Struggling for identity in the Great Recession
So far in class we’ve discovered a great deal about travel in the Depression. What has surprised me the most is the way that so many authors saw that the travel novel spoke to America’s troubles in searching for an identity. I believe that this lack of identity was central to the zeitgeist of the Depression. As financial, cultural, and political institutions crumbled, America hit an identity crisis. Many took to the road to discover a new sense of self or to learn what the nation really was. Arguably, this identity crisis was the first challenge the US had to face in rebuilding from the crash of 1929, as its answer would also determine the country’s direction.
For most of my adult life, we’ve been hearing omnipresent comparisons between the current state of the nation’s economy and the Great Depression
. This has made me wonder: Is America in the middle of an identity crisis?
In thinking about this question I find it interesting, and perhaps convenient, to compare the sort of rhetoric coming out of each “wing” of the country. What are they saying about how the Great Recession started and how they believe we can end it? And, more importantly, who are we, and who do we need to become? The story told by many about how the recession happened involved millions of families feeling entitled to a way of life more affluent than that of their childhood with less of the work, consuming endlessly on excessive lines of credit (Not true
. Check out this ridiculous segment from Fox's Your World
if you feel like getting angry at people for owning microwaves). This story seems rather appealing given can be applied on a micro- or macroeconomic scale; conservatives love to point to the excessive spending of the government as a sign that Americans are lazy types who would rather have than work. Further, they imply that the American poor are responsible for their own poverty according to an economic vision that motivation in is the only necessary and sufficient cause of growth. Thus, ensuring the poor have an “American” standard of life when the business cycle calls for a lowered standard is tantamount to Socialism. On the other hand, flattening taxes and slashing social programs to punish the poor and to make people want more money (why make a million dollars if I’m only going to get to keep several hundred thousand?) is patriotism.
Is that who Americans are? Fatalistic slaves to market cycles that cripple the economy? People who disregard the poor and idealize no concept but “enlightened self interest?” If the New Deal taught us anything, it’s that social welfare can
be promoted, and that an American identity can be built and defended by the ongoing synergy of mutually beneficial interactions between classes. Here’s my new favorite candidate for the junior Senate seat in Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren, talking about the social contract, which she articulates according to a tradition that, I believe, has its roots in New Deal Liberalism. I don’t know if she could write a travel narrative based on this concept, but it would certainly make this video more relevant to this class.