How it Feels to be a Young American in 2014

(Or, How America Fails Us)
by Jordan Bates

When “first world problems” are actually symptoms of a
deeply dysfunctional culture and society.

Today a person informed me that a good friend of mine is feeling
suicidal. The same person told me that said suicidal friend should
“grow up and quit feeling sorry for herself.”
Textbook American answer, eh? “Be an adult.” “Grow the hell up.”
“Make something of yourself.” “You need to work harder.”
These are the sorts of things that American culture tells you during
your totally disorienting and probably depressing formative years
(from maybe 17-23). Or, more aptly, these are the sorts of excuses
American culture makes in order to not have to care about those it
has oppressed, dehumanized, and forgotten. America simply blames
individuals—for not being “mature” enough, or being too “lazy” to
“get their shit together”—for the condition in which they find
themselves. “It’s your own dumb fault,” we like to say.
This way of thinking is so deeply embedded in our culture that few
people stop to consider where it comes from or to consider the ways
in which it might not actually be a person’s fault that they are
“failing” within a system that is in many ways best-suited to destroy
them or turn them into an anxious, guilt-ridden, over-worked “gogetter” who will stop at nothing for a buck, a bit of prestige, and a
sense that others approve of them.

intelligent person in the US who isn’t carrying around a significant amount of psychological baggage from trying to navigate our sociocultural labyrinth of contradictory and insidious messages/structures. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons Miseducation Young Americans (Gen-Y-ers or thereabouts) were born into a culture that is paradoxically trying to cling to the moral tenets of yesteryear (sin-obsessed Judeo-Christian values) while showering its citizenry in media that glamorizes and fetishizes imprudent sex. As Josh Ellis of Zenarchery memorably put it: “Everyone I know is brokenhearted. party culture. sensitive. and gun violence. “gangster” culture.” Gnà Pina detta La Lupa by Ida Panzera.I literally cannot think of a single young. .

but far too simplistic) because that gives said people the opportunity to believe that they are “good” people who “deserve” their spot in heaven or their place in society. we lock them up in prisons (even for trivial. we call them “bad” kids or “bad” people. greedy men. See the inherent contradiction here? . violence. we don’t offer sincere understanding or rehabilitation or admit that their unseemly behavior is inseparable from an insane culture. Do whatever you want. lest we be cast for eternity into an inferno of hideous torture and pain. victimless crimes like drug possession) that aggravate/dehumanize rather than heal. and the objectification of women. indulge your every impulse. No. “Yes. We say they haven’t “worked hard enough. Meanwhile Miley Cyrus is on TV having sex with a wrecking ball or whatever. But this ideology is little more than a flimsy justification for judging and condemning people endlessly for indulging the sorts of activities that are quite obviously portrayed in American pop culture as The Best Shit Ever. This insistence on total individual responsibility is also a remnant of America’s JudeoChristian foundations—it comforts people to believe that “bad things happen to bad people” or that “everyone is responsible for their own actions” (maybe true in a sense. or we are loathsome sinners who are going to rot for eternity in Hades.” But then when people inevitably do indulge impulses and experiment with unsafe sex. We must obey God’s “commandments” precisely. and blasting from the background speakers is some pop artist contracted for big bucks to sing about rampant and irresponsible drug use. Seek as much pleasure as possible.” or worse. This latter strain of American culture/media seems incessantly to urge.Most of us were raised to believe that we are inherently sinful creatures who must apologize profusely to a God that is always watching us. and violence (as the media implicitly encouraged them to. and/or as they observed others doing) and make mistakes. and on the next channel a shiny American movie glorifies guns and violent. do it. hard drugs.

There are so many harmless things portrayed as “evil” or “taboo” in American culture that it’s no wonder everyone needs a therapist and an SSRI prescription—among other things.” etc. etc. and most of us feel guilty for things we shouldn’t have to feel guilty about. we’re all experiencing the neurotic aftermath of being convinced that many totally innocuous aspects of the human experience are the things of “Satan. So we’re given contradictory messages. “Cool!” “America is awesome!” “But wait! There’s more!” Let’s not forget that the feelings of guilt and inadequacy that result from the taboos of American culture are fueled/layered all the more by the way in which American culture turns everything into a competition.And that’s really just the beginning of the story. but it seems that the competition in the states is exacerbated to ferocious extremes by our public school system. advertisements.” rotten.” Even our schools—our institutions of higher education—proudly display fierce .e. It should be noted that some sort of competition is entailed in a capitalist economic system. and everyday language. pop culture.” and that if we mess around with them. it’s our “own fault” and we’re “bad. we judge each other constantly.—because we were conditioned to see them as taboo. and laughs at its losers. so many of us are taught the importance of “winning. smoking cannabis.” of getting the “top score. we invariably hurt ourselves and are told it’s our fault.” of “beating the other guy.” of “being the best. but then there’s the matter of the utterly harmless things that a lot of us do regularly but feel vaguely guilty about—i. masturbating. having inappropriate intrusive thoughts. consumerist signaling games (“I bought this to show you that I’m better than you!”). contemptible sinners. having responsible (heterosexual or homosexual) sex. Our fucking principal national pastimes are sporting events over which people go absolutely wacky cheering for someone to “win” and someone to “lose. worships its winners. From our earliest years. Making people feel guilty and sub-human for their (culturally encouraged) selfdestructive behavior is already fucked up.

hardly realizing that all the while we’re living in a state of nebulous desperation and padding somebody else’s pockets. Someone is always “beating” us. some race we should be running. Many of us succumb to this feeling and become “workaholics. Competition metaphors abound in our culture. This deeply engrained assumption naturally leads to a mass tendency to treat life itself as a competition. etc. the next school year.) We’re so utterly conditioned to be constantly thinking about our next accomplishment or next strategy in this bizarre.” (ironic how addiction to work is codified in a way that nods at America’s other age-old addiction: alcoholism) spending our lives chasing desperately after that next job or promotion or paycheck. employment. farcical game that most of us can’t sit still for five minutes and just soak in a fucking sunset. To treat society as one big game of King of the Hill in which some of us are “good” at the game and some of us suck. the next birthday milestone. retirement. What’s your current life “goal”? Is he going to “make the cut”? What’s your next “milestone”? All my life I was conditioned to think perpetually about the next test. This is how deeply embedded competition—and the belief that some people are doomed to be “losers”—is in our culture. we still deal with that distinct American restlessness—that feeling that there’s something we should be doing. university. some pursuit we should be furthering (if you know a reliable way out of this feeling.anthropomorphic animals or angry marginalized peoples as mascots—icons of war-like competition that are somehow supposed to positively represent the institution to the international community. please tell me). and the people who are “good” get the big bucks and big respect and throw the shitty people to the bottom of the hill and chuckle mockingly at them from the top. We never manage to “keep up with the Joneses. Even when we all but drop out of society and travel/live in Asia for 16 months (as I’ve just done). high school. the next level (middle school.” . And we never get there.

making it socially calamitous (and guilt-producing. we judge the ever-living fuck out of each other. once one deviates. (Never mind the fact that if you happen to be born poor [like tens of millions of Americans]. the mortgage. It has been entrenched all the more by our factory-like. we just feed them ADHD meds so they can be more efficient). a cycle of poverty.) It’s hard not to give in and chase this pre-fabricated “dream” because of ideological conditioning. we are constantly informed of how we’re falling short—of the answers we got wrong. processed foods that constitute 90% of foodstuffs sold stateside. As we navigate this system. as I’ve said (but this point deserves more attention). pitcher-cup model of education—a system that dictates that we spend fifteen years disciplining ourselves to memorize the “right answers” (culturally biased “facts” [dispensed by supposedly all-knowing teachers] that end up being mostly useless to us) in pursuit of the next grade or the next achievement (and if kids “can’t focus” on this elaborate series of tasks. malnutrition due to eating the unreal. due to institutionalized discrimination against the poor. This gives rise to a culture of perfectionism in which we’re all trying so desperately to “get it right” (or worse. deciding to stop caring about anything because school feels like bullshit) and to avoid fucking up that most of us don’t do a single risky or original or unorthodox or self-expressive thing. gang/domestic violence. the kids. the wife—that classic. or with work as merely a means to Success and Propriety (as narrowly defined by one’s culture). there’s a . of the classes or colleges we didn’t get into. is also rooted in Judeo-Christian values (read about the “Protestant work ethic“). and the vast. even this “dream” is a largely unrealistic aim. of the tests we failed. ever-expanding income gap. go the “safe” route—the secure job. idyllic-seeming American dream. economic pressures. beckoning. We buy into the menial work. and because. and drug abuse in poor neighborhoods.This obsession with work for work’s sake.

We were always told to be. And this ends up hurting some people? Uh.” and neighbors. hate-speech. “You’re not going to believe who Joyce had sex with. is of a lower socioeconomic class. And we make infinite unfair assumptions about people based on surface-level characteristics.” “slutty.” We have to be. Why do we do this? Because we’ve got to endlessly fucking prove to ourselves that We—Oh! High and mighty Us!—are most certainly not that loser. And this is what inescapably surrounded us in American high schools—those steaming cesspools of cliquiness.palpable sense that one has let someone down) to deviate from the norm. exclusion. and alienation—and what bombarded us from the TV screen in the form of shows about some kind of drama or conflict between people who supposedly care for each other. is somehow inferior in quality. a different gender (another social construct that results in very real suffering/death/violence).” “fat.” “old. after all—put America on a pedestal. a different race (a social construct that results in very real suffering/death/violence).” “Guess where Melvin is thinking of moving?” “Did you hear what Elmo said to Shauna?” We gossip ceaselessly.” “weird. yeah. “friends. is to be avoided.” “freak.” “douchey. And some of us who’ve seen through this .” “scrody. We call people “gothic. a different sexual orientation.” “nerdy.” This is what most of our parents did. we throw on that absurd and totally unfounded American brand of jingoism and make implicitly discriminatory claims about how we are the “greatest country in the world.” “bitchy. gossiped about and secretly defamed their family members. For the same reason.” and countless other shitty fucking labels that come with a whole set of negative connotations—that the person doesn’t belong. If we’re not better than someone else—if there isn’t some scapegoat to look down upon and blame for the “problems of America”—we lose our sense of identity. Deeply embedded divisiveness. From every direction: judging people and labeling people and fighting with people is the American way! Divisiveness. etc. We are “winners.

troubling ruse deal with a peculiar type of guilt (on top of those other types of guilt I mentioned earlier!)—the guilt we feel when we auto-label someone based on surface-level characteristics or arbitrary standards of conduct that we were taught to care about. We don’t admit our real emotions because it seems like “pussy shit” (note the problematic association of female genitalia with weakness/inferiority) to do so. Because so many aspects of the human experience are filed away as “taboo” and because we know there are so many ways of acting and being that will lead to our being judged mercilessly by our peers. inauthentic social interaction only reinforces our ambiguous sense of something dissonant that we can’t quite place and of something unfulfilled in ourselves. I need to eat too!). and discuss the same old grocery list of topics that are widely understood (though no one ever really talks about this) as “safe” and uncontroversial. there’s also the atmosphere of artificiality that results from the whole thing. We edit and filter ourselves to avoid saying or doing anything that might attract negative attention. to the point where we begin to construct our identities and the identities of others primarily based on what products we/they purchase (this is great for the people trying to sell us trivial garbage). even on this website. eerily perky people and implying that we too can . smile. and we need to be “tough. we censor our personalities. people are constantly trying to sell us things. And just when you think that’s all. perpetually happy.” We slap on that quintessential American faux-charisma. Advertisements are everywhere (yes. And as if all of this weren’t hellish enough. This cycle of vapid. so we have to be vigilant in quelling our own impulses to reduce others to dehumanizing labels (as we were taught to). make sure to deliver a firm handshake. We still carry around these judgmental inner monologues (they’ve been all but programmed into our brain-CPU) even after we’ve rejected them as decidedly at-odds with reality. and many of them function by showing us unreal.

Really. and we’re trapped in a cycle of being made to feel inadequate. Hell. or insomnia. And my circumcised penis is a lingering physical reminder that I was born into a culture with a bunch of arbitrary and destructive superstitions that have affected me in ways I cannot fully reverse. etc. “for just $19. the network of problems that lead to cyclic feelings of guilt and inadequacy (if not death.” their product just so happens to contain the perfect. A lot of us manage to get through this shitstorm (many don’t). or other emotional scarring? I’m starting to think so. and shitty we are and how.95!. do all of us have some kind of anxiety. or addiction. unsexy.”-David Foster Wallace Consequences That was ranti-ish. I feel tremendous doubt and fear and insecurity and anxiety and inadequacy sometimes (though I’m getting better than ever at seeing through it). or imprisonment) for many Americans (on top of the periodic vicissitudes and heartbreaks that life already entails). But then the products don’t contain that. unsexy-ness. And the ubiquity of these manipulative signals only furthers a sense of something totally cold and simulated that lurks all around. ad infinitum. shittiness. They implicitly let us know how unhip. or depression. or insecurity. overweight.find “happiness” (equated with constant and eternal bliss rather than an approach to inevitable vicissitudes) like these people if we just trade hours of our lives for some “amazing” (insert hyperbolic adjective here) new product. or eating disorder. magical solution for all of our unhip-ness. though rarely without our fair share of scars. still feeling inadequate. but hopefully I’ve at least sketched the problem—or rather. “It did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase. or neurosis. disease. ugly. I definitely do. buying things that don’t help. .

the non-stop. About a week before hearing that she’s feeling suicidal.” the incessant consumerist propaganda. going to be able to see American culture—the Protestant obsession with work for work’s sake. that she doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone. complex. perhaps with the help of a psychotherapist or a prescription (which some folks certainly actually need. or read some anarchist or Eastern texts. or follow our favorite band around the country.But many of us make it through. or spray paint a train. I’m not sure she’s going to make it through the maze. She’s struggling. funny. and I’ve seen her screaming on the inside for years. the Bad People Burn in Hell theory. and that nothing she could do would make me stop loving her for who she is. I’ve offered her every feasible piece of help and advice—told her she’s amazing just as she is. I had (presciently) sent her a long letter telling her I would always be there. even if no one else is. But I think a non-negligible number of people are like my friend— the sensitive. I think I’ve seen folks who have managed it. or do some other vaguely anti-American thing to cope with and compensate for our growing realization that our country fucked us in the ass and we don’t really know who we are or what the hell we need to do. suicidal one—who isn’t managing it. the endless judgment and bigotry. that she has so much love to give. that investing in some kind of hobby might do her some good.” And I think it can be done. tooth-and-nail competition. But we press on. But I’m not sure she’s going to be okay. that she’s talented. fragile. and try to gather up some semblance of a life from our shattered vision of “America the Beautiful. or declare ourselves artists. the violence and pathological feelings of guilt and inadequacy that result from the aforementioned—as the utterly deleterious and . etc. I’m far from anti-treatment). intelligent. Maybe we leave the country for a while. the messages to “win the game” and “be an adult” and “grow up. the institutionalized discrimination.

If I were to pinpoint this thing. But while others in her place find alternatives—ways to escape the grind for modes of existence that seem more meaningful (artists. She’s trapped. productive machine. Because her’s is a case in which “first world problems” don’t seem like the trivial. Whereas some people can become the American Success and do the day-in-day-out thing for fifty years (and find real meaning in that).—and less orthodox methods—illegal drugs. urgent. though she’s tried.)— she has tried desperately to fit herself into the structures that were given to her. She is keenly aware of the pressure from all angles to filter out parts of her personality. I feel like someone owes her an eternal-yet-still-totallyinsufficient apology on behalf of that Labyrinth of Bullshit (i. American culture) that I roughly outlined earlier. rejects and demonizes what she really is (human) in an effort to make her into a well-behaved. She feels that deep-down artificiality of American culture. Measuring herself with someone else’s yardstick. prescriptions. travel. There seems to be some fundamental thing with which she cannot come to terms. on the most basic level. unbearable. Her “first world problems” seem psychologically torturous.malignant house of mirrors that it is.” So she keeps trying to do that—to conform and be the social and career-oriented “success” that everyone seems to want. it seems that has never been “in the cards” for her. I fear that it might be too late for her. therapy. And they’re clearly traceable to what .” and to “make something of herself. but she’s still living by its terms. “career” pursuits. and I don’t know how to help her. through orthodox methods—Christianity. giggle-worthy substance of Internet memes about our banal. etc. off-grid cabin-dwellers. I might call it this: living in a culture that. She has always been different.e. etc. This culture convinced her from a young age to feel despicable and insufficient. to just “stop feeling sorry for herself. And therein lies her problem. entrepreneurs. comfortable lives. and she can’t escape those feelings. reading. for now at least. etc.

you are totally and unchangeably human. and based on deliberate misrepresentation. you don’t need to do anything to justify or validate your existence. not dehumanizing and rooted in manipulation and enormous inequality. seriously. And that might just do the trick. Yeah. and re-imagining education as something that looks less like corporate bootcamp and more like the pursuit of natural curiosity. and reforming our economic system to be. love? What an original fucking idea! Really though. and simply give them more genuine. and re-designing our prison system as a system of rehabilitation rather than demonization. pathetic creatures. But obviously I’m not Marty McFly or a character in an H. non-judgmental love. That might be the ticket to way less confusion and suffering. divisive aspects of organized religion (that doesn’t mean all religion). Where But where do we go from here? I wish I could go back in time. If we’re talking about what to do moving forward. meet all of the American children who will one day feel like my suicidal friend. you are beautiful. glorifying of violence/self-destruction. . Wells novel. you are here to do the things you enjoy and for which you have natural talent. the nature/nurture dynamic is of course always there).G. and nothing about that is “wrong” or “evil”. like. you don’t need to achieve anything beyond yourself. fear-instilling. I would go back in time to meet all of those children as youngsters and tell them in earnest: you are not inherently sinful. and realizing the necessity of a pharmaceutical industry not based on profit and knee-jerk prescriptions. we might think about doing away with the lifedenying. and transforming mainstream media into something not entirely vapid.she was taught to expect from life by her culture (though I won’t pretend genetics haven’t played a role. and conceiving health care and immigration legislation that empathizes with human beings who are suffering.

and mutual understanding. but what I’m not sure we’re ready to claim—is a much. and making it more difficult for Joe Briefcase to purchase insanely dangerous. nutritious foods (not to mention food that doesn’t come from environmentally-unfriendly and animal-abusing factory farms) instead of rubbish. the US is arguably managing to set more tolerant precedents in the global community. in which all aspects of the human experience are recognized and countenanced openly rather than denied and labeled “taboo”. in which individuals have a sense of inherent value that has nothing to do with their “job” or role in the community. but they don’t ever change if people like you and I don’t talk about them and care. things have changed/are changing in a big way (think state-level cannabis legislation. We need to grow up in warm communities in which people nourish rather than disdain one another. I should note that in some ways. shared humanity. These are huge institutional challenges and will clearly take a ridiculous amount of time to change. and treating addiction/drug abuse as a medical condition rather than evidence of inherent sinfulness. legislated equality of all races/genders/sexual orientations [not the same as real equality]. Apart from structural reform. guns). etc. and finding ways to deter police brutality against unarmed citizens and hold violators accountable. and getting our hundreds of thousands of homeless people some food and shelter. and weighing the possible benefits of a Universal Basic Income and a shorter work week.and ceasing to arrest/imprison people for victimless crimes. much greater sense of solidarity. in which people are taught to cooperate rather . and stocking grocery store shelves with wholesome. thanks to the activism of countless dedicated folks.). In these areas. receding stigma surrounding homo/trans people and mental disorders.e. high-powered killing machines (i. right?) has needed for eons. what I think we really need—what this culture and the larger human race (you didn’t think your culture was flawless just because I’m admitting mine sucks.

. But unless you’re Russell Brand. you probably don’t see that revolution coming anytime soon. Lately I’ve felt that the very condition of mass society makes it nearly impossible to manifest this situation. to bring more compassion and openness to mass society. So maybe what we ultimately need to do—for ourselves and (I should mention) for the planet—is return to small agrarian communities in which it’s really possible for everyone to care for and understand everyone else. as we are in any city. in the short term. in which people occupy themselves with things that are meaningful or useful rather than high-paying or prestigious. some kind of hybrid). tight-knit groups. And instating an entirely new economic system somehow seems like a pipe dream at this point (though reforms seem feasible). And maybe the fierce competition inherent in the current incarnation of capitalism should compel us to devise an economic system that emphasizes cooperation and sharing (not necessarily socialism or communism. to be compassionate rather than judgmental. and neither is everybody else. we lived in much smaller. Even I—someone seriously interested in living in an intentional community or off-grid structure—still see a lot of things about living in the city that I would be reluctant to leave behind. Other humans become mere obstacles because we are simply not wired to care for this many people at once. For most of our existence. the moment.than compete. we’ve got to find ways. Especially in the age of the Internet. in which the day. So if cities and capitalism are here indefinitely. ironically makes us feel cold and alienated. Being constantly surrounded by hundreds of strangers. is seen as an end in itself. and that it’s okay for other people to approach things differently than us. We’ve got to at least remember that we’re dealing with other human beings and (unless we’re truly in danger or something) maintain a basic respect for human life/dignity. we’ve got to embrace that there are innumerable ways of thinking and living and communicating (like. 7 billion+) on this planet.

that cooperation and tolerance are better for all of us. care about many of the things you care about. We’ve got to tell them about the perennial capacity of mankind to loathe/harm its own and demonstrate for them a more compassionate approach. These are things we would maybe do if we wanted to rebel against a culture and society that have failed us. We’ve got to show them that our education system is just one flawed. and that our time is about more than a dollar-figure someone wants to attach to it. etc. watching more peers lose themselves in this poisonous American funhouse. Or not. “Many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do. tortured. These are things we would maybe do if we felt it possible to create a global community in which it doesn’t suck to function. We’ve got to refuse to indoctrinate them into all-encompassing moral-metaphysical belief systems that will confuse the fuck out of them for years. job. milestone. man-made contraption and that real education is about curiosity and exploration rather than arbitrary benchmarks. We’ve got to live in a way that demonstrates to youth that every person has inherent value. test. you know. Because people like you and I and our loved ones are murdered. . Because I cannot stand by apathetically. These are things that I do/will do because a friend of mine died last year in a drunk-driving accident. We’ve got to make the gist of this essay something that kids understand by the time they’re 9 or 10 years old. We’ve got to teach them to love and empathize.We’ve got to stop teaching our young people to obsess over the next moment. Because I’ve seen other young people kill themselves. These are things that I do/will do because I can’t imagine doing anything else. oppressive logic of consumerism—that the advertisers and marketers would like very much to play us for fools and trap us in a cycle of inadequate feelings and compulsive purchasing. And when and if we have our own kids. We’ve got to explain to them the cold. we’ve got to help them be better at these things than we were. and locked in cages constantly in this country.

”Kurt Vonnegut I highly encourage you to read the follow-up to this essay: ‘A Brief History of the Modern World (Or. and a lot of this could be applied to people in other modern. in the final analysis. or find a way.S.S.: This essay may have struck some people as terribly depressing.although most people do not care about them. How the West Fucked Everything Up)’ P. P. I will discuss how/why this situation extends far beyond the states. You are not alone. It seems that most all of us have. been done a disservice by the structures of this outrageous world into which we’ve been born. but generally I’m a cynical optimist (paradoxical but true). to cope with one’s cultural baggage and be content in spite of the ways in which one was abandoned/marginalized/screwed. in some way. but my hope is that this essay points to certain issues which are nearly globally pervasive circa 2014. each person alive today is faced with an ultimatum: give up on life (commit suicide or fall into self-destruction). mass societies.: Much of this undoubtedly applies to older generations of Americans as well. or we can do our best to see through the set of preconceived values and assumptions into which we were indoctrinated to perceive something (arguably) magnificent lurking beneath it all–the opportunity to experience and love and express ourselves and discover our own way of thinking and being in this sprawling. I think that. via whatever possible means.P. wondrous cosmos. . We can curse those structures and see them as reasons to hate ourselves and everything else. In a follow-up essay. I focused on “young Americans” because I am a young American and felt most at liberty to speak about my own generation in my own country.

and also created the music blog. UBERSOUNDS. . writes about 21st-century Asia on Beacon.About Jordan Bates Jordan Bates is a linguistic sign and the post-American writer/artist who created this place. He has a rapping alter-ego named LOSTBOYEVSKY.