Monday, December 1, 2014

Can I still talk about Bryson?

Well, after mistakenly preparing my Kalman presentation for two weeks ago, neglecting to read the Bryson, and then missing that presentation last week due to an injury, I’m struggling to get on top of things again. I enjoyed listening to the class’s commentary on I’m a Stranger Here Myself, and I thought a lot about some of the more notable points as I was reading it. I had read some Bryson before and remember his penchant for didactic statements and suspicious statistics. For the most part, I didn’t mind that Bryson had criticisms about American society, culture and politics. What makes him come off as a curmudgeon, however, is that his critiques don’t appear to have a particular target. He mostly just chalks up large sociopolitical trends to American “culture” and moans that things are going the way they are A few of you pointed out that Bryson believes what are actually global, modern trends. For example, I think he’s getting at something really important in “Inefficiency Report” when he talks about the way food is handled by the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. There’s something to be said about the dangers of industrialized agriculture and the mass production of food. Although it’s certainly a problem in the United States, these processes really are part and parcel of the globalized marketplace. He even hints at the dangers of privatization when he mentions that the Federal Aviation Administration has resorted to contracting its landing services. However, Bryson never really connects the dots in the end, making only some sly reference to turkey burgers and food contamination.

This happens again in the very next essay, “Why No One Walks.” He’s got all the statistics to make a good argument: that the average American “walks less than 75 miles a year,” that the United States spends less than 1 percent of its highway budget on “facilities for pedestrians,” and so on and so forth. As someone who likes living within walking distance from essential amenities, I agree with Bryson and I share his disappointment that so much of American infrastructure is automobile-centric. But where he could go on to talk about the economic forces behind these incongruities in the system, he again lays the blame on American culture or “people these days” or something like that. Overall, I think Bryson has a really strong voice and a great sense of humor. I just wish he would let go of this fascination with cultural peculiarities and recognize the larger powers that be.

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