We went back to Cape Cod for two weeks this summer. The bay on which I spent so many hours sailing and swimming and driving our Boston Whaler with the 9 1/2 horse power engine back and forth between the yacht club and Dead Neck was much the same. The water was warm, the sky was blue, and during the week the bay and beaches were almost empty. What had changed were the number of power boats (lots more), the number of sail boats (lots fewer), and the size of the houses – what I coined the wholesale Long-Island-ification of West Bay; no longer satisfied with 4 or 5 or 6 bedrooms, people are building houses with 10 and 12 and 17 bedrooms.
But that’s not what I want to write about, I want to write about trying to buy some milk and bread at the local 7-11 (actually, it’s a Cumberland Farm, not a 7-11, but then I would have had to call this “The Cumberland Farm-ification of Politics In America” and no one would have understood what I was talking about.)
I walked into Cumberland Farms, and I had to walk all the way to the back of the store before I could find a small freezer case with milk and eggs and cheese. And in front of it, a single 3′ by 3′ rack with some bread. That’s it. In the whole store, there was nothing else to eat except soda, beer, wine, chips, and dips. Twenty-five kinds of soda. Fifteen brands of chips. Thirty different beers.
I walked up and down the store, counting my steps. 16 steps one way. 16 steps the other. 50′ by 50′. 2,500 square foot of store, and less than 1/20 of it with anything one might call food. And not a vegetable in sight.
I walked out of Cumberland Farms with my bread and milk, up to the Post Office, turned right, and walked slowly down Main Street, remembering what it used to look like. The stationery store – gone. The movie theater – gone. The pharmacy – gone. The country store where we’d buy penny candy and oggle the owners’ daughters. Gone. I went into the hardware store and was stunned. It was 1/4 it’s former size. On one side a yarn shop, on the other a knick-knack store. I spoke with someone working there and they said, yep, it’s easier making money as a landlord than it is trying to sell things. I counted the number of real estate offices, and gave up after ten. And how many boutiques with signs that read “Osterville, Palm Beach, Rodeo Drive” does a town really need?
What was happening I wondered? What had happened to Main Street?
And then it hit me. What happened to Main Street, is what happened to Cumberland Farms. And it’s the same thing that has happened to American politics.
There is no real food to buy in the local village shop anymore, and all that’s left has been pushed to the back corner. No meat, no vegetables. Nothing real.
The same has happened to Main Street, there’s nothing real left to buy on Main Street anymore. You have to go to the mall, where the same 20 chains – Gap, WalMart, Williams Sonoma, Calvin Klein – sell the same things that they sell at every mall. Nothing local’s left. Nothing real.
And the same thing has happened to American politics. The same two chains – Republicans and Democrats – are the only two stores in town. There’s no longer a place to have a conversation about what matters in America. All the real conversations have been relegated to the far back corner, if you can even find them at all.
And what makes it worse is that the two parties aren’t really interested in conversations, they’re only interested in messages. Why are there no major newspapers or other media outlets that will present anything but the message of the day? Why is there no way in America to talk about the corporatification of America? No way to ask why health care isn’t a right instead of a privilege? No way to suggest that maybe locking up people for using drugs might not be the best use of our money or their talents? No way to wonder why teachers are paid less than prison guards, or to do anything about it? No, all the conversations are full of the same empty calories that you buy at the local village shop. There is no place for meat and vegetables in the national conversation.
We’ve been in England for just over a year now, and I am still surprised by how different some things are here. The corner stores still carry something edible, and they are rarely owned by chains. The towns, at least where we’ve been, are vibrant and full of local stores. There is a vibrant national press with an incredible diversity of viewpoints – from far left to far right and lots in between. And there’s an ongoing national conversation, about things that matter. For example, a couple of months ago the government announced that it was going to do a wholesale review of the sex laws, and that it would consider all possibilities, including legalizing prostitution. Can you imagine that happening in the US? Of course not, because the uproar from the far right would have been too fierce to even contemplate such a thing (imagine the uproar over Janet Jackson’s nipple, and multiply by infinity).
As I write this, I wonder if there’s a solution for America. My gut tells me that the answer may be no. The problem, I’ve come to believe, is that America has gotten too big to govern properly anymore. I hope I’m wrong, but I’m not sure I am.
But what I am sure of is that I would like to have a conversation about it.
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