The situation is so dire in some neighborhoods of Detroit that it's hard to believe that you're still in the world's strongest superpower, which continues to pump billions of dollars into foreign aid each year. In the semi-abandoned downtown area of Detroit, men gather at intersections, concealing the bottles of beer they're carrying in brown paper bags but unable to hide their swagger. Uninspired graffiti covers the crumbling walls of historic buildings and dubious bars tucked beneath skyscrapers, some of which are completely empty.
No less telling of how bad things have become are signs put up on stores reading "we don't accept food stamps."
In the suburbs, on a cracked concrete wall, a sign reads: "This is a kindergarten, please don't steal from them." Last year unemployment here reached 7.5 percent. This year Michigan reached 9.3 percent, and it tied with Rhode Island for highest unemployment in the U.S. Residents of trailer parks in America say it's cheaper staying there then buying or renting a house.
Michigan's problems in general and Detroit's in particular did not begin with the current crisis. The steady process of the abandonment of entire neighborhoods has been going on for years. The proportion of poor minorities in Detroit has been rising, its affluent citizens continue to abandon their houses despite their palatial features. Thousands of these empty houses create a grim cityscape of urban decay.
Detroit is one of the most extreme examples of urban atrophy among rust belt cities, but other cities have also experienced a halt in construction. Signs announcing the closure of stores have put a damper on Christmas spirits. The drop in consumption is sharper than most predictions. Sales of Spam as a substitute for fresh meat have skyrocketed. One occasionally meets people who plan to grow vegetables, perhaps even raise poultry, in their backyards. As people are forced to travel less despite the drop in gas prices, it seems America has become a little bit greener despite itself.
Things, then, are not very good these days. Anyone who's seen an American shed a tear while singing the national anthem or send a package to soldiers overseas will not doubt the sincerity of local patriotism. But there is a growing gap between the slogans and symbols, and citizens' ability to identify with the state. U.S. corporations may expand all over the world, sparking local protests about the threat to national identity, but basic consumer interests can also undermine the American identity.
Things are difficult for Americans not only because the world used to talk about American freedom and now dwells on American hypocrisy, American aggression or American narrow-mindedness, but also because even shopping at the supermarket can pose new problems. President-elect Barack Obama called on Americans to buy local products, but it's not that simple. It's nice, and sometimes even environmentally friendly, to buy fruit produced by local farmers. Until, that is, you compare the prices of homegrown bananas to those imported from South America. When people on the street are asked to name their favorite American products, many of them become confused and start to wonder whether Levis, Gap and other items are still made in America. One person queried pulled out his new iPhone and declared: "This was invented in California." He looked at the back of the device and read out disappointedly: "Made in China."
Local pride increases on the subject of U.S. cars. The claim that "we make the best cars in the world" is still heard in Michigan, the Automotive State, but it's mostly made by senior managers at car companies. A senior employee at General Motors' plant in Flint admits: "Nowadays everyone makes good cars."
America's belief in reinventing itself is reinforced at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, where hundreds of examples of ingenuity and creativity are on display. But when one reaches the inevitable souvenir shop and examines a salt shaker styled in kitschy '70s fashion and emblazoned with an all-American logo, you find a "Made in China" label underneath it. It isn't sure what lies in store for the Automotive Hall of Fame, given that Ford's first hybrid came out four years after Toyota's Prius first hit the markets and Ford's second hybrid is due out only next year.
The bankruptcy of the major automotive companies seems like a nightmare scenario not only because it will put 3 million Americans out of work, but also because of the damage to U.S. morale. Some of the debate has touched upon the conflict between national interests and those of the market with a few people asking why the state should bail out failed companies. A senior official at the Michigan industrialists union has another explanation for why they should be spared and globalization limited. "During World War II many car factories were converted to make military vehicles," he said. "If the big three car companies go bankrupt and, heaven forbid, a catastrophe occurs, what will we do? Go to the Chinese and ask them politely to lend us their factories?"
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