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The Lonely American

Posted on Jun 28, 2015

By Chris Hedges

  Sandy Johal uses a selfie stick to take a picture of herself in New York’s Times Square in January.  (Seth Wenig / AP)

Michael P. Printup, president of Watkins Glen International, one of the country’s largest racetracks, stood with a group of about a dozen race fans at 8:30 a.m. Saturday. Next to him were boxes of free doughnuts and coffee. A line of men with towels, who had spent the night in nearby RV campers, pop-up campers and tents, stood patiently outside the door to a shower room. A light drizzle, one that would turn into a torrential downpour and lead to the races being canceled in the afternoon, coated the group, all middle-aged or older white men. They were discussing, amid the high-pitched whine of cars practicing on the 3.4-mile, 11-turn circuit racetrack, the aging demographic of race fans and the inability to lure a new generation to the sport.

“Maybe if you installed chargers for phones around the track they would come,” suggested one gray-haired man.

But it is not just sporting events. Public lectures, church services, labor unions, Veterans of Foreign Wars halls, Masonic halls, Rotary clubs, the Knights of Columbus, the Lions Club, Grange Hall meetings, the League of Women Voters, Daughters of the American Revolution, local historical societies, town halls, bowling leagues, bridge clubs, movie theater attendance (at a 20-year low), advocacy groups such as the NAACP and professional and amateur theatrical and musical performances cater to a dwindling and graying population. No one is coming through the door to take the place of the old members. A generation has fallen down the rabbit hole of electronic hallucinations—with images often dominated by violence and pornography. They have become, in the words of the philosopher Hannah Arendt, “atomized,” sucked alone into systems of information and entertainment that cater to America’s prurient fascination with the tawdry, the cruel and the deadening cult of the self.

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The entrapment in a world of nonstop electronic sounds and images, begun with the phonograph and radio, advanced by cinema and television and perfected by video games, the Internet and hand-held devices, is making it impossible to build relationships and structures that are vital for civic engagement and resistance to corporate power. We have been transformed into commodities. The steady decline of the white male heaven that is NASCAR—which has stopped publishing the falling attendance at its tracks and at some speedways has begun to tear down bleachers—is ominous. It is the symbol of a captive society.

“We don’t see the youth coming in,” Printup said. “The millennial, the younger adults 18 to 35, is our target. We spend millions of dollars a year to target that group. But it’s hard. Look around. Who’s the youngest person here? That’s our problem. Every sport from the NFL to NHL is struggling with the 18 to 35 demographic. They call them weird. They call them difficult. They only want to look at their computers.”

Printup’s parent company, the International Speedway Corp. (ISC), has invested significant sums to reach this demographic with little to show for it.

“We have a digital firm that represents nearly all our tracks in the ISC,” he went on, noting that Watkins Glen, which drew about 16,000 fans this past weekend, is one of the few exceptions to the decline in numbers. “The digital platform is about the only way you can get to them. We target them. We buy lists. We hire an agency that tracks their Web and Internet interactions. If they bring up racing, we want to be there. When a kid Googles ‘Ferrari—racing—sports car’ we are one of the top 10 lists. We pay for that. It is not cheap. That’s how you have got to get these kids. But it’s not working the way it should.”

Robert D. Putnam pointed out the decline of independent civic engagement, or what he called our “social capital,” in his book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” He noted that our severance from local communal and civic groups brought with it not only loneliness and alienation, but also a dangerous and passive reliance on the state.


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