Friday, January 9, 2009

Standing at the waterline.

"Civilization ends at the waterline. Beyond that, we all enter the food chain, and not always right at the top." - Hunter S. Thompson, 1986

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As General Motors and Chrysler crumble and teeter like a top-heavy Jenga game, I can't help but feel apathetic. These are the people who inspire the need for a new car. In fact, their whole business (or lack of) depends on Americans buying vehicles that lose their value the minute they leave the dealership lot.

How strange, I think. But maybe not. Our whole economic system, after all, depends on the new, the shiny, the weird. Maybe it plays to the Grand Ego of our country - the one that says we're the best, so we need the best.

I'll probably never buy a new car, so my economic decisions won't ever help to save an ailing auto company. GM will survive or die without me. There's comfort in that thought; I have no individual responsibility for saving a company that was once the symbol and thermometer of American progress. I've checked out of the system. No fault of mine.

Used vehicles are the lifeblood of my place of employment, and there's dignity in that thought. When all the banks are dying or being bought up like on-sale antiques, credit unions stand apart thanks to their not-for-profit status, their democratic decision-making, and their responsbility to serve the underserved. I didn't know a lot of this when I got the job, but as the years have gone on, I take pride in my industry's philosophy - probably because it matches my own.

Used cars. Used Macs. Used CDs on eBay. Even used clothing, when it smells decent. Perhaps I should have been born in the Depression. Lord knows I'm still lucky enough to have a job in the current one.

Our generation may have a wake-up call coming. America's ego has been made flesh in every generation since the Baby Boomers, and while our generation is politically active and commercially cynical, it still thinks a lot of itself.

Republicans, and a lot of Democrats, see nothing wrong with this. They've been selling the idea of America as a Place That Does No Wrong for a long, long time. It's only lately that our giant national id has been laid low. Being humble is not an American trait that comes naturally, but lately we've had no choice.

I know this personally. 2008 was a stupid, stressful, bumble-headed year for me. It taught me a lot about my limits and faults, and I've thought a lot about them this winter. It's been good for me.

Which is why I can only wish the same for all of us, as a country and a people. The world is too nasty and too chaotic to keep our national credit card on an over-the-limit status. We're now at the waterline, as Dr. Thompson mentioned, and the sharks are circling nearby.

That adrenaline rush we feel in our gut is evolution at its most basic: fight or flight. Which way do we go? Do we strive for a more meaningful and fulfilling life? Or do we seek meaning in a life looking for a bailout?

We've been at the top of the food chain for a long time now. But the sharks have been around a lot longer, and they have no ego to keep in check.

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