American Campus Diary: Travelogue

Charles Mackay is a British academic with a visiting fellowship at an elite American university. They are strange places, but through America’s soft power, they tend to spread their strangeness abroad, with English-speaking countries most susceptible. But forewarned is forearmed, so here are your warnings. Here’s his previous entry.



I’m traveling back to Blighty for ‘Spring Break’. It’s set to coincide with St Patrick’s Day so that undergraduates can get trolleyed while they’re on holiday and hopefully away from campus. Generally speaking, the high American drinking age places a heavy burden of alcohol policing on college staff. Sharking by senior (4th year) men on freshmen women is the source of wart-inducing levels of hand-wringing on the part of college administrations. The proximate cause of this attitude is that there are cases of appalling foul play, and so there’s a reasonable assumption on the part of administrators that for every case of reported rape or assault there’s a continuum of coercion and misery behind the scenes.

There are deeper explanations, of course: we can’t confess the sexual revolution’s failure to liberate anyone except the most handsome and feckless. So we must hysterically misdirect attention from it as an explanation for the unhappiness of young men and women in the current year – and onto unseen forces with no  falsifiable history. The Patriarchy, the male libido, ‘rape culture’, are all to blame, and must all be described in just such a way that no causal connection can be drawn between them and our creation of a sexual culture in which drunken strangers are encouraged to see their own and others’ bodies as toys.

But more specifically to America, the drinking age is bound to produce cognitive dissonance on the part of those who have to internalize the law, and so bend their brains to ratiocinate its implicit norms for, and claims about, the young. Everyone up to the age of twenty-one is deemed by the law too juvenile to drink – but mature enough to leave home and live on a campus with those who are. Rather than chafing against this silliness, adults tasked with enforcing it make their behaviour reasonable to themselves by imagining 18-to-20 year-olds as children. Once you’ve made this move, seeing universities as hunting grounds for sexual predators is only natural. What kind of twenty-one year-old man would want to live on the same corridor as a group of little girls? To invite them to his parties? Only a sinister freak.


Big Metal Bird?

The first leg of my flight is internal, between two major US cities. The airline also serves international flights, with the following consequence: the screen on the back of the seat before me plays a safety briefing characterized by beach brollies, dragon dances, ‘copter shots of the Della Fiore Duomo and Yucatan temples. But almost everyone here is on some sort of commute. My single-serving stranger at the airport restaurant was enthusing to a colleague on the phone about how many of these things they were gonna sell, spreadsheets open on his laptop – and I was no different, De Libero Arbitrio scrolling across mine as I ate.

Successive American governments have built a labour-mobile economy that imposes vast travel demands on its white-collar workers. (It was the long-term goal of European federalists to make us waste hours in airports and on planes getting to work, too.) This change was never accidental or inevitable: economic history is not a process. Prioritizing growth over other goods is a choice.

If you want to make a deal or attend a conference, you must travel for a day; if you want to visit family, you can drive for three days or pay through the nose and still suffer through a flight.

The semiotic superstructure required to make this tolerable, to delude people into putting up with it instead of seeking less ‘productive’ local jobs which serve local people, is unmissable to a stranger raised in any of the empire’s semi-autonomous provinces in Europe.

Plane journeys which shuttle you from one conference centre to another are still dressed in the trappings of holiday-making. An endless parade of adverts insist that our winding walks on gun-grey travellators are the first step on an exciting adventure to a mysterious land of hewn-stone artefacts, curated by beaming natives, where we’ll stroke the space between our toes with soft sands, or glance our elbows across naked rock as we climb some mountain path.

Once safely ensconced in the belly of the aluminium dragon, a screen that cannot be turned off, that must be paid to display anything else, repeats the same bright relay. You can watch it ‘til your eyes ache, and you’re driven to switch off. Airports, their connecting tubes, and the once-flourishing human ecosystem in which they have embedded their parasitic probosces: I suspect we learn to love them, our heart and mind twisted like the victim of the Toxoplasma gondii. Or, we learn to render obedient our body’s rhythms; to switch off on take-off, to turn on again when stood before our powerpoint at the final (but never final) destination.

The dragon is the beast which our ancestors in predecessor societies feared the most; and the greatest act of heroism imaginable was to pierce it with one’s arrow, spear or sword. On this basis Lord Marduk ended the chthonic night of Tiamat and St George earnt his spurs.

We might forgive men still of free mind for doing nothing to resist the predation of the new dragons and succumbing to despair: the beasts now are built of metal, and fly far above the longbow’s range. We might suppose they’ll prey on us forever, forever ingest the free and egest the obedient, sending them to walk among us to name as sweet incense the choking smoke of their fire.

Or we might remind them that the egg that hatched those dragons hatched new weapons for their wielding, just as impressive an improvement on the sword and the spear as the aeroplane is on the earthquake, flood and forest fire. One day, they’ll learn to wield those weapons not against each other, but against the beasts.


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