Each One Teach One. Thoughts of the US.

February 2011, Hawaii

I just finished listening to this podcast and I feel very grateful that is was recommended it to me at this time.

I have spent the last year traveling around the United States as a WWOOFer, CouchSurfer, tourist and sponge. I can say without a doubt that my observations of the collective focus in this country have mirrored those that Joe Bageant describes so simplistically, distorted. I also agree with his comment that the great majority of Americans are amongst the most hospitable people you could meet. They are welcoming, generous (sometimes beyond their own means) and very keen to share "their" America with others.

Something that has perpetually arisen in me over the past 12 months has been a desire to numb or forget my inner dialogue about the underlying social inequalities and inadequacies of the current systems that govern the United States. Never having consistently followed any mainstream sports, television series' or the lives of Hollywood's "A-listers" in Australia, I have found it surprisingly easy to understand how merely a spectator's exposure to the marketing hype that is American culture can quickly create a willingly blissfully ignorant individual. To enjoy the loud, fast-paced flashiness of cities like LA, New York, and Austin, even those with a moderate environmental and social concern must switch off and submit. Paying too much attention to the content and timing of the ever-present advertising at a Yankees game can reveal some rather disturbing truths. The whole experience is far more enjoyable if you just sit back with a Budd Light and some cheese fries soaking up the sugar-fueled excitement of the other 52,000 people doing the same. If the lights alone don’t raise your heart rate, the 186g of sugar in the special game-sized Coca Cola’s on offer will do the trick.

All over the country I have met people who are living “off-the-board" because they s imply can't generate enough income to cover the monthly cost of their health insurance. One such couple I encountered in Maine told me of their conscious decision not to travel long distances or take part in certain outdoor activities because medical costs associated with becoming ill or injured would undoubtedly send them bankrupt. How’s that for freedom? These people also happened to be the most innovative, environmentally aware and proactive I have come across so far, but their vision, which is rooted in Permaculture and Sustainable Energy, was all but lost on their local audience who consider their way of life be “hippy” and socially backward. In place of real food and an interest in better understanding the causes and effects of the country’s economic downturn (which, I should add, is a very common topic of conversation), many people I have met prefer their food fast and entertainment news current.

 

On the opposite end of the spectrum I’ve also spent a significant amount of my time with some of America's most fortunate (not necessarily wealthiest), the well educated. I have witnessed first-hand the outcome of a Liberal Arts College as opposed to that of Private and State Universities. Granted, socioeconomic status, up-bringing and peer groups significantly influence one’s perspective and belief systems, but if the university itself and everyone around you believes that four to eight years of highly specialised study in an intensely competitive environment equates to being educated, you’d start to believe it too. Certainly I am not taking away from the notion that any knowledge is good knowledge, but my belief is that a well-educated individual is more than what is written on the piece of paper they collected at a Graduation Ceremony. Traditionally, the quest for knowledge provided the less fortunate with a voice and promoted an exploration of self that ultimately lead to the recognition and a greater understanding of the individual perspective. 

My understanding of a good education is that it is something that liberates us as human beings from the everyday struggle to survive faced by 250,000 years of our ancestors. The ability to communicate has enabled us to pass on the findings and culture of our forbearers, where, more often than not the most valuable knowledge has been acquired at the expense of human lives. A good education instills respect for ourselves and others so that we can recognise the value in our differences, inspires the mind with art, literature and music, but most importantly, a good education teaches that there is no one answer to any question. If, as a society, we move too far away from the most crucial aspects of human life by valuing university trained Lawyers and Businessmen over self-taught farmers and trades people we effectively disconnect ourselves from the very thing that has afforded us our time on this planet. Additionally, the societal devaluation of thousands of years worth of accumulated knowledge not only brings about skilled labor shortages, a situation we are currently facing in Australia, but it repels young people from pursuing these less glamorous lines of work and leaves whole communities at the mercy of the remaining farmers

In San Francisco I learned via numerous and reliable sources that the un-spoken norm of the Google hiring process favours Ivy League alumni, even for the most basic of roles. The focus now is not on one’s skill set or experience, but where this knowledge was obtained. Sound familiar? Having moved to Sydney from a rural town in NSW, I am now acutely aware of the advantages associated with attending particular private schools. Macquarie Bank has already faced public scrutiny for adopting recruitment favouritism similar to Google where in employees were being sourced from a pool of private school graduates. Worse still is that, according to many of my friends who attended private schools in Sydney, there are perceived classes of private schools based on the cost of tuition and success in competitive sports such as Rugby Union. This dangerous mentality also manifests itself in the public’s perception of tertiary institutions from teenagers to their grandparents. When asked which university one attented there is almost an expectation that it will be one of the three major Universities; Sydney University, New South Wales University or The University of Technology Sydney. 

As a job-seeker in California, I also witnessed that the vast proportion of staff in retail shops, bars, cafes and restaurants were, at the very least, a Bachelor of something. Upon researching the average cost of tertiary education in the USA, I became less offended by the consistently unfriendly reception I was met with when approaching staff rather than managers about the possibility of employment in such venues. It's no wonder people are suspiciously guarding their jobs, $80,000 takes a long time to repay at $5-8 an hour. Needless to say, a question inevitably arose in my mind about those who never made it to College, or to High School for that matter. How were they affording the $6 it costs to purchase 2 litres of milk or the ludicrous price of meat and fresh produce from local groceries? The answer, they’re not. That is how Walmart, CostCo, Safeway, Walgreens, McDonalds and other large corporations factor in, as the only affordable option for the great majority of the American population.

When asked about the future of Australia, Bageant draws a very concerning comparison between present day Australia and 1950s America. Having spent the previous six years living, working and studying in desirable suburbs around Sydney’s North Shore, I can vouch for a communal, in some cases warranted, sense of “Pleasantville”. Believing the unbelievable is far more palatable to the masses, especially to those who are seemingly unaffected by the ongoing shifts in power occurring in Australia. The situation brings to mind a quote in Hunter S Thompson’s “Wave Speech”

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark —that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

In a very recent conversation I had with my brother he mentioned hearing talk of CostCo and Walmart opening locations in Sydney’s Western Suburbs. I didn’t sleep well that night. If we have learned anything these past few decades following the introduction of to McDonalds to Australia in 1971, it is that these large multinational corporations have both the power and financial backing to replicate themselves at an unprecedented rate. They acquire prime real estate, push down the price of agricultural goods, churn out low-quality mass-produced “stuff” (most of which is manufactured off-shore), pay their employees minimum wages and employ a team of professionals to create and fill every possible niche market. To add insult to injury, it is the public that paves the road to success for these same institutions, which, over time, reduce their local economies to a poofteenth of their former production potential and create communities of  needy, bargain-hunting consumers. 

Already Australia’s Supermarket Industry is plagued with issues. One needs only to catch the evening news or glance at a paper to get the latest scoop about the absurd and ongoing price wars between Coles and Woolworths. I’m not entirely sure how long it has been this way, but it is apparent that many Australian’s have adopted the belief that paying less for more is a good thing. Not to mention the countless other faceless chain stores springing up in every shopping centre in every town all over Australia; Big W, Kmart, Subway, Wendy’s, Cotton On, Jay Jays, Just Jeans, Borders, Sanity, Priceline and numerous others. Where did they all come from anyway, and what was there before? Surely the introduction of CostCo and Walmart into this already exhausted equation marks the beginning of the end for Australian farmers and independent retail business owners. And that’s just the beginning.

Bageant’s observations of America and warning to Australia are a gift that must be shared. It is time to face our reality with a conviction to prevent, or at the very least slow, the monopolisation of our commodities, industry and lifestyle by big business. 

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