MIDWEST, USA-

Dear L:

Before I left Madrid this past June, you had sent me a correspondence which had this as its final paragraph:

Please write. Write sometime and tell me things about your crazy country, full of enormous highways, tall cities, weird people, strange drinks (like Dr.Pepper, the most disgusting drink ever made after cicuta, I guess), blonde girls, cute dogs, creepy perfect neighbourhoods [sic], great writers, great musicians, great…and a long etcetera of lights and shadows of that hard to understand country you come from.

That’s quite poetic L, right there at the end with the lights and shadows etceterrata. You must be something of a writer yourself and-being Spanish-you write quite well in English. I know because I try to write in Spanish and it is widely considered to be the final and most difficult faculty to master in any second language.

Tomorrow I return to your country.


I’ve kept a numbered list of things that have caught my attention over the past 10 weeks.

Many of these things have occurred over the past five years since I’ve been gone so what I’m observing are not necessarily changes that have occurred overnight.

I hope this suffices to recap my summer sojourn back in Freedomland**.

1. Flags.

This country is so jam-packed full of flags, it’s alarming.

I relate this because your country is virtually flag free compared to the US.

Many other countries I’ve visited don’t seem to have this flag fetish.

What gives?

After 911, the flag industry raked in so much cash over the course of several years that even the steady descent into widespread unpopularity that the president has experienced hasn’t even really affected their presence.

I offer a personal example: My mom spent around 1000 dollars erecting a flagpole replete with a brand new red-white-and-blue flag atop and the accompanying lights.

Not actually my parents' house




Some say freedom isn’t free; I agree, it–or at least the symbol of it–appears to cost about a grand.

I took pictures whenever I could over a 10 week period.

Without even really trying, I took over 50 photos.

My assumption is this: Many US citizens feel that the USA is–without question–the best goddamn country on earth, and in order to announce their pride to every other citizen they see, they pump flags like fists at rock concerts.

I read once that given your country’s history of dictators and royal tyrants, Spanish people inherently despise and distrust any institution that governs their lives.

So showing national pride isn’t something you want to do that readily.

Maybe in a few decades (if we’re all still collectively kicking), when America’s self-asserted world dominance in the world has been weakened, its citizens won’t be so quick to sport flags that to many in the world mean the complete opposite to what they mean to US citizens.

(If you don’t understand what the above statement means L–and I assume you probably already do– read a little bit of Noam Chomsky, peruse Zmag.org or even just listen to any Rage Against the Machine song.)

2. Automatically foaming soap.

(I call it autofoap or even just foap.) All over this land in both the public and private spaces I visited, autofoap has taken the US by storm (por huevos).

Somewhere in the course of the past five years (most acutely in the past two or three) regular liquid hand soap was replaced with autofoap. Apparently, it removes the burden caused by non-foaming soap.

It’s lather-free.

I wonder what this means, if anything.

It could mean we’ve reached new levels of laziness or that the general public was extremely jaded on the old liquid hand soap, so much so that this subtle and clever move has us entranced. Will the US ever go back to non-foaming hand soap or is this foap here to stay?

A good question.

Answer: probably.

What’s next, L?

Sustainable energy?

Self-driving cars?

Water bottles that automatically unscrew their lids, crawl up your arm and pour their contents down your throat for you?

3. Coca Cola with vitamins. This is actually somewhat of a spin off caused by Red Bull’s steam-rolling of the energy drink market. When I was here a few years ago, I remember there being the normal variety of soft drinks along with Pepsi and Coca-cola drinking waters. Now there is virtually no end to what’s on offer.

Actually, that’s not true: There are two kinds offered. One offers vitamins and minerals and one offers only antioxidants. Of course the vitamins are rather sparse (only 25% of the daily recommended value of B6 and B12 and niacin – what the hell is niacin anyway?). The other one is mixed with green tea. Now if they could only find a way to fit a burrito in these cans, I’d consume them like Spaniards do olive oil and cigarettes.


4. Pharmacies have overtaken the corners of many cities throughout the Midwest (and presumably the rest of the nation).

Farmacias in Spain are everywhere as well, but they seem to only sell drugs that are purport to improving health or allaying pain.

Pharmacies in the US have a small back corner section where you can fill your prescriptions and a capacious mini-supermarket design of row after row of generally useless shit…

OR shit you can buy at any general store or supermarket.

When I left five years ago, these pharmacies were in existence, now they are taking over street corners all over this great land.

It’s good to know that when you’re getting low on your anti-depressants you can also pick up some stationary, cigarettes and any other last-minute school supplies.

5. On July 5th, 2008, the temperature was oppressively hellish around the mid 90s with heavy humidity.

Every public place I entered today – the library, supermarket, pharmacy and a restaurant – were all frigid.

In the restaurant, I actually looked down to find my nipples hard.

I should have brought a sweater with me in the dead of summer.

So, L, why is the temperature of American air conditioning so high, you ask? I used to think it was so people would eat or shop as quickly as possible and then get the hell out so someone else could do the same thing quickly. Maybe not. Maybe an obese population requires unusually high temperatures indoor.

This temperature extremity is alarming for a reason I wrote in my first TNB piece and which I don’t think I can restate any more clearly:

The largest source of greenhouse gases is electric power generation.

Air conditioners use around 1/6th of the electricity in the US and on doggishly hot summer days, they can use up to 43% of the peak power load.

So as the environment gets hotter, we’re going to need a lot more air conditioners to keep the indoors cool.

This will, in turn, make the outdoors even hotter.

If you love air conditioning, this is definitely the place for you.

6. 99% of Americans constantly confuse Spanish culture with Mexican culture. Stephen Colbert, famed American satirist for his hilarious fake news show The Colbert Report, devastatingly revealed his own ignorance one night (but was safe because only 1% of the country knows about this) by putting Spain on the new terror list watch.

Since Iraq and North Korea are no longer on the Axis of Evil, he said, we’re going to have to pick another country to put on it. He started reading some headlines, found that Spain extended legal rights to Apes. (This is a true story.) After lashing into the mere idea of it, he blurted out, “Taco Shells? Freedom Shells!” The crowd roared with laughter.

I mentioned this to some friends who watch him and they immediately said that he knew what he was saying and that the joke was kind of double joke, referring to US backlash against France’s rejection of supporting the US’s invasion of Iraq. It was also, they pointed out, a joke making fun of people who think taco shells come from Spain.

There is no doubt in my mind that Colbert is one smart guy. Satire at this level is rare and very welcomed. But he really didn’t seem to be making fun of people who think tacos come from Spain AND people who supported banning the word french with fries. It felt like–at least in the moment–he really thought tacos came from Spain.

And this is unsettling because it has been my experience with pretty much every other American who hasn’t been to Spain.

Currently, in pretty much every way minus the language, Spanish culture is very distinct from all countries in Latin America. This means that your people don’t eat Burritos every day because it is not Spanish cuisine; it means that you, L, or your countryfolk don’t wear Pepé Gonzalez sombreros or play mariachi music, that “Oh, no I haven’t been to Spain but I have been to Cozumel” means nothing; Tortillas are not made of flour or corn but eggs and potatoes and Jennifer Lopez only speaks Spanish, is not Spanish.

I’m not positive about this L but I think this is a cumulative effect of American’s general ignorance of world geography largely caused by their own bloated and unjustified sense of self-importance, Mexico’s adjacent placement and that the language spoken throughout all Hispanic America (i.e. all countries south of the USA minus Brazil and the French colonies) is the same language spoken in Spain. Oh yeah, it’ also used as an adjective for anything that comes from Spain, as in Spanish wine. This trifecta of reasons has even America’s foremost satirist confused.

7. American politics = Hollywood spectacle.

It’s unfortunate but true. It’s less about what you say or what you mean and mostly about image and perception.

I’m afraid we are doomed for the rest of our lives to have to endure corruption on such a widespread level.

I am very willing to lay down my keyboard, get grassroots and take up arms in front of the white house, demanding the power be given back to us, the American people.

But only if many other people are.

Do you think anyone is with me, L?

No, me either.

Let’s hurry up and wrap up this correspondence so I can get back to checking my email and sharpening my cynicism.

8.** Why I call the USA Freedomland? I call the USA Freedomland because it’s virtually impossible to listen to any of its politicians speak without overusing the word freedom. In fact, they speak in vast excesses of loaded terminology like democracy, freedom, terrorism, etc. If you check out Publicrhetoric.US, you’ll see an analysis one of Bush’s last speeches on Veterans Day. Freedom outnumbered the second most common word, security, by more than 2:1.

Freedom was used 21 times while security only reached 10.

It has become such a loaded word in the USA that it has essentially become meaningless. If all I did was listen to its political speeches, I would have to draw the conclusion that the USA invented freedom.




Not only did they invent it, but they are coveting it like Tokein’s ring.

They will let other countries have it, but only if those countries allow Starbucks and McDonalds in.

These companies are icons of freedom, or free or open (American-friendly) markets.

When I visit the USA, I don’t see freedom so much as excessiveness and apathy.

Compared to most European societies, it seems like a immature and jovial population that is dedicated firmly to its football (or sports in general), driving, working, gas, fast food, being the best, buying in bulk, celebrity worship, reality television and its disposable and iconic to-go coffee cups.

Every one has these.

Recycling is optional.

We are hellbent on freedom at all costs.

Whatever that means.

And we want to make sure that you and everyone you know is aware of this.

America, with all its faults, is at once the best and worst this world has to offer.

I highly recommend you visit someday.

All the best.

K

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KIP TOBIN's real name is Stephen Christopher Tobin, but no one really calls him that, not even his mom. His favorite letter is "i", which is also one his least favorite words; his favorite words tend to include euphonious consonants like Ls and Rs and Ss, such as surly luscious allure. He relocated to middle America last year. He writes fiction and nonfiction but will not tweet. He's currently working on his doctorate in Latin American Literatures and Cultures, studying the intersection of the body, vision and media in contemporary Hispanic Science Fiction . If asked, he will tell you that S. Gautauma pretty much summed 'er all up when he said: All things are transient. Work out your own salvation. He's constantly in that latter process, all the while trying to become as present and aware as he possibly can in this world of simulacra and simulations. You can leave a message on the board here and he will try to get to back with you. His alter ego sometimes posts music mixes on Tip Robin's Mega Maxi Music Mix Mash (tiprobin.blogspot.com), which is unsearchable on the internet and something of a micro, gotta-be-in-the-know phenomenon. He's no longer a part of the social networking revolution. The revolution, it seems, will not be televised but rather streamed, and he hopes he's not watching it. He wishes everyone good luck whenever he can. Good luck.

2 responses to “Reflections on Freedomland”

  1. Kip Tobin says:

    22 Comments »
    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith
    2008-09-12 07:56:00

    Wait Kip, I’m totally with you if you’re really want to get all grass-roots! Don’t give up on us non-flag waving Americans so fast! There’s a bunch of us still here!

    This was brilliant and really enjoyable read. Your years in Spain have afforded you a unique view of the States. (I just recently noticed the overwhelming prevalence of foap myself. When did this start?! Why?!)

    Truthfully, I really envy your escape back to Spain. If things don’t go well in November, I’m grabbing Greg by the hand, and we’re going to join you.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Greg
    2008-09-12 09:08:43

    Yes! And I’ll bring the foap!
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Kimberly M. Wetherell
    2008-09-12 08:22:17

    Where to begin??? Diet Coke with Bacon Seriously??? My distaste for all things ‘flag’? My own preference for European pharmacies or my pure and unadulterated auto-bile at the sight of yet another Starbucks? Foap????

    Maybe I’ve just lived in Europe too many times (which is something we should all do, ahem, Madame Governor) but I’m with ya all the way!
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Rich Ferguson
    2008-09-12 09:06:25

    Hey Kip:

    I’m with Claire. I’m not in with the American flag-waving crowd. But here I be in the States, and doing my darndest to make the best of it before the whole damn thing goes up in smoke.

    Peace and happy travels.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Alex Green
    2008-09-12 09:06:52

    I always enjoy your posts and reflections on the US, especially the heartland where we grew up. It’s always a pleasure to host you for a night or two as you pass through and it’s great to see that my household is contributing so effectively to the usage of foap with the 3 different photos shot in bathrooms in my very own home.

    And, as far as niacin goes, seems like we really don’t need it as much as product labels would lead us to believe we do.

    “Severe deficiency of niacin in the diet causes the disease pellagra, whereas mild deficiency slows the metabolism, causing decreased tolerance to cold. ‘Dietary niacin deficiency tends to occur only in areas where people eat corn [maize, the only grain low in niacin] as a staple food’, and that do not use lime during meal/flour production.

    The recommended daily allowance of niacin is 2-12 mg/day for children, 14 mg/day for women, 16 mg/day for men, and 18 mg/day for pregnant or breast-feeding women.” (courtesy of wikipedia.com)
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Josie
    2008-09-12 09:44:41

    Uno – The difference between US national pride and other nation’s reflection on govnt is due to the long standing belief that in the United States the People are the government. While it may be just a legend at this point the bottom line is that flags here do not represent support for govnt so much as personal pride. Every doofus thinks he can be president and after the last fella in office apparently it’s true.

    Dos – You forgot to mention that the autofoaps are antibacterial. This is all part of the pharmaceutical companies masterplan to destroy our immune systems so that we must turn to them and they can rule our country.

    Tres- When I was a meat eater I woulda downed a lot of coke with bacon… I woulda headed the campaign for them to add “real” crispy bits to every can.

    Cuatro – Indeed, part of the conspiracy for pharmaceutical companies to ultimately rule the world.

    Cinco – As a morbidly obese woman I’m here to defend my people against such blatant stereotypes from the fat prejudiced propagandists that is a proliferation to TNB like a bad storm. We do not all like air conditioning. Nor do we require it to keep our body odor in check so as not to disrupt your meal.

    Seis – Not everyone knows tortillas were invented in Kansas and that Spain is where the black velvet Elvis painting originated.

    Siete – Many of my people would stand with you at the White House gates. Our fingers may be too fat to fit into the trigger guard but our massive girth would provide a hell of a shield. After the revolution fat bigots will regale us as heroes.

    Ocho – And here we have the power of the all mighty word. Writers have long known that by merely making a written statement they can impress upon a large scale their agenda, whether it is a positive or negative one. All they have to do is speak or type with certainty and before you know it people will begin to believe whatever they hear. People are easily influenced by what they see/hear in repetition. Nations and the people in them are ruled by the power of our voices. No matter where you are on the globe.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by pb
    2008-09-12 09:53:10

    Niacin is one of the b vitamins. I love b vitimans.

    Great post. Coming back after being gone for so long can be shocking in the best way. The flag thing since 9/11- totally out of hand. Disturbing. That said, I’ll be watching Nadal play Davis Cup in Madrid against the US (and rooting for Spain, cause I lived there, and love their players) and there will be TONS of Spanish Flags, flags with big old bulls on them and what not, waving everywhere! And then the singing, “Ole, ole, ole…(i don’t have the aceent thingy on my computer)” I sing along, drinking wine. I can’t wait for the David Cup. I hope Spain demolishes the US.

    It seems as if you are headed back to Madrid. Good for you. I envy you. Spain is a fantastic country. Oh, and fabulous detail there, with the “hardened nipples”. Hilarious!
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by N.L. Belardes
    2008-09-12 09:53:24

    When I was working for ABC23 there was a janitor there named Frank. He had the unique accent of a Spaniard. And I know some morons thought he was Mexican. I’m half Mexican. He didn’t talk like any vatos I know.

    I found Frank to be the most interesting person at the TV station. He had been to the Running of the Bulls 15 times in his life. He spent 10,000 bucks to take his family to Spain recently. He was once a cop in Spain. “Goddam it here in America why won’t cops just shoot the mother fuckers?” he would say. “It’s this fucking legal system!” he would banter on. “You can’t piss without some fucker taking you to court!”

    I was talking about veterans one day. Bakersfield has this thing about making a media circus out of any Iraq War veteran stepping foot back on Bakersfield soil. I appreciate veterans. I don’t appreciate the only stories about the Iraq War being about local vets at an airport. Anyway, suddenly Frank started talking about Vietnem. He started telling stories about his friends getting killed and how he had to hide under dead bodies to not get caught by the enemy. He went on and on and I just looked at him in awe.

    You never think some cool old janitor is a war hero. What’s a war hero anyway? Someone who survives the fuck and muck is a hero. Maybe we should call them War Survivors.

    Anyway, he was not flag waving like I am sometimes. He was just frankly Frank, working for a media circus and just like he would say everyday to me, “Hey boss. Another day, huh? Just trying to get through this fucking mess so we can see another tomorrow.”
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Autumn
    2008-09-12 20:23:01

    I love the term “war survivor”.

    We should all adopt this.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by N.L. Belardes
    2008-09-12 09:57:15

    I don’t know why I told that story. Just reminded me of Frank and his Vietnam tales I suppose…
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Kip Tobin
    2008-09-12 12:34:48

    Claire and Greg – Thanks! I will not be here beyond May 2009. I’ll be somewhere in the heart of Mexico. But definitely come Euro-side. Much of the past 8 years has driven many people here. You would be welcomed with open arms.

    Kimberly – Apparently Starbucks is actually shutting down some 600 US stores. Sign of a downturn if I’ve ever seen one.

    Rich – I’m happy to know that you are out there, takin’ ‘er easy for the rest of us sinners. “Better get your kicks before the shithouse goes up in flames.”

    Alex and PB – Thanks for reading and especially for commenting. I love reading reactions.

    Aside: If Niacin is just another B vitamin, why the hell don’t they just give it another number, like B17? (Maybe cause it starts sounding like Bingo?)

    Josie – I love your comments. They are very thoughtful and challenging. I will not rebullet a list like you did, but say that I hope you weren’t offended by the obesity comment. My mom is quite obese and it pangs me to see her that way. She does seem to get overheated quickly, so that was why I thought maybe the A/C in the Midwest was up.

    NL – Sometimes there’s a man who, wal, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that’s Frank.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Autumn
    2008-09-12 20:33:38

    I envy all of your European existences. I’ve never been. I’m having a hard enough time paying my rent, credit cards (thanks ex-hubby), car payment, student loans, and utilities.

    Maybe soon, though. I turn 30 next year, and I really want to see France.

    I also don’t think the USA is the best “god-damned country in the world” either. Actually, I kinda think France is.

    Low infant mortality, low poverty level, high education standards, good health care. It may not be #1 in all the judging factors, but it ranks pretty well.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by tip robin
    2008-09-13 04:36:22

    Autumn,

    Europe is great and France is by far the easiest choice. According to many, it’s the best country in the world (including Michael Moore and the expats in Sicko). I haven’t lived there so I couldn’t say. The TNB french expat contingent would know.

    Sorry to hear about your difficult time just treading. Part of that is simply being in your twenties. Another part of it is the price of freedom. I say that half-joking, half-seriously. Regardless, you’ll get out of it, without doubt.

    Be careful who you marry next time. (I’m sure you know this.)

    Cheers.

    Kip
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Autumn
    2008-09-14 08:25:39

    Truly!

    There’s no relationship lesson quite like a couple of drunken, late-night fist fights and a calm Sunday afternoon interrupted by your crazy ex-husband casting your clothes all over the lawn.

    Thanks for the economical well-wishes. Here’s hoping 30 is more prosperous and less turbulent!
    (Comments wont nest below this level)
    Reply here

    Comment by Josie
    2008-09-12 20:42:29

    vaya con dios, y recorrido con un corazón no pesado. Estaré aquí leer a mi amigo, a través del océano.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by doug
    2008-09-13 10:26:01

    you had me at midwest.

    btw – there are like two or three middlebury grads here at uva… since we are both doing the same thing, let’s skype sometime and we can share “i hate the spanish MA reading list” stories.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by jmb
    2008-09-14 11:24:56

    Easier to wave a flag than be a flag I suppose. To make your own sort of muttdog flag, your own colors and shapes and fly that thing and say “this is who I am.”
    Don’t stay gone long brother, we need what you got.
    Viking slap.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Jennifer Duffield White
    2008-09-14 18:11:07

    I’ve been in the flatness of Ohio and Indiana for the last 3 days, where, upon reading this, I was acutely aware of the flying flags. I wasn’t able to count cars (none) on my run in corn country this morning, but I did get to count flags.

    However, regarding foap. I think that it may actually result in saving water (less time spent lathering) and may even cause less soap to be used each time. I may be wrong–I have not tested this–but there may be more than laziness to this trend.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Rebecca Adler
    2008-09-14 21:56:07

    Heh. I guess I should have read your comment before I left mine below. Oops. I guess great minds think alike.
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    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Rebecca Adler
    2008-09-14 21:54:49

    It’s so weird to me how foreigners (or expats) notice the flags first. I recently had a French couple and a German/English couple visit and both of them comment on how many flags there are around here. I guess I’d come to think of it as normal, although every time I see a flag on an SUV I have serious urges to either give them the finger or key their car.

    As for the foap, I actually thing this was done as a way to cut down on the amount of soap used in public restrooms. I’m pretty sure the auto-foaming soap uses less soap, so it’s actually a good thing. I mean, if Americans are going to lower consumption somewhere, they might as well start with SOAP, right? Am I wrong here?

    Anyway, great piece. I’ve always loved reading your stuff on here.

    -Becca
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Emma Ashwood
    2008-09-16 10:03:09

    Kip – this is a wonderful post. Very foapy and flaggy and it made me laugh a lot.

    It really is lovely to see an American with a sense of humour about his country: it does a lot to negate the effects of some of the scary Republican flag-waving (there it is again!) that’s been such a huge part of the election build-up.
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by J Green
    2008-09-28 17:35:07

    I just drank a diet coke that tasted like an American flag that I bought at mini-mart. I feel more American now.

    I’m waiting for our politicians to start wearing capes and masks and having entrance music played during their debates.

    And if I haven’t told you in person enough, I loved every second I was in Madrid. Spain had the greatest vibe.

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