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  • Robert Farago

America - The Bland of the Free

The author finally makes it to Dallas

In 1831, the French government sent Alexis Charles Henri Clérel, comte de Tocqueville (above) to the U.S. to study American prisons. When he landed stateside, Alexis wandered off the reservation…

Along with his BFF Gustave de Beaumont, Alexis used the fact-finding mission as an excuse to deep dive the fledgling nation’s political, economic, religious, cultural and social life.

Latter day patriots have been known to quote from the rah-rah-siss-boom-bah passages in de Tocqueville’s report, Democracy in America.

Yes, well, Democracy in America it isn’t an unabashed love letter to The Land of the Free.

Le Plus ça Change?

While celebrating democracy as a liberation from aristocracy, the flag-flying Frog identified troubling aspects of the American character.

In America I saw the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest condition that exists in the world; a sort of cloud habitually covered their features; they appeared to me grave and almost sad even in their pleasures. The principal reason for this is that the first do not think of the evils they endure, whereas the others dream constantly of the goods they do not have.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s take on Americans’ dissatisfaction with their lot in life sprung to mind at a McDonald’s just outside of Waco. Not a full-on McDonald’s. One of those half-Mac/half-gas deals, just off a main highway.

It was one the gravest, saddest place I’ve ever seen. Not sad run down. Sad soulless and sterile. For one thing, the decor was– hang on. Was there decor? Not that I can recall.

Not that anyone will recall, ever. Other than creating a safe space (from lawsuits), the interior designers focused entirely on proving that Aqua was wrong. Life in plastic is not fantastic. Not in any way shape of form.

No surprise there. The drive-thru was the half-Mac’s main attraction; the restaurant portion is a sop to parents seeking an inexpensive reprieve from caterwauling kid-caused claustrophobia.

Or weary motorcyclists who want something cooked, but can’t be bothered to wander off the beaten path to find actual food cooked and served by actual people in an actual restaurant.

Speaking of actual people…

It suddenly occurred to me – but not the robotics industry – that the dawn of the machines will begin here, inside the endless procession of soulless fast food fueling stations girding America’s insanely bland interstate highways.

Places where no one notices the staff and the staff do the absolute minimum to satisfy corporate requirements. Humans will be served by automatons carefully crafted to combine maximum inoffensiveness with faux friendliness.

The average Joe worries about Terminator-style robot revenge. Now. I bet dollars to Dunkin’ Donuts that, after their first close encounter of the fast food kind, no one will even notice their AI amigos.

Meanwhile, I’ve noticed something: large corporations rule modern America as authoritatively as de Tocqueville’s European aristocrats.

Chain, Chain, Chain

Guiding Charley to Dallas for her Gold Wing audio upgrade, the way was paved with chain food, bars, hotels, massage, car repair, dentistry, groceries, furniture and electronics stores…

Everything anyone could ever need is packaged, branded and precisely positioned not to delay a customer’s journey to the next, hopefully not competing corporate outpost.

At the same time, all the housing developments within eyeshot of the highways are cookie-cutter corporate conurbations: architecturally innocuous domiciles built cheek-by-jowl to shelter owners between visits to chain stores.

Ain’t That America?

On the positive side, chain domination means America isn’t as fractured as people make it out to be. Everyone eats, drinks, gets massaged, buys their SUV, puts braces on their kids’ teeth, etc. at the same place, relatively speaking.

On the negative side, the franchise-forged human connections are weaker than those made in one-off “Mom & Pop” establishments. Who can’t compete with prices charged by companies with hundreds or thousands of outlets.

There is that

As my motorcycle journey into America draws nearer, I wonder how much of America hasn’t been colonized by corporate America.

And what happiness have tens of millions of Americans sacrificed to acquire “the goods they do not have” from companies run by people who rate their value in numerical terms.

Less pretentiously, I wonder which song I’m going to use to christen Charley’s new kick-ass stereo.

In honor of Alexis, I’m thinking Ca plane pour moi. Not to coin a phrase, but this former hypnotist is open to suggestion.


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