touch of disdain in the eyeball.
“Well uh give me a small,” I said. 
            “Oh, you want a short?” he asked.
“No, uh, I guess I want a tall,” I said.  “The short’s tiny, isn’t it?  I just want to make sure it’s a small tall, that’s all.”
            Straight-faced he was and the woman on line behind me straight-faced too.  I looked around at my surroundings, as I tended to do, and observed capuccino frappés, parked at tables like cars.  I grabbed the small tall and sat down or at least put the small tall down on a table, but feeling squeezed by the presence of so many citizen functionaries never really quite got my rearend down on to the seat.  I picked it up, and left.  The company inside my car was so much better than it could have ever been in one of those caffeinated morgues.
In the parking lot by the four-corners intersection with Cumberland farms facing me, Friendly’s across from it, and a Mobile gas station filling the third corner, I thus sat waiting for my evening class.  I’d been teaching an Adult Education course for about $18 an hour… without health insurance.  That seemed to be the up and coming corporate/academic trend:  part-time, adjunct, gypsy instructor, or whatever they called it… always without health insurance.  The Nation’s colleges, universities and Adult Ed centers ought to be ashamed, but of course weren’t.  The corporations, well, they were, after all, corporations. 
High school kids walked by my windshield vision toting white CVS plastic bags filled, no doubt, with band-aids, underarm perfumes, breath gargles and, hopefully, Trojans.  I had an aversion to high school kids, having once taught high school in a nightmare affront of chaotic absurdity and educationist-approved dumbbell inanity. 
People hated you, when you criticized them… even if indirectly.  Or if you said nothing at all, they’d be coldly indifferent to your plight… even when overt manifestation of great compassion and affirmative action—we do not discriminate on the basis of age; yeah, tell me about it, baby.  You were as expendable as the trash their sanitation engineers hauled out day after day from the Nation’s myriad work environments.  America had become the kinder, gentler land of positive-thinking citizen-functionaries with pasted smiley faces… and how difficult to befriend them, even if only on a professional level.  Their patent fraudulence made me deathly ill. 
            Well, I sat in my car, my car, many days, many evenings I’d spent alone with my mind in my car without the flatulent out-bursting of high school kids, flotsam, willowy, bloated porky strings of flesh, conformed intelligent life, barking as if one constant clamor, one acute irritation, one oh say can you see… eventually, offspring of sell-out hippie and beatnik mamas and papas… also eventually.  Yeah, and so I sipped and read and looked about, as my side of the planet darkened, until the print blurred… and the traffic, as the traffic, as the traffic, so many years now of the traffic.  Perhaps one day there’d be no traffic but for now it was eternal, society’s racket incarnate.  Could there be anything more absurd in the entire universe than that and gatherings of like-minded human beings, cops with visceral hatred for the Bill of Rights, lawyers with hammerheads, politicians with fluffy cheeks, professors at faculty meetings, poet society members, or the perennial, the proverbial high school kids?
The Adult Ed jefe had finally sent me an updated letter of recommendation after my continual re-reminding. Without it I’d never be able to find anything remotely in the professional sector again, let alone back on the ivory-tower tenure track.  After all, three good, recent letters of recommendation constituted the principle membership requirement for the Club.  Without them, a doctorate was insignificant.  Without them, knowledge and good teaching were irrelevant.  Without them, one simply could not become a member of the Club. 
Like the Lions and Rotary clubs, the professorate demanded rigorous pre-qualification for membership.  Whereas the social clubs often required proof of wealth, Club Academe required proof of allegiance more than anything else.  In every sense of the word, Academe was a club, being one of the few places, especially regarding the mass of average state colleges, where one could obtain a good full-time salary for part-time, generally undemanding work—four days a week, three hours per day, only six and a half months a year—, excellent fringe benefits, outrageous pensions, reimbursed junkets and numerous other perks.  How I liked to remind Club members of those facts, and how they hated to be reminded. 
                What did those three letters of recommendation represent, anyhow?  Generally, more often than not, they represented the opinions of three unquestioning and fully obedient professors, including, preferably, one from a department chairperson and another from a college dean. What did the letters indicate?  They indicated the letter holder had been deemed remarkable, not objectively but highly subjectively by the three “befriended” letter-writers.  Indeed, befriending, a euphemism for brown-nosing, kowtowing and sycophancy, constituted the most crucial task of all graduate students desiring to become Club members on the tenure track…  tchoo, tchoo, tchoo, tchoo.  
Heaven forbid if a college hired somebody who thought for him or herself and who was not afraid to openly criticize at the expense of not fitting into the mold of group thought and group criticism.  Those letters of recommendation ineluctably declared, in one way or another, that a candidate was not apt to make waves, not apt to buck the system, and, especially, not apt to question injustice and fraud, at least not when such occurred behind the walls of the ivory tower.  They represented the Club’s overriding, though unspoken, policy:  Troublemakers need not apply. 
                In any event, the letter from the Adult Ed jefe would suffice, even though minimal.  Rarely did I ever see the jefe, so had to pursue him.  As might be expected, we had nothing visibly in common.  But, well, I was doing my job, came on time, didn’t leave early, and the students weren’t complaining.  What more could he have wanted… for $18 per hour?  Lilly, whom I lived with, was making $65 per hour for simple tutoring, and she had a friend who was pulling in $25,000 for one extra night course at Brandeis University.  I was pulling in $420 for such a course… and yes, I had a doctorate and 14 years of full-time college teaching experience in the U.S. and France.  What was the problem?  INSUFFICIENT KOWTOW!
The specter of letters of recommendation kept teachers and professors ‘in line.’  No questioning, no challenging… or no letter of recommendation.  Well, I was on the fringes and would probably never get another full-time teaching job anyhow.  My resume had a four-year crater that somehow had to be filled.  Besides, I’d questioned.  I’d challenged.  I’d questioned.  I’d challenged… while they had essentially buried! 
The job offers perused since my last full-time teaching position must have numbered in the thousands.  My struggle with purpose had reduced me to professional mendacity, or almost, … at least during weak moments of depression and utter futility.  Yes, even the strongest of men, dear Nietzsche, had their weak moments.  But why even bother looking for job?  I’d saved some cash and learned to live and be quite content with the simplicity of Henry David Thoreau.  The answer, well, the answer was simple:  health insurance.
Employers, be they academic or corporate, didn’t like craters.  Craters were warning flags.  The bigger the crater, the higher the probability the resume holder would be apt to criticize.  Craters underscored that a man or woman was not a work robot and that he or she may have been a ‘problem’ to previous employers, that he or she did not want to work all the time, and did not want to become a corporate/academic cult member… until death do part. 
How many Americans in the Nation had problems kissing their boss’ butts?  Why weren’t there statistics for that category?  I for one had a serious problem ‘kissing,’ but could still do my job, as long as ‘kissing’ were not the principle job function.  Why should I be excluded, not even counted, in the National employment statistics?  After all, I was a citizen, though unemployed for a couple of years—still a citizen no less!  I was and had been actively (foolishly?) looking for work.  I wanted to work.  I wasn’t sick.  I was intelligent… but not cowardly.  
            The dilemma, of course, was that if you didn’t ‘kiss,’ you didn’t get a great letter of recommendation… and God forbid, if you had to leave a job without a letter of recommendation from the boss or sub-boss, dean or chairperson.  It was all quite simple.  Without the letter, you began building a crater.  When that crater got too large, you had only three choices: 1. think of a good lie to fill it; 2. beg like a slap dummy; or 3. don’t work—sell drugs or steal or fill one of the nation’s many penal colony cells.  How to fill a large crater?  Lying was of course best. 
                Well, as said, I seemed to be doing my job… no complaints as far as I was aware… in more or less good terms with the pinche jefe… at least as far as I knew… evidently one could never know for sure.  Indeed, one afternoon after the end of the semester, I’d end up bumping into him at the local health club.  Lilly, had given me a free pass, and the receptionist a long talk on membership and tour of the the vast complex… jam-packed with suburbanitics! 
Further, to track the question of academic work a bit further, the notion that people who work their butts off, at low wages, to try to publish, teach, and write with integrity about art that they truly love, are somehow inferior to other kinds of workers strikes me as absurd. […] As for a paper:  no, I'm not interested in your hostile nonsense.  Jeffers never, to my knowledge, behaved with such ugly manners, and I see no reason to encourage you.
            —David Rothman, Executive Director of Robinson Jeffers Association