Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Corn Madness Revisited

[En français]

Five years ago I received an unusual email from an unusual character: Yevgeny. I translated and published his letter under the title Corn Madness, and it got some 17,000 reads—a big number for me at the time—and plenty of comments. Yevgeny wrote of his experience with living in the US, and his impressions of it.

Subsequently, we met, and I got to know him. He is educated as a philosopher, a non-drinker, non-smoker, athletic, a self-taught polyglot, an accomplished musician and sound technician, but he was also, by virtue of his economic situation, working as a day-laborer at the time.

Since that time, Yevgeny has returned to Russia. I recently wrote to him and asked him to write an update, which he was kind enough to provide. Below is the original article, followed by his update.

Dear Dmitry,

I hope you don't mind that this is in Russian. I think that this way I can be more completely honest. I am a relatively recent graduate of one of the many faceless post-Soviet institutions of higher learning, with a degree in philosophy. Last year I moved to the USA and married an American woman.

The question of when the modern capitalist system is going to collapse has interested me since my student years, and I have approached it from various directions: from the commonplace conspiracy theories to the serious works of Oswald Spengler and Noam Chomsky. Unfortunately, I still can't fathom what it is that is keeping this system going.

My wife is a very pleasant woman, but a typical white conservative American. Whenever any political question comes up, she starts ranting about the Constitution and calling herself a libertarian conservative and a constitutionalist. I used to think that she is well-educated and understands what she is talking about. In fact, she is the one who introduced me to the US, and I once believed everything she told me about it. But as I found out later, she understands nothing about politics, and just repeats various bits of populist nonsense spouted by Severin, O'Reilly, Limbaugh and other mass media clowns. Well, I am not going to try to prove to my wife that she is wrong on a subject that I don't quite understand myself. After all, she is a good wife. And so I try to steer clear of any political questions when I am with the family, although I do not always succeed. Perhaps if I had a copy of your book, it would help me explain myself to her better, but our family was one of the first to be flattened by the real estate market collapse. My wife went bankrupt, lost her bank account, house, job and the rest a while before I came here, and so we can't buy anything online.

In the talk you gave at the conference in Ireland you mentioned that there are certain regions of the US where the common people only eat garbage food from places like Walmart, which consists of artificial colors and flavors and corn, and that such a diet makes them "a little bit crazy." To my utter disappointment, I have to entirely agree with you. Various witty Russian commentators love to heap ridicule on the "dumb Americans" and on the USA as a generally stupid country. But if they spent a bit of time living here and paid closer attention, they would realize that it is not the low cultural level that distinguishes Americans from, say, Russians: both are, on average, quite beastly. But even when I've visited here before, as a student, my first impression was of a country that is full of madmen, ranging from somewhat mentally competent to total lunatics. And the further south I traveled, the more obvious this became. At first I even marveled at this, thinking, look at how intoxicating the spirit of liberty can be! But now I understand that this is a catastrophe, that American society is brainwashed and alienated in the extreme, and that all that's left for Americans to do is to play each other for the suckers that they have become.

Unfortunately, I feel the pernicious influence of all this on my own family right here and now. You don't have to be a brilliant visionary to realize that in the current situation all these endless suburbs, built on the North American model, are slowly but surely turning into mass graves for the millions of former members of the middle class. Those that do not turn into mass graves will become nature preserves - stocked with wild animals that were once human. My family is turning feral under my very eyes. Lack of resources has forced us to live according to the Soviet model - three generations under one roof. There are six of us, of which only one works, who is, consequently, exasperated and embittered. The rest of the household is gradually going insane from idleness and boredom. The television is never turned off. The female side of the family has been sucked into social networks and associated toys. Everyone is cultivating their own special psychosis, and periodically turns vicious. In these suburbs, a person without a car is as if without legs, and joblessness does not allow any of us to earn money for gas, and so the house is almost completely isolated from the outside world. The only information that seeps in comes from the lying mass media. And I understand that millions of families throughout America live this way! This is how people turn into "teabaggers," while their children join street gangs.

For me, as for you, this is the second collapse. You had left USSR before it happened, while I was there to observe it as a child. I saw what happened when people were finally told that they were being had for seventy-odd years, and were offered a candy bar as consolation. Now, after all this, Russian society is finished. It grieves me to see the faces of Americans, who still believe something and wave their Constitution about, and to know that the same thing is about to happen to them. I think that the model which you have proposed will allow us to confront and to survive this collapse with dignity.

New Hamshire

* * *

Time has come to look back. Five years have passed since I wrote this naïve text. The world has changed, and so have I. Where do I start...

Three years ago I got on a plane from New York to Moscow, on a one-way ticket. There were family reasons for my departure, but I never returned to the US, and don't regret this—at all! I don't want to live in the US any more. Since then, my quality of life has only improved. Except that I am sick of trying to explain to everyone why I sacrificed my Green Card—which so many people still dream of getting. They don't understand me.

When I returned to Russia, I was able to leave behind the feeling of anxiety, which followed me everywhere in the US. There is a good Russian saying: “At home, even the walls help you.” In the US, I was never without the feeling that collapse is imminent—that all of this could come down any moment. At that time (autumn of 2012) people in Russia were, quite to the contrary, in high spirits, because the economy was developing rapidly, and people were prospering.

Over the three years that I was gone, my native Krasnodar turned into an affluent center of consumerism. During the day, it is clogged with traffic jams full of expensive imported cars, and huge shopping malls are filled with people even on workdays. Poor, destitute Russians?—please! They couldn't care less about some “peak oil” or other. We are Russia, we have all the resources in the world! Americans are paying $100 for a barrel of oil, life is great!

I have had to reevaluate my attitude toward the people in Russia. They are still far less helpless than the average American, but they are beginning to remind me of the latter. There is a real orgy of consumerism going on here. Suburban sprawl has appeared. The most prestigious and popular form of transport is a big white SUV.

Same as in the west, most people's eyeballs are drawn by their smartphones most of the time, even while driving, while stopped at a red light. The sums the consumers spend on these smartphones are enough to buy a used domestically produced car. Russians like to show off.

Of course, the material level of life of most Russian citizens even now doesn't compare favorably to those in the countries of the “golden billion,” there is still poverty, especially away from the profit centers. But it's not the same country that I knew during the hungry 90s.

But money does not bring happiness, and I was able to see this for myself yet again. After living in the US and returning to Russia, I also spent half a year in South America, where I saw a much lower level of life than in Russia. At the same time, the people who live there are far happier than in the US and Russia put together. And this registered with me. Now I seriously think of moving to Argentina.

This nation already survived the horrific default of 2001, military dictatorship, deindustrialization and various other calamities, and came through it all with its dignity intact. They know how to be poor but happy (unlike Russians) and without neuroses (unlike Americans)—I saw this with my own eyes.

Their mentality is at first difficult to fathom, and makes you want to reject it. People stress out over unreliability, flakiness and laziness of the people, over the slow pace of life, but at some point they understand, that they have nowhere to rush to either.

As for myself, after returning from the US, I made a firm decision: henceforth I will only do what I like. Since then, I've been making a living as a translator/interpreter and a sound engineer on a freelance basis. I do not seek any permanent, official employment. I've also worked on construction sites, and even as a tourist guide in Argentina. The earnings are low, but enough for food and shelter. And that is basically enough for me. I could make a bit more by working as a security guard, are as a cachier in a supermarket, but then I would hate my job. But why would I need more? Here, in the Northern Caucasus, there are amazingly beautiful mountains and sea, a warm climate, fertile soil. I have plenty of friends, and I always have something to do and somewhere to go. At some moments I even felt happy.

As far as the political and economic situation in Russia at the moment, we all know that it's troubled. Since around the middle of 2014 it has become more difficult for most of us to get by. One often gets a feeling of déjà vu—we've seen this all before, haven't we? The government demonstrates its incompetence: it appears that nobody at the top anywhere in the world knows what to do next. People still love Putin, but this doesn't get in the way of them hating the rest of the government. That's part of our mentality: good czar, bad aristocracy. I live not far from the border with the Ukraine, and right next door to Crimea. Since last year we have seen a gigantic influx of refugees. Clearly things are much worse in the Ukraine.

But these changes are visible in the cities; in the country, people live just as they did 30-40 years ago. My kin still works the amazingly fertile soil, rides around on bicycles, lives as if nothing else matters, and—unlike the spoiled city residents—doesn't complain about life. All the imporant questions in life are still sorted out through acquaintances. Where money is chronically in short supply, it determines very little. I am completely convinced that the more traditional a society, the more collapse-resilient it is. When the zombie-apocalypse comes to the cities, life in the villages will not change much. Here, they've seen lots of such cataclysms, and know what to do.

Here is another example of resilience: the Republic of Abkhazia—also just next door from me. It is a favorite destination for many of my friends and acquaintances. Since the collapse of the USSR, it has been languishing in neglect. At the same time, the people who live there are some of the happiest, hospitable and healthiest people on planet Earth. I think that in a hundred years they will still be grazing sheep, growing tangerines and setting new longevity records.

But for the rest of us, I believe that the time of great change is at hand. We had a sort of time-out for five years, so that we could prepare. But now the real global collapse is right on our doorstep. If you didn't find a place to hide—too bad. I've spent this time without achieving much of anything, but at least I had a good time.


Bill said...

Nice article. I read the original and I like the update too.
At the age of 72 I've come to realize that there is never anything to acheive. Just live life as happily as possible till it ends (hopefully quickly with no large medical problems). I've lived in Japan for 23 years and I make my living partly by translation work and also by teaching English, and Social Security as long as it lasts.Having multiple small sources of income is a good survival strategy and helps avoid job stress. I have great mountains nearby for hiking and I can live quite cheaply. Like the famous Hawaii T-shirt says: 'There are 2 ways to be rich make more or need less.'

Phil Espin said...

Good luck to you Yevgeny, whether in Krasnodar or Argentina. Enjoyed reading your perspective and respect for departing USA. I particularly like southern Argentina, Rio Gallegos and Ushuaia are great towns which would be on my list of possible places to go if I wasn't so happy with the rural small town I live in far away from the big cities in the UK.

Tony said...

In 1990 I met a couple from Russia while touring the Everglades in South Florida. In our conversation the Russian man talked about how Americans are really not free. He expounded on all the licenses and insurances and paperwork we had to keep current just to live here. I listened, although at the time it was far fetched a reality to me, and I never stopped thinking about it. At 55 years of age I retired on a small monthly payment. The increase in Freedom is saving my life. Argentina, did you say? I'll think on that. Americans should consider freedom and happiness as extremely valuable commodities.

Robert Goad said...

Likewise down here in southern Mexico: the indians seem the most contented overall, despite a rampantly classist society. They are usually a pleasure to chat up if you can gently overcome their usual shyness. It seems that some of the most stressed out looking folks here are the mestizos driving Escalades and other top end petro-chariots, ear glued to a smartphone, and looking bored (we saw one such lady frenetically careening around a corner who clipped a guy on a bicycle, sending him sprawling, as she continued on resolutely hell bent on some selfish quest. We helped the guy up and he smiled and just pedaled off). Not to say there are not pockets of really contented people in the USSA but it sure is a jollier vibe, for the most part, down here. Still odd to see a indian woman in her full tribal garb talking into a cell phone though, in a language that more resembles Kling-on than spanish...... the consumer-tech virus is spreading it seems.

jiri said...

"....but at least I had a good time."

What more do you want?

Jeff Lovejoy said...

I worked in the international trades for many years and dealt with Russians on many occasions. After the fall of the Soviet Union rade between Russia and the U.S. went through a renewal in the 1990s. It was my job to escort the tanker captains and officers to the U.S. Coast Guard so they could receive the proper licenses to come to the U.S. ports. I also served as a local representative for the Russian ship owners as all their vessels had to undergo proper inspection to come and go in U.S. waters. I discovered two things.

First, all the Russian vessels I boarded had been built to military specifications. Their hulls were covered in a heavier, thicker grade steel (possibly to withstand attack), their pipes were double flanged, and not only the tankers themselves were doubled hulled, but so were areas of their houses, These tankers were designed to carry accommodations for three times the amount of a usual crew complement, three times more than other flagged vessels. Maybe these ships had been designed to carry military personnel?

Secondly, these recertification requirements took a whole day to complete. Very often our last appointment shore side was not completed until late at night. Often, before being returned to their ships, the officers would ask for one favor -- a stop at the local McDonalds. I would escort the captain and his officers into the restaurant where they would place a huge order "to go"; enough food to feed the whole ship, for days. Everyone in the restaurant would be very curious about where all these Russians had come from.

As soon as the order had been paid for they all headed back out to the van. As I chased after them, I reminded them that they had left without picking up their food. Their response was very telling. They said that they knew; that they were waiting for their order to be ready.

"How long a wait did you anticipate," I would ask.

"An hour at least," was their reply.

"Maybe in Moscow," I said, as the McDonalds store manager and a couple of his employees came rushing out with their orders in hand(s).

A good time was had by all.

Aron Blue said...

Does Yevgeny have any of his music available online or otherwise?

Positive Dennis said...

Interesting as it seems likely I will go to Murum in Russia for my retirement. I too think that the issue of our times is not capitalism or socialism but the evils of consumerism. Russia will handle the coming crisis much better than America. Their mass transit alone will be of great help. Russians still often grow their own food. The "footprint" of the average Russian is small when compared to the rest of Europe. We live in the stereotypical Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times.

stevelaudig@gmail.com said...

Neglect as an operative principle. It is far better to be neglected by the US than "attended" to by it. That way leads to death and madness.

casamurphy said...

Thank you for your letter. As an older person, it is refreshing to read the perspective of youth concerning more than just style or entertainment trends.

Note to Mr. Orlov: The Tues, August 18th piece on the Russian Character was excellent. I'm sorry you didn't allow comments there. I wanted to heap some praise, but could not.

DeVaul said...

Man, am I glad you wrote an update to your original article, which I still remember quite well. There is nothing like news from real people who actually live in other countries and are not employed as "journalists", if you know what I mean.

I found your description of life in the Russian cities to be most interesting, as I experienced the same kind of reaction and observation of urban Thais in Bangkok. They were extremely materialistic and in many cases totally obsessed with impressing others with their wealth and status (brand name items, cars, gadgets, etc). I will give one example: according to my wife (a Thai), teenagers from wealthy families would get braces for no other reason than to show others at school that their family had money! No medical need whatsoever -- just a need to impress.

I was flabbergasted. Braces in America are often a form of embarrassment, as it announces to all that you have crooked teeth and thus need medical help. It also subjects young kids to all kinds of verbal abuse, although not so much nowadays thankfully. It has nothing to do with wealth, as even poor families will try to fix a child's teeth if they can. The state often pays for the braces of poor children.

I also was not prepared for the total obsession with money that I encountered among Thais and later among all Asians. This caught me completely by surprise, as I had read that Asians were very "family oriented", but there was no mention of them turning nearly every family function into a "financial transaction". No, that part was left out entirely. There seems to be no information on this in books about Asian countries, so attempting to learn about real Asian culture before you go there is impossible when the books leave out some of the most important cultural information there is.

Maybe it is deliberate, as no country wants the negative side of its culture to be fully advertised to those who might think of visiting or doing business there. My wife was dumbstruck by the huge piles of paperwork that I had to do on a daily basis. She could not comprehend it, and I am sure no book on American culture mentioned our paper pushing lifestyle to those who were considering coming here.

I am beginning to see a divergence between "city people" and those who live in rural areas here once again. I now live in a small city, but I grew up in the mountains, and life there was completely different. I miss it a lot, and I often dream of going back and living in just a small cabin in the forest. I accept that I will probably never get there, though, but it does not hurt to have a dream.

I would not worry about not having "achieved" anything. That is the fate of practically everyone who has ever existed. Even the famous are forgotten over time.

Hubert Cross said...

Good post man. I grew up in silicon valley but fortunately my parents were immigrants and I eventually moved back here to Nicaragua as an adult.. People here don't take life so seriously which when taken to an extreme can be frustrating, but it's also just easier to exist. Consumerism is on the rise and so is a hopeless attempt at building suburbs but most of the settled areas are in a grid making it easy to walk around and get things done without a car unlike in the states.

Candace Moore said...

Robert Goad...if those "indians" were so happy why was the Zapatista army so successful? It seems to me there is nowhere on earth that even if some great happy sustainable situation existed, moderns wouldn't come by and ruin it in order to exploit it for capitalistic interests. I don't think the way forward is to pretend (wishful thinking? )we can make expans humble tribal existences into global sustainable Shangri-Las anyways. Modern civilization has given us incredible tools- we just aren't smart enough to use them. Drones are a case in point. Those things could have saved all the drowning migrants and refugees on the seas (yes, drones have great applications in emergency medicine) but instead the advanced powers are using them to bomb wedding parties. If moderns could achieve a certain level of moral growth, perhaps we would be even happier than those "indians" who I suspect aren't that happy at all given their unfortunate situation which requires periodically arming themselves against ridiculous regimes throughout the Americans.

xbornstubbornx said...

Aron Blue, that should work for you
The channel has been in neglect for 3 years, though. Ironically, I stopped updating it after I left the United States, because I've been struggling to write new acoustic music since then. Boredom is a true source of inspiration.

Mister Roboto said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
de amateureconoom said...

Thanks man,
Very much enjoyed this very informative post from people's everyday live. I live in Belgium and here government socialism and 110 % debt/gdp still keeps middle class and lower class going.
Your blog is my favourite.

Patricia said...

Thank you for a fascinating article and its update. Loved reading it--it's great to read stuff from real people. Keep to your current values--simple happiness is absolutely wonderful, which my husband and I found out when we become poor as hell. We had to let go of cell phones, TV, all kinds of stuff--but we had shelter, food, an old car that worked, gorgeous countryside--rural southern Indiana--and we couldn't be happier. Materialism leads to the abyss, dumping it and its associated craziness leads to simple, happy, contented lives, rich in everything except money. :) Thank you. I wish you all the best in your future. Patricia

Alex said...

Materialism is indeed the hellmouth. I live right in the middle of silicon valley, and a huge portion of the population gets by on about ten grand a year, like I do. No car, ride a bike, have a simple flip phone, I'm here on a tablet that's worse than internet was in 1997.

I have free time though, which is more precious than gold here.

Can't afford a TV so I listen to the radio, the local library sells excellent books for a dollar or less, and there are a lot of free concerts and so on downtown.

So its possible to live a simple life right in the belly of the beast.

Alex Romanoff said...

@casamurphy: Dmitry’s piece on the Russian national character was posted previously on 13 January 2015. Go to the archive for January 2015 and you will find it there, along with 84 comments and still open for others.

The piece resonated with me personally as a person of Russo-Ukrainian origins, a child of post-WW2 DPs (Displaced Persons), a drifting coconut that eventually washed up on the shores of Western Australia and put down roots. Though I have bred and prospered and very much like this place, with its wide open spaces and moderate climate, in spite of 45 years living here I still feel an outsider to this country’s dominantly Anglo-Celtic culture. Dmitry’s piece went a long way to explaining at least in part why that might be so. Something in the genes perhaps.

Unknown said...

Excellent. I read orlovs book years ago. left san francisco and tech for a quieter existence in rural New Mexico. the insanity of sacramento and crazy "social justice warriors" in san francisco and marin and a state bankrupted by special interests..... it was time to go. it was easy to see what was coming if you were not blinded by accepting Keynesian bullshite as having any value and did not buy the propaganda of the msm.

and the airport in albuquerque is not that far away when I need to go somewhere....

I also went down to argentina a few years ago. my preference was Mendoza as a comfortable city to live it. at the foot of the Andes and near all that great wine growing region. like napa and sonoma, but waaaaay cheaper. Ushuaia was just to isolated for me, but it is beautiful down there. best Hake I ever ate, seriously, was in a little hole in the wall restaurant down by the waterfront.

I make a lot less money, but my time/freedom is worth so much more than endless hours commuting up and down the 101 on the peninsula chasing another dollar, half of which went in taxes anyway.

but enough about me and how wonderful I am....but.......I am curious as to what happened to the american wife. and her family. where are they now and what are they up to, if you have that info available. sounds like they were on a downward spiral to meth hell.

Dixie Brick said...

my creed is "a lot of things to cry about and a lot of things to laugh about, I choose to laugh". Seeing our society being duped by the elites is heartbreaking and have been convinced that we are powerless when the opposite is true. It has been written the in the end days the opposite will be believed. Peace to all.

casamurphy said...

@AlexRamanoff: Thank you for letting me know about the Jan 2015 original post. I recently read a book by Marin Katusa about Putin's long-term strategic planning concerning energy. That book together with the piece on the Russion National Character greatly increased my understanding.

Mister Roboto said...

Thanks for the update. I remember the original post and wondered what became of this young man. He seemed as smart as a whip, so it's no wonder he fled the dysfunctionally toxic and narcissistic USA and his little piece of the dittohead suburban nightmare. That nightmare must have been like subsisting on a diet of spam and velveeta on wonderbread sandwiches: You would survive in a manner of speaking, but you would not stay on such a diet for very long if you had any long-term concept of your own self-interest!

[I am resubmitting this post with the second paragraph deleted. There are just some things about which one shouldn't joke, and I sincerely apologize for saying something that hateful and offensive.]

theexrat said...

jiri quoted -

"....but at least I had a good time."

And then added -

'What more do you want?'

How about some sense of purpose? The ability to make a difference to many people? Some kind of legacy? To make the world at least a slightly better place for those who follow after us?

In the context of this discussion, I agree that to have a good time is important and much better than having a miserable time due to the social defeat which comes from submitting to the drug of consumerism, of spending ones time pointlessly trying to have more stuff than the bloke next door.

But I also think that this has been one of the aims of the elite - to help us to reduce our ambitions to the point where we are satisfied with simply having a good time - and nothing else. To encourage us to lose any belief we had that even though we may be small or insignificant, we can make a lasting difference to this planet and the beings who inhabit it after we have gone.

We should try not to let them win this battle. As well as having a good time ourselves, how about we also dedicate some of our energy to helping as many others as possible to have a good time and a good life as well - even if that can only happen long after we have departed?

This is what I am trying to do here - to inspire others (and myself) to believe in themselves. Even though you might not be a president or other famous figure, because you have chosen to read this blog I have some belief in you that you are awake and not completely overcome by 'corn madness' - so go and make this world a better place, if it pleases you to do so. Thankyou for publishing and reading my comment.

M. Simon said...

I still can't fathom what it is that is keeping this system going.

The same thing that keeps any system going. Profit.

Income + reserves >= outgo.