Monday, August 24, 2009

Brothers Under The Skin?

I spent some time in Russia back in college, and whenever I came back to the US I was always asked one of the following two questions: “Is it true the women there don’t shave their legs?” And, “You must be more appreciative of America now, huh?”

The answer to both questions was an emphatic “No!”

Contrary to then popular American perceptions, Russian women weren’t a bunch of scowling babushkas with ankles the size of bowling pins. Just the opposite. St. Petersburg was brimming with gorgeous, intelligent women. I dated a Russian girl with the equivalent of a high school education who’d read everything by Shakespeare and most of Mark Twain in translation (whereas I’ve met scores of American college graduates who barely know who Mark Twain was. Is he that dude that, like, wrote that one book, what’s it called?).

As for the second question, I wasn’t exactly sure what I supposed to be so damned appreciative about. I’d concluded that the only difference between a Russian and an American standard of living was a Visa card. It looks to me that our current malaise is proving me right. Americans are waking up to the fact that our inflated standards of living weren’t the result of divine favor or an organic consequence of ‘freedom,’ but simply an artificial credit scam that’s been buoyed along by a series of equally artificial bubbles. Now that the last one has burst, our leaders lecture us about the importance of saving and responsible borrowing (hardy har), and financial ‘reporters’ on CNN in two-thousand dollar suits (yes, Ali Velshi, I’m talking about you) give us helpful hints about how to tighten our belts in rough economic times, etcetera. Here’s an example of their sage advice. A while back I heard one of them say, “You should actually look into using those coupons you get in the mail.” Gee, thanks.

They also encourage us with heartwarming, lets-look-at-the-bright-side human interest stories plagiarized from Little House on the Prairie scripts about how the recession is making Americans re-discover what’s truly important in life (hint: it’s not money!). There used to be a series of commercials based on this theme. One of them showed an aging couple gamboling on a yard of lush green grass. He was wearing a propeller cap and playing the banjo, and she was doing a happy little jig and playing the kazoo, or something equally bizarre. The caption next to them said, There’s more to life than money.

The commercial was for CitiBank.

How not be more appreciative of living in a country where bankers can sermonize about how there’s more to life than money and then go squealing to Congress that they can’t possibly manage without their six-figure bonuses, and to suggest otherwise is a sacrilege against all that is good, decent, and American?

At least the crooks who rule Russia don’t sugar-coat their behavior with syrupy homilies and patronizing television commercials. Their manners are simpler: “We’ve got the money, the power, and fuck you.”

Now that the bottom has dropped out of the so-called American Dream (which was an historical aberration brought about by World War II), the similarities between the two countries are becoming even more apparent. Both countries ultimately bankrupted themselves by developing wasteful, gargantuan military machines while their people slid into poverty. We started out with more money so it’s taken us a bit longer, but we’re getting there. And both countries are ruled by ruthlessly acquisitive oligarchies who lack the barest shreds of public spirit and possess no positive or creative vision at all. The only difference is one of style. The Russians are tactless and brutal, while our our bosses are mild-mannered and polite; the Russians beat you over the head with a club, our masters speak in soft euphemisms while their accomplices pick your pocket.

There is one more important difference, too. On the rare occasions when one of our elites get caught in a crime, he can always go on Saturday Night Live or Dancing With The Stars and receive a complete makeover, and the American public, like battered wives, always takes him back.

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