A Nation in Decline?: Part 1: A Passive/Aggressive People

  We were six months on the road, from February to August, traveling in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, California, Nevada, Wyoming, Montana, Washington, and Oregon. We have been to towns large and small: Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Tucson, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Yuma, Blue Diamond, Ridgecrest, Barstow, Bishop, Genoa, Carson City, Reno, Grass Valley, Cambria, Monterey, Pacific Grove, Half Moon Bay, Pescadero, Montara, San Rafael, Santa Rosa, Jenner, Bodega Bay, Point Reyes Station, Olema, Novato, Petaluma, Paso Robles, Three Rivers, Mariposa, Midpines, Oakhurst, Fresno, Eureka, Arcada, Samoa, Willits, Trinidad, Crescent City, Brookings, Gold Beach, Bandon, Coos Bay, Florence, Reedsport, Springfield, Eugene, Klamath Falls, Bonanza, Lakeview, Winnemucca, Elko, Ely, Mesquite, St.. George, Cedar City, Baker, Wendover, Nephi, Provo, Centerfield, Salida, Richfield, Loa, Bicknell, Torrey, Caineville, Hanksville, Green River, Moab, Monticello, Cortez, Pagosa Springs, Mancos, Durango, South Park, Golden, Boulder, Estes Park, Cheyenne, Casper, Buffalo, Sheridan, Dayton, Ten Sleep, Hyattville, Lovell, Cowley, Frannie, Bridger, Laurel, Billings, Livingston, Bozeman, Butte, Missoula, Silverton, Coeur D’Alene, Spokane, Moses Lake, Yakima, Packwood, Vancouver, and many more.

We have many impressions about the places we have seen and the people we have met, but a few stand out. First, it is night time in the United States. The mood of the people is sour, dark, depressed, confused. It is a rare face that greets you with a smile, much less says hello. We like to describe the public affect as passive/aggressive. It is astonishing to witness how passive our fellow citizens are in the face of economic collapse, mortgage defaults, bankruptcies, lost jobs, no health insurance, corporate criminality, and a corrupt political system. I don’t know what it would take to get working men and women angry enough to take action. A few do but not many. No one strikes anymore. The unions are in utter disarray. They couldn’t muster mass demonstrations for national healthcare, settling instead for the pathetic “reform” of the thoroughly pro-business Obama administration. There should be a massive, organized abandonment of mortgages; after all, businesses have reneged on their debts en masse. Yet no such thing seems imminent. We saw obvious signs of real estate catastrophe everywhere—from Las Vegas, Reno, and Tucson to Portland—but apparently today’s home buyers and a good many of those who have seen the price of their homes plummet are as deluded as ever, telling pollsters that they expect preposterously high future appreciations in housing prices.

I know that some will say that I am ignoring many local movements: immigrant organizing, healthcare workers in California, all sorts of environmental efforts, and the like. But taken as a whole, these are in no way challenging the powers that be. In the worst economic debacle since the Great Depression, the lords of finance have managed to keep their power and their fortunes intact and even make them grow. The distributions of income and wealth (and the power inherent in them) remain incredibly unequal, and there are no indications of a reversal anytime soon.

The lack of action doesn’t mean that Americans are not angry. Assert yuourself, even in a gentle way, and watch the anger erupt. When we were living in Boulder, Colorado, we saw this many times. A man told a skateboarder that boards weren’t allowed on the downtown mall. He was an older man, and he pointed to a nearby sign where the prohibition was clearly marked. The young man then began to harass him, followed him across the street, and, then, spat on him. We were in a grocery store with a $20 manufacturer’s coupon for organic chicken. The clerk tried to scan the coupon, but he could not. After several attempts, he said, “Sorry, it won’t scan,” and he continued to scan the items in our basket. We pointed out that the coupon was valid and from a local business whose products this store stocked. He immediately became angry and acted as if the $20 was coming from him. We asked to see a supervisor, and he said that wouldn’t make any difference. We insisted, and he finally called a manager. She came over and quickly resolved the problem. The computer had been programmed to reject coupons greater than a certain sum of money. The clerk could have asked for his manager right away, but he made a scene instead. In all likelihood, most customers would have given up when he couldn’t scan the coupon. We didn’t, and the clerk couldn’t handle this.

In our travels, we also witnessed passive/aggressive behavior. In a motel parking lot, a man was rummaging around in his car with the side door open, blocking my access to my car door. I waited patiently while he continued, oblivious to my presence. When he noticed me, his face showed disgust and he curtly said that he’d move for me. I quickly stowed my gear, but he continued to glare. I asked him if he was upset about something. He said no, he was just trying to find something in his car, but he said it with a nasty tone. What he really meant was how did I have the nerve to interfere with him. Earlier on our trip, we left the Albuquerque Art Museum and walked to the parking lot, where an elderly man was leaving a note on our car window.  His wife had smacked into the side of our car while parking next to us. He said that he didn’t want to notify his insurance company and would pay for the needed repairs. We insisted on his insurance information and agreed to contact him when we settled somewhere and could arrange to have the work done. After he and his wife went into the museum, we took pictures and marked down his license plate number. Three months later, I called him twice to say that we would soon be in Boulder, Colorado and would get an estimate for him. He didn’t return my calls. Karen phoned him and left a sharper message telling him that we would notify the insurance company if he didn’t contact us. A few hours later, he left a pointed message informing us that unlike most people, he had written a note admitting that he had damaged our car, the implication being that we were the lucky ones. He said that we should fax him two estimates. We went to a body shop in Boulder and got an estimate, a little over $1,300.  He was none too happy; this was too high for just a “scratch.”  He eventually paid us, but not before painting himself s the victim.

Our worst encounter was at a Motel 6 in Ridgecrest, California. Ridgecrest is a nondescript military town, which we used as a base to explore Death Valley National Park. Motels were expensive, so we took refuge in the Motel 6. Over the weekend, we were surprised to see many nice cars in the parking lot, and we guessed that the economic slump had travelers looking for cheap places to stay. During the week, however, the motel fills up with construction laborers doing work at the gigantic China Lake Naval Weapons Center. We needed to stay an extra day to take the car to a garage for maintenance, but when I asked at the desk about another night, I was told that the only room available was a room set up for persons with disabilities. We had no choice but to change rooms. The room was a mess–dirty, smelling of urine, with ratty bed linens, and reeking of tobacco smoke. Karen left to go to the grocery store, and while she was gone, I discovered that there was no hot water in the sink and shower. I notified the front desk, and the clerk called their maintenance man. This poor soul arrived about twenty minutes later and spent the next five hours in and out of our room trying to get hot water flowing. The motel manager came waltzing in at one point and promised us a quick resolution. When that didn’t happen, I asked for a different room, to no avail. Finally, the repairman restored the hot water. The next morning Karen sought out the manager to complain and told her that she had noticed some empty rooms in the motel. Why couldn’t we have switched rooms, she asked. The manager erupted. Karen withstood the verbal assault calmly and then said to her that she should be ashamed to rent, to handicapped people no less, a smoky room reeking of urine and with no hot water. The manager lost it completely, hurling a string of epithets at Karen, which included “fucking bitch.” She told us to get the hell off her property and threatened to call the police. We filed a complaint with the company and now have a coupon for a free night at any Motel 6! 

The anger felt by so many individuals can turn into mass anger.  This can be and has been encouraged and manipulated by right-wing media, which have directed it at the most vulnerable members of society, especially Mexican immigrants. When there are no social movements bringing the masses of working people together in battle against the owning class and their allies, those whose lives have been turned upside down by economic crisis and those who find that their former privileges as white persons are threatened find easy scapegoats in “illegal aliens,” in racial minorities, in Muslims, in the poor. Or they are convinced that the government is engaging in some gigantic conspiracy to separate them from their money. Just as a man who can’t meet his mortgage payment might become irrationally angry when you accidentally bump into him on a city sidewalk, so too masses of people beset by problems might vote for the most draconian legislation or the most deranged candidates or engage in mob violence. There is even talk now that the Fourteenth Amendment, the cornerstone of our civil liberties, should be severely amended, removing the guarantee of equal protection under the law for all who live here.  A passive/aggressive people can do dangerous things.  If we want these things to challenge the powers that be, we have our work cut out for us.

To be continued . . .

11 Responses

  1. Tom B
    Tom B August 27, 2010 at 6:57 pm | | Reply

    I recently did a hike in Colorado and had a string of experiences totally at odds with those quoted above…. (Are we living in the same country?) In fact, in three weeks in Colorado I met NO surly person … and had dozens do me favors, mostly before I asked. I can’t explain the discrepancy….

    1. mike
      mike August 27, 2010 at 7:20 pm | | Reply

      Dear Tom,

      The discrepancy is easy to unravel. When we were visiting Estes Park and hiking all the time, we met all kinds of nice and helpful people. Most folks are happy when they are out in nature. You were in an isolated world, and the people you met were no doubt escaping the daily grind, as were you. But when we actually lived in Estes Park and Boulder and we read the local papers and blogs and were on the streets everyday, we saw different things: stressed workers serving the tourists, hostility toward immigrants, lonely people, malfeasance by public officials, and the things described in my blog entry.

      I see that your current city is Houston, Texas. How is it there?

  2. Greg McDonald
    Greg McDonald August 28, 2010 at 1:33 am | | Reply

    You nailed it Michael.

  3. John Medlin
    John Medlin August 28, 2010 at 4:46 am | | Reply

    “it is night time in the United States. The mood of the people is sour, dark, depressed, confused…We like to describe the public affect as passive/aggressive. It is astonishing to witness how passive our fellow citizens are in the face of economic collapse, mortgage defaults, bankruptcies, lost jobs, no health insurance, corporate criminality, and a corrupt political system.”

    Excellent phrase descrbing the mood in America today. It is not restricted to one side of the political spectrum, see http://www.breitbart.tv/holocaust-survivor-cursed-out-by-ground-zero-mosque-supporter/

    Our “interesting times” are going to get a lot more interesting, not just in the USA but worldwide. Check out Greece, Hungary, Ireland over the next 60-90 days.

    Good Blog, Michael.

  4. Todd
    Todd August 29, 2010 at 8:45 pm | | Reply

    “It is not restricted to one side of the political spectrum,”

    >snort!<

    So an apparent pro-Zionist (Holocaust survivor or not; we don't hear the old man say) is opposed to the mosque (surprise-surprise!), and a lefty of some sort starts cursing him. And this is supposed to be indicative of some kind of lefty failing?

    How about coming back to the real world that Mike's describing away from the Right's pseudo-victimland?

  5. Jurriaan Bendien
    Jurriaan Bendien September 3, 2010 at 9:20 pm | | Reply

    The US claims to be the most advanced country in the world. In reality, they are just facing what other countries had to face decades ago, or even centuries ago. This is called Trotsky’s law of “uneven and combined development”. I’m not worried, seen as the US has more resources to solve the problems than practically any other country has.

  6. Todd
    Todd September 4, 2010 at 2:24 am | | Reply

    “I’m not worried, seen as the US has more resources to solve the problems than practically any other country has.”

    And of course the bourgeois will deploy those resources and demand that their government do so as well for the sake of the suffering workers.

  7. Lajany Otum
    Lajany Otum September 4, 2010 at 2:34 am | | Reply

    I’m not worried, seen as the US has more resources to solve the problems than practically any other country has.

    Never mind the question of who controls said resources and to what filthy purposes the resources are continually being used, if that is the right word, to line the pockets of the few and destroy for millennia to come the countries of brown and Muslim people around the world. For those who are interested, Jurrian Bendien, or somebody writing under a similar name, also thinks it is a good idea for Tony Hayward of BP fame to be put in charge of protecting the environment from despoliation by the oil companies.

  8. Mary
    Mary September 5, 2010 at 4:59 pm | | Reply

    I gotta say regarding the car insurance thing, that a cop told me and a woman who’s car I slightly scratched that we’d pay so much more in the long run for the insurance we should let it go (the person who get’s hit’s rates go up as well…) Just saying…We keep supporting the corporate insurance companies when we insist on this (often body shops will charge a lot less for non insurance stuff…)

    The anger is epidemic as you say, however…and the poor folks are often stuck in the cities with no way to get to nature…

  9. Kevin Hornbuckle
    Kevin Hornbuckle September 24, 2010 at 1:33 pm | | Reply

    Yates is observing something very real and important. For many years I was a school bus driver and let me tell you, the aggression is not so passive anymore. It is explicit, and the capitalist class encourages it for that people will attack each other. One way to conceptualize it is as a spring behind the hammer of a gun. Its stored energy and at the social level, as Yates points out, the harm is targeted on the least powerful: poor people, immigrants, old people, black people, etc.

    Thinking workers must understand why this is happening in our society. Generally, of course, its because the system of capital accumulation is inherently antisocial. More specifically, a social system based on exploitation and accumulation necessarily has metaphysical aspects including social interactions. In every day discourse people exchange symbolic capital including debts. Liabilities are transferred by the demonstrated ability to subordinate other people. The means of such social transfer are shouting, swearing, lying, and otherwise intimidating. But its not just crudity. More sophisticated means include withholding information, misleading, implicit threats to reputation (e.g., “I heard that you….”).

    In 2008 when I was driving a regular route of middle school students I got on the P.A. mic on the way to school and said, “Everyone listen carefully. Something really bad is going to happen in the economy and your families are going to come under big stresses. It will be hard for you to understand, but your parents don’t have control of it. Try to help them by being helpful around your house or apartment. Most of them are doing the best they can under very difficult circumstances.”

    Well over 90% of the kids on this bus qualified for free or reduced lunches (per federal poverty guidelines). The kids generally appreciated a bus driver who refused to let the ‘law of the jungle’ prevail in the social atmosphere on the bus. The students who did not appreciate it were the ones with the most to lose; the ones with the most symbolic capital machinery to control through fear mostly, other students.

    An important contradiction to observe concerning the loss of civility is that it is ideologists for the ruling class who used to claim that America was disintegrating because of bad manners. Their notion of good manners was how dutifully happy one should be to kiss privileged ass. Now their law of the jungle prevails and the means to survive in an environment of austerity and hardship are social aggressions which can see have been pre-programmed for just such a turn of events.

    My 12 year old son got a compliment from a young woman working at a sandwich shop when he pushed his chain in after leaving the table. “You’re the only one I’ve ever seen do that and I’ve been working here a long time,” she said.

    We do it because we are Marxists and we don’t believe in slavery.

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain
    Mulga Mumblebrain September 24, 2010 at 4:52 pm | | Reply

    Kevin,I’m with you 100%. The morally insane psychopaths who rule the planet due to the dominance of capitalism, use fear and hatred to manipulate the serfs that they despise, to divert their attention from their worsening plight and its authors, the capitalist parasite class.Moreover, in the unceasing brainwashing campaign that they prosecute through their total dominance of the mainstream media, these parasites inflict their psychology on the rest of society. That mentality can be summed up simply as hatred of the other. Other people,other species, other societies,other capitalists. This leads to a society based on ruthless,unscrupulous and rigged competition, the ‘war of all against all’, and it leaves societies where it is rampant in a state of neo-feudal inequality and social viciousness,allied to extreme aggression targeted at the weakest and at cultural, racial and religious others. It is a system that must lead to unimaginable horror,as any Iraqi could tell you.

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