Three wishes for America
🧞🧞🧞 If I could have three wishes for America, they would be these: 🏩 widespread group living, 🚚 suburban revitalization modeled after Renaissance Florence and 🥾 a program for sending teenagers en masse into the woods for a month when they are about 15 years old.
What about inequality, you might say? The war state? Conservation? Racism? Climate change? Health care? All these other big global problems?
To me those things seem like intractable problems until a deeper underlying problem gets addressed: the lack of a common American identity and feeling of commonality with each other.
These are ideas that I have been gestating for years now but I’ve never conceptualized them as my three wishes until this morning really, when I woke up earlier than I really should have and found myself thinking about three wishes for America 🗽. I had gone to sleep thinking about the need for a new American narrative after watching the first three parts of Adam Curtis’s epic new documentary (or essay-in-film) Can’t Get You Outta My Head.
He’d also been on the Red Scare podcast talking about it, though I had only listened to about a third of it when I decided to just watch the film. I guess there are actually six parts and the last one is very long, but it was 11 PM and I was exhausted and had written I think 15 pages of notes in my notebook already so it was time to crash.
Behind these wishes is this idea: If the citizenry’s fear and alienation of each other could be chipped away, I suspect a lot of other things would fall into place.
So here’s a bit more on my three ideas:
🌲🔥🌳 Sending teenagers one time into the woods for just long enough
Say, between sophomore and junior year, as many able-bodied teenagers as humanly possible would be allocated to groups that were widely diverse and divergent by class, race, geography and aptitude. Kids from deep in the inner city. Wealthy kids. Lots of middle class kids. Put into clusterfucks of groups. I want them to go through hell. A real shit experience. I want them to feel danger and hunger and exhaustion.
A few would die every year. Several more would get pretty badly injured. That’s all right. It’s worth it. There needs to be risk. Americans need thicker skins.
Our culture has become too soft. Very few people go through real adversity. Further, they don’t go through adversity alongside strangers. If the vast majority of young people went through a miserable month together, alongside people who were nothing like them, it would forge a commonality in the country. It would be a thing everyone has done.
From that point on, every American of that age and younger would have something to talk about.
Of course you wouldn’t be able to send everyone, but even 80% would likely be enough. If it started small with several thousand that would be powerful.
Robert Heinlein used to argue that military service should be mandatory for everyone and I see his point, but the truth is there just isn’t a lot of wars any more. Also it would be lovely to de-militarize American’s outlook.
Instead kids should be sent out to wander through the woods with a guide for a month. They should be made to do hard work creating more forest for other kids to wander through. They should be made to find some of their own food.
They should cry their fucking eyes out and want to go home. So much so that when they do go home they feel changed.
This is the wish I want the most.
🏡🚗🏛️ Suburban revitalization modeled after Florence
I’m not going to lie, this stance is largely driven by one YouTube video, but convince me it’s wrong about cities:
This video covers a lot (and it is all worth watching), but starting around the 7 minute mark it talks about urban planning. This idea of squares that all homes should be built around is pretty sweet. I’d swap out an oak tree in a nice green circle for the fountain, but otherwise this sounds like a way to rebuild much of America.
The idea here is that cities should resist the inclination to public squalor and private opulence. America is well on the way there! Few places here (New York is among them) have anything like proper public opulence. We should have public opulence.
The idea here would be to take wildly decaying places and work with the community to shuffle them around in the short term so that spaces can be rebuilt for the long term using a design that imitated Florence. It would not be American at all. That’s the point.
Crucially, I’m not recommending anything like the 20th Century “slum clearance” and I don’t want people to be relocated out of their communities. The idea would be to have the public sector work with people and offer this trade: Let us put you up somewhere else nearby for a year or two and when you come back you’ll have a place that’s twice as nice as you had before near where you used to live and, crucially, near the people you used to live by.
Because there would be more density, though, there would be lots of empty homes that could sell at market rates alongside the folks who used to live there. This would help mitigate the costs and mix people up. All to the good.
There’s many urban and suburban places that need to shift to greater concentration. Detroit is a case in point. It has too much land for too few people. I suspect many of the inner ring suburbs around places like St. Louis and Philadelphia are the same.
Honestly, I’d be happy to do this with literally any suburb, but it seems like it would be easier in places that have a lot of empty lots. I grew up in a place where every family had their own house and their own yard and it was more trouble than it was worth.
Redesign places so that people’s homes are on large open, communal squares with covered walkways at the ring. There’s also large public spaces that are very beautiful that everyone wants to hang out in. Big squares and walking only commercial districts.
Not only will this be a nicer way for people to live but also they will interact with each other more, and this builds social bridges 🤝.
For more on this topic from the same source, check this out (but I like the video above more, overall):
👵🌆👴 Widespread group living
The imperative to be part of a couple makes people miserable.
There’s a cohort of men, in particular, who are just never ever going to find love. You can show that with math. I’m not going to spell it out for you but if you think about it long enough it’s obvious. It’s the simplest arithmetic.
There’s also some women who fall in that camp too because the world is weird.
Let’s not get bogged down in gender stuff. There are reasons to want to eschew the imperative to couple up that have nothing to do with sexual frustration.
Even among the people who find someone it’s pretty clear that a good number of those would be better off lovelorn. So many couplings are completely miserable, the trouble is there is no easy escape. People just aren’t wired to live alone (mostly — this guy is but I’m strange). But what alternative do they really have?
Of course people can live with roommates but by and large roommates are somehow more alienating than living alone.
No, we need arrangements where people are living in groups intentionally. Well, and, to be fair: this is happening. It’s just not widespread enough to be mainstream. It needs to be a clear and present alternative for folks.
Not to come off as a giant School of Life fanboy here, but there’s another video by them that also makes this point in a compelling way. Don’t be put off by the title: it’s not about a sexless life. It’s about domestic arrangements.
I firmly believe that if there were a lot of group homes that people could live in over the long term there would also be fewer miserable marriages, less domestic violence and less divorce. If people had a domestic, non-lonely backup plan to marriage, they could be more careful about getting married.
Some of them wouldn’t get married at all, which would also lower the birth rate, which also wouldn’t be terrible.
The reason I used the older people emoji in the heading above is because that seems like a natural place to start. Imagine if there were buildings that hosted 15 to 20 seniors, with one big group living space a few smaller hangout rooms. Each room would have its own small senior ready bathroom and bedroom and a little receiving room.
But mostly people would live in the group spaces. The key thing is these would be younger seniors, and they would mostly do for themselves, but communally. Sharing the work would keep them young.
By sharing expenses they could also collectivize long-term care insurance in a good way. It would also really help with the epidemic of loneliness among seniors.
You’d need to have spaces that seniors could reserve that families could come visit them in semi-private. This might be a secret boon to grandmas and grandpas. “Oh sorry guys I could only get 2 hours in the common space! So sad you all couldn’t stay longer.”
Ha, ha, ha.
But I honestly bet that seniors would have better outcomes in such a situation. I know my hometown has a donut shop where all the old men gather. Seems like they could have better health results bullshitting somewhere else.
But beyond seniors I think such setups would also be great for single men, single parents and young people trying to get started in expensive parts of the country on limited means. There’s a lot of advantages to communal living, especially for creative and entrepreneurial types.
In a nation with an acute housing shortage, it makes no sense that we are wasting millions of square feet on kitchens that people seldom or never use.
The real issue here though is dignity. There is no dignified way to live in this country without an intimate partner. That’s crazy. In another era, religious communities gave people who marched to a different beat a place to go when coupling up didn’t work. Now, living alone is the life of the sad person. It should not be.
So! Those are my three wishes. Does anyone know a genie?
They all actually seem tractable. Their benefits would reach well across class lines so they wouldn’t engender resentment. I believe they would do a lot to stem the political divide and engender the lost feeling that we are, in fact, all in this together.