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Sunday, April 21, 2024

The American schizophrenia

A quiet endemic has been spreading around for a while now. It is stealthy yet lasting. It affects every facet of our lives, impacting the way we behave, act, expect and communicate. And the endemic is this: Americans are facing a crisis of identitywe create then deny what we create.

The prominent conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan, in an insightful 2006 Sunday Times article, termed this phenomenonschizophrenia.For him, the problem with America is that we glorify and elevate certain figures and attitudes, then strangely seek to destroy them. We want but we do not want. And this paradox occurs because it gives meaning to our culture. At its essence, this schizophrenia is necessary as it is polarizing.

This schizophrenia manifests itself in many aspects of our lives. Take our food. We have become, by choice and circumstance, a nation of instant, fast food. We eat what is immediately producible: microwavable ramen, pre-packaged tri-tip steaks, instant spaghetti, Diet Coke. In a life of fast paces, our food has become fast too.

Yet we then react against the unhealthiness of this consumption. Healthy living organizations sprout up, promoting the slow preparation and organization that goes into making meals. Anti-cholesterol supporters crusade in a ferocious quest to eliminate trans-fatty acids from foods, lobbying government officials and advertising their adversaries as vested interests with skewed intentions. There is a real, substantial disdain for the deterioration of our food production and quality as much as consumers love them. And for the consumer, there is a knowable guilt to eating these, yet the behavior persists.

This phenomenon is especially evident in the entertainment industry. We endow our celebrities with the highest possible recognition. They constantly grace the front pages of our magazines and emerge as the subject of late-night talk shows. We ravish and celebrate their beauty, talent and charisma. Celebrities, in our world, are ascended to the highest echelons.

Yet we also bemoan their individual failings. We criticize Gwyneth Paltrow for being underweight, analyze Lindsay Lohan’s romantic tendencies and arguments with her partner, scrutinize Angelina Jolie’s and Jennifer Aniston’s ongoingfeud.We question the morality of their actions and the sanity of their doings. The conversation then emerges as a battle between tradition and ethics and modernization and liberation. We admire and disdain them simultaneously, without truly being sure what we actually feel about them.

And the entire point is that this schizophrenia is necessary for the collective function of numerous parties and industries. This is a cyclical endeavor that rewards everyone. As Sullivan remarked, commentators critique and lambaste, entertainers receive publicity, media managers get a job, newspaper ratings increase, consumers delight. In this circle, everyone gains a voice, all winning in the game of rise-and-blame. This process demands the participation of a leader, followers, reactionaries, anti-reactionaries. It requires proponents and opponents in equal intensity and measure.

Hence what America crystallizes it seeks to destroy. And this is the paradox: the artificiality and authenticity of each action is true. Both are legitimate and authoritative. There is hypocrisy in one seeking collective approval. Yet there are also true believers, soothsayers who strive for the individual, redeeming qualities.

This schizophrenia is the uncompromising reality and quality that defines postmodern America. And it is necessary to view this entire proceeding from a lens that is detached, removed and far. Because, like always, a schizophrenia is bewildering.


Adhering to the spirit of schizophrenia, ZACH HAN welcomes both your congratulatory messages and demeaning criticisms to zklhan@ucdavis.edu.


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