Derrick Jensen’s interview with George Ritzer [“Disenchanted Kingdom,” June 2002] reminded me of something that happened many years ago when I was in college. My girlfriend at the time was driving an eleven-year-old Dodge given to her by her father. One cold, misty morning, while passing by the front of the car, I did a double take. According to the stylized chrome letters across the front of the hood, this was no Dodge; it was an Oodge.
No doubt, an assembly-line worker had screwed up, and the job had since been automated. The worker’s error, however, added a new word to my vocabulary: an “oodge” is any act of creative sabotage that combats the conformity of our culture. One of these days, a McDonald’s employee will be in an oodging mood, and a customer will open his or her Big Mac to find a prosciutto and gorgonzola with black olives and sprouts on really good bread.
George Ritzer’s ideas speak to a part of me that has long been crying out in grief. I, too, feel submerged by a rising tide of technology and consumption. My “life raft” has been to go on solo retreats where there are no cars, phones, or TVs. There, I can return to a more natural existence — closer to the earth and other living things. This spiritual recharge allows me to come back to our franchised society with renewed hope.
Lately, I feel an increasingly frantic need for these timeouts from our “disenchanted” world. It’s as if I’m drowning in Burger Kings, Home Depots, concrete, shopping malls, and gas-guzzling SUVs. And if I’m thrashing to keep my head up, how will I ever save my five-year-old niece, who screams if she can’t wear her Barbie-glitter high heels on our walk, or my friend’s son, who’s unhappy if not in front of a computer or TV? My heart cries out — for them, for me, for all of us.
As a resident of east Tennessee, I grew up around Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where George Ritzer saw tourists slowing down to look at a bear. Once a natural treasure, the park is now simply an extension of the Vegas-like strip in nearby Pigeon Forge. Most people drive through the Smokies and never even step outside their car, much less on a trail. There is a quieter, side entrance to the park, but local Native Americans and concerned citizens recently lost their battle to stop that road from being widened.
Already since the tourist season began this summer, two black bears have been killed by park officials, who are afraid the bears have become too used to people and our leftover McDonald’s bags. This trend has been worsening for years, and I predict that eventually the black bears will be removed from the park. The situation is simply heartbreaking.
I can only hope that what has happened in the Smokies will motivate people in other regions to restrict commercial growth around their national parks.
I’m glad that Derrick Jensen’s interview with George Ritzer was accompanied by a photo of a smashed Starbucks franchise. It reveals how a growing faction of the “antiglobalization” movement plans to derationalize and reenchant our world: with violence.
By blaming McDonald’s for the disappearance of “authentic American culture,” George Ritzer reveals an elitist bias. For all that is bad about McDonald’s, it also represents much that is good. It’s a place where young people can enter the workforce and learn discipline, admirable work habits, respect for authority, and money management — all qualities that transfer well to that first real job.
When traveling abroad, I often eat at American fast-food restaurants. Otherwise, I am stuck for three hours at a leisurely European meal. I go over there to explore, not to dine.
Ritzer is apparently not a pensioner trying to get through the month until his next check arrives. He can find many such persons gathered at McDonald’s on weekday mornings, enjoying “senior coffee” in safe, welcoming, and convivial surroundings. Where else can they go for a quarter?
American culture may not always be what Ritzer would prefer, but it is still authentic and offers something for everyone.
In my formative years, my grandmother would sometimes take me with her to work as a clerk at an upscale pharmacy. After “we” got off, she would let me decide where to go for dinner. I always chose a place called Burger Den, where the burgers were named after animals such as lions, tigers, and bears. It was pricier than McDonald’s, but I liked the atmosphere and the food better.
Unfortunately, the big chains took over, and Burger Den was forced out. I bemoaned the loss, but now I wonder whether, like a lot of American kids, I was just spoiled — not only by Grandma, but by a wealthy society that grants us all we could ever need.
I understand George Ritzer’s concern about the inhumanity of the marketplace. Life is difficult enough without that. But let’s not forget that we are also fortunate to be able to choose where and what we eat.
George Ritzer responds:
I am gratified by the interest elicited by Derrick Jensen’s interview with me. In response to Steve Norcross: I am not “blaming McDonald’s”; it is simply the paradigm for the problem that concerns me.
It could also be argued that the skills young people learn from a fast-food job are irrelevant to today’s post-industrial economy; that for many these jobs are more dead ends than stepping stones to future careers; and that, where economically possible, students would be better off doing their homework than working to earn spending money.
A significant part of any culture is what and how people eat. Eating in indigenous restaurants is an integral part of travel and tourism. If one is in a hurry, every culture has its own version of fast food: English fish and chips, Dutch frite shops, and so on.
No, I’m not an impecunious pensioner (although if the stock market continues in its present direction, I may soon be one), but it always strikes me as a little sad to see retirees striving mightily to create a sense of community in the cold, sterile environment of a fast-food restaurant. Surely we can do better as a society and create warmer settings that offer inexpensive coffee for our retirees.
In any sense of the term, the authentic is being replaced by the inauthentic in American society. (See Helen Morrow’s letter on the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.)
To Keith Roper: Yes, we are fortunate to be able to choose where to eat (and do many other things as well), but the problem with places like fast-food restaurants, Wal-Mart, and other chains is that they tend to drive alternatives out of business, leaving us less and less choice.
I subscribe to The Sun and always look forward to Readers Write, Sunbeams, the photography, most of the fiction, and the poetry. The interviews, however, are typically strident, condescending toward the vast ignorant population of willing victims, and short on practical suggestions for realistic action. The person being interviewed paints his or her opponents as Evil (we already have enough of that), and the interviewer is almost ridiculously supportive.
And although “Sy Safransky’s Notebook” contains occasional gems, it is, in the main, too self-absorbed and rambling. Even the editor needs an editor.
The June issue was a case in point. The interview with George Ritzer had all the flaws that I’ve described here, and Safransky replaced his “Notebook” with a two-page letter asking for donations to the magazine. The appeal could have been made in a few lines, but Safransky chose to link it to September 11. (I wonder how the victims’ families feel about his jumping on that bandwagon.) He also reminisced once again about his good old days and his long hair, and gave The Sun a self-congratulatory pat for “bringing a little more awareness and compassion into the world.”
The financial challenges that The Sun faces could be addressed by a larger circulation, and maybe circulation could be increased by taking a hard look at the quality of everything in each issue.
“Sy Safransky’s Notebook” represents an apogee of the nice-guy narcissism that threatens to poison The Sun. While publicly parading his failures to live as gracefully as Buddha or as righteously as Christ — which is what most of his “Notebook” amounts to — is in dubious taste, it is when he mewls over his failures as a writer [May 2002] that his self-analysis becomes intolerable.
If writing is such an ordeal for Safransky these days, perhaps he should put down the pen for a while and attend more to other things. I’m sure he has his hands full already, both as editor of The Sun and as a man.
I am struck in the heart by Paul Hawken’s analysis of our ecological state of the union and our strategic denial of our individual responsibility for the “problem” [“Down to Business,” interview by Renee Lertzman, April 2002]. I talk constantly with people who are full of fear and call it reality. They live in the shadows of their psychological past, anticipating the demise of the planet and thinking that their survival is dependent on getting their share at the expense of others. It’s Darwin drunk and hallucinating.
Hawken is asking us to see ourselves as capable of creating the world we want to live in. Like the butterfly effect, our individual movements make ripples, and we have the power to change the course of life on earth at any moment, if we choose to become awake, aware, and alive to who we really are. To do this, we need nothing more than is already here, and there is plenty for everyone to share. We just need to see it that way.