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America – The nation about nothing…

Manhattan Buildings - flickr / Russ Glasson

America has been called the great melting pot. If so, then to me at least, it’s more like fondue that has gone horribly wrong. This great mixing of cultures has yielded a country that is becoming more splintered and divided each year. Instead of molding the traditions and cultural values that were brought over here by those from other areas into one, a number of these beliefs and values have been lost or simply tossed aside.

A country where personal agendas and monetary rewards take president over relationships and community. I remember when it was not so much. When everything did not have a price and avarice was considered by most to be crude and uncouth. Where you went out of your way from friends because friendship meant something. Where people looked out for one another and supported one another. Where jingoistic propaganda was not necessary to get people to back and idea or action. Where everything did not have to be sold by a carnival barker.

I remember a time when a cabbage could sell itself just by being a cabbage. Nowadays it’s no good being a cabbage-unless you have an agent and pay him a commission. Nothing is free any more to sell itself or give itself away. These days, Countess, every cabbage has it’s pimp. – Rag Picker “The Madwoman of Chaillot

Morris Berman brings this up using Seinfeld as a definitive example.

In the case of the Seinfeld scripts, Jerry provided the upbeat, overt aspect of the show’s humor, while Larry David supplied the subtext. Larry’s vision, especially about America, was quite dark. As a result, there is an undercurrent in the episodes, one which says that the United States is a country in which friendship is pretty much a sham and community nonexistent; a society where nobody gives a damn about anybody else.

This is true not only in the way that the four central characters–Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer–relate to those outside their little circle, but also in the way they relate to each other. They often talk simultaneously, “through” each other, as though the other person weren’t even present. All four of them appear to have only one motive: advancement of their own personal and immediate goals. In a word, the show is actually about the callousness, the almost autistic indifference, of daily life in America; and this is revealed in episode after episode.

Berman then gives a half a dozen plot synopsis as examples of this. But he leaves out I think a very important aspect in the socio economic context. That of the upper class white areas. The gated communities and those with home owners associations and condos and what not. Upper class suburbia and upper class town houses etc. But even the series Friends tried to play this kind of relationship for laughs as well, though with a bit more subtlety.

Among the poor and black and asian and latino communities, this is not the case. At least not nearly as much. For they need to have more brotherhood and fellowship to make it. And from my own small experience they do. This deep rooted community spirit was most prevalent within various ethnic and cultural areas but rarely between different ones. It was also quite visible in rural family farming areas and amongst those who were laborers and blue collar workers as well. It helped to bring together unions and other organizations. It was this value system and attitude that pushed us forward and paved the way for the inventions and progressive attitudes.

So it should come as no surprise that as this value of brotherhood and community as diminished, so have the unions and other organizations. The “Me Generation” and their offspring have take over. Born with a silver spoon in their mouths, dishwashers to keep them clean and sanitary and a guaranteed income from their bought and payed for education. Those that want to throw out anything that they personally do not benefit from but costs them money. A nation that goes to war for no good reason but to further someones agenda. Where Ayn Rand can is a popular metaphor. And as Berman points out at the end of his piece:

When Jerry phones his lawyer, “Jackie Chiles” (a Johnnie Cochran look-alike), to explain that they were arrested for not coming to someone’s aid, Jackie explodes with indignation: “Why, that’s ridiculous!” he barks. “You don’t have to help anybody. That’s what this country is all about!” As the popular American expression has it, He got that one right.

The trial over, the judge sentences our heroes to a year in jail, commenting that “your callous disregard for other human beings threatens to rock the very foundations of society.” But which society? What the show tells us, in episode after episode, is that callous disregard for other human beings is the foundation of society–American society, that is. And so the subtext finally breaks through in no uncertain terms: Seinfeld was A Show About Something, after all.

Seinfeld ran for 10 seasons and was one of the most popular shows at the time. And no wonder, it presented American upper class values to a tee. This show about nothing in a country about noting.

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