Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Our national obsession with "Our national obsession"

I am, for the moment, free of teaching responsibilities (I'll be teaching American literature and Composition II (the research paper component of the composition sequence) this summer).  I also confess that I didn't feel as though I had too much of interest to be blogging about here--there IS my unstated goal, after all, of maintaining the same consistently-high standards for my entries that I've thus far maintained (::detecting the faint whiff of sarcasm::).
Anyway: it's good to be back.
The ol' academic environment is perfect for me, I've decided: clearly defined beginnings and ends but, within those boundaries, the powerful illusion, so powerful that it borders on being reality, that I have a great deal of freedom and control.  Add to all that the fact that I truly DO take pleasure in seeing my students learn, and I can't imagine a better job for me.  I'd rather not be teaching this summer, but I don't mind it; and it will make me use my spare time more efficiently while working on the book--and return as well to working on the Concordance for House of Leaves.
Enough rhapsodizing.  Onward, now, to a curiosity I stumbled onto while checking last week to see if a student had plagiarized a paper.  It was the usual reason:  "Jeepers!  [Name of Student] sure has learned how to turn a phrase in the week since s/he last turned in a paper!"  I am usually not a suspicious soul, but this time I decided to be.  So: I picked a short sentence from this student's introduction which contained the phrase "our national obsession with thinness."  I typed it into Google, and though I decided the student hadn't plagiarized, it turned up enough to give me pause.  But so also did the OTHER "national obsessions" that turned up: security, technology, youth, celebrity . . . I don't argue whether these are indeed "obsessions" in my country--what intrigued me was the persistent characterization of my nation as being obsessed, period. 
I began to wonder, briefly, if this repeated phrase was some sort of sign that my countrymen have built in them a propensity for fixation on something.  But then I realized that, no, all nations and cultures have their various preoccupations.  One thing I learned as I read one of Seymour Hersch's New Yorker articles about the prisoner-abuse scandal in Iraq is that, because men as well as women in Moslem culture are required to keep as much of the body covered as possible, sex and the opposite sex are the subject of intense speculation--and (what a way to learn such things) the ultimate humiliation for an Arab or Moslem is to be naked in public.  Moslems are obsessed with sex because their culture denies them a culturally-sanctioned casual exploration.
Are peoples defined via their obsessions?  To a certain extent, yes, but in a negative-image sort of way.  The Renaissance-early 20th-century idealizing of plump women and frankly fat men was a response to the fact that most people simply didn't have enough to eat and/or worked so hard that they remained slim.  Now, though, both opposites are true.  We're obsessed with thinness (assuming for the moment that that is true) because so many of us are fat . . . or think we are, whether on our own terms or those established by government.  I was reading in an article this morning that said that the U.S. government says a 5'5" woman is considered "obese" if she weighs more than 145 lbs.  So, while I don't doubt that many millions of people in my country need to lose weight and get more (or even some) exercise, HOW we define what is "fat" of course will skewer those statistics.
As for our other obsessions . . . apparently we too are obsessed with sex, but in our case not because we're not getting any but because we're under the suspicion that we're not getting "enough" or that, however much we're getting, it's not "good enough."  Cosmopolitan's cover teasers (not the models but the blurbs for articles) often beguile with promises to reveal "56 Secret Desires Your Man Has" or "93 Ways to Seduce Him."  The men's magazines are no different; their promises are just stated more directly.  But the important thing here is the numbers: "Wow!" the held-captive-at-the-checkout-line-magazine-rack-gazer muses.  "So many desires!  So many ways!  Who knew?"
Security is a far trickier issue, because calming our obsession in that arena will undoubtedly infringe on the indulgence of another obsession, this one constitutionally-sanctioned.  Since the events of September 11, 2001, my nation rightly feels warier than before (though surely we realized, given such acts as Timothy McVeigh's blowing up the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, that we've always been vulnerable to such attacks.  We Americans can be awfully complacent.).  Greater security at airports, we clamor for.  Okay.  But now we complain about random searches and about removing our shoes.  Arab-Americans rightly complain about being singled out for more than usual scrutiny.  And looser standards for obtaining wiretaps under the Patriot Act and new software that will permit the "mining of information" stored on computer hard drives have us nervous as well, as do, more ominously, our government's unilateral declarations that the prison at Guantanamo Bay falls under, essentially, no one's jurisdiction except the Executive Branch's.  Civil liberties are a big deal here, so big that the current administration's audacity (as many see it) in infringing on them takes us aback.  We've been a bit complacent in that arena as well.  But I hope that our civil liberties are one obsession that our recent agonizing over prisoner photos will cause us to examine more closely as a nation, to discuss seriously what simple but blurry terms like "liberty" mean and the extent to which they signify for non-Americans in our custody.
Those wishing to read the comments for the original LiveJournal post can go here.

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