Down The Tubes
Dark Musings on the State of American Culture
By Rick Raznikov
It's a Friday night, almost the end of another nightmarish American week, and
I'm thinking unacceptable thoughts. I wish I could get the Wisconsin - N.C. State game on television, that would
help, something arguably real to engage my attention. But I can't; CBS isn't
showing that out here in California land. We get, I don't know, Arizona or something.
Today for the third time this week somebody asked my opinion of the Terri Schiavo story. I can see why. It has all the elements of the "baby Jessica down the well" story, along with political, which is to say demagogic, overtones, what with the normally somnolent, not to mention criminally negligent Congress, rushing to enact emergency legislation and El Duce signing it, because we must stop the murder of this woman who's been in a coma for fifteen years or so. The media just slavers over this shit, wow, what a story! And the general public, which in recent polls has expressed the view that our government ought to censor what appears in the press and on television if it's in the national interest for us not to know, is all in a lather.
This culture, let's face it, is finally, totally in the crapper. There's nothing left. We seem as easily distracted from anything of significance -- an unstable national debt, for example, or the approaching collapse of the economy itself -- as an infant enthralled by a bright twirling object. We've got the appointment of laugh riots to positions of national importance, e.g. Paul Wolfowitz to head the World Bank, Alberto Gonzalez as Attorney General, Negroponte -- who was complicit in death squad murders in Honduras, among other achievements -- to run the national "security" apparatus. Today's sick joke was Bush's selection for the top job at the Fish and Wildlife Service one Matthew J. Hogan, formerly chief lobbyist for Safari Club International, a bunch of whackos who advocate killing rare species around the world. Sweet Jesus, I wish I were making this up.
But America does not care about these sorts of things, no. America cares about Terri Schiavo. America, almost certainly the most drugged nation in history, cares about whether athletes used steroids. America cares about the Scott Peterson trial, about who will be the next American Idol, about which celebrities are romancing which other celebrities. We do not care, not really, about the mass murder of a civilian population in some other corner of the world, about the "disappearance" of hundreds of dissidents in American custody, about torture as a national policy. We don't care about despoiling the Alaskan Wilderness Refuge, nor about unexploded land mines (most of them ours), nor about global warming. We care about Janet Jackson's left breast.
At the same time, there is a palpable ugliness on the streets, a vacant meanness I've never seen before, I mean, crazy drivers, sure, but now they're in gas-bloated SUVs, cell phones to their ears, mowing down pedestrians; now they're glued to the nutball talk shows and looking for trouble.
I'm old enough to remember 59 years in this country, which is fully 25% of my nation's history, and I can't recall a time when Americans seemed so universally, willfully ignorant and determined to remain that way. Most of us, according to recent polls, think that Saddam Hussein was in league with Osama bin Laden and involved in the attack on the World Trade Center. We think that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. We think that "illegal immigrants" are draining the economy. We think that throwing away the Bill of Rights is a good idea in order to keep us safe.
But never mind all of that. The real questions on our minds are: will Michael Jackson be acquitted? Will Brad Pitt get back together with whoever that is? Will we get to see Janet Jackson's other breast?
Jefferson wrote that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Manifestly it cannot be maintained with a straight face that Americans are willing to pay that price. We're tapped out at the moment, after the new Lexus and the plasma TV. We're waiting for liberty to be marked down. We're waiting for the next Memorial Day sale.
When I was a kid, I saw a magician saw a lady in half and was mightily impressed. I knew it was a trick, of course, a sleight of hand. The magician depended on distracting the audience while making the seemingly corporeal disappear.
In my adult years, I have observed what can happen when magicians go wrong: they become pitchmen for poisonous products, advertising hucksters, pickpockets and pols. The most talented among them, and arguably the most evil, become White House advisers, media moguls, and, these days, the Governor of California. The people they are cutting in half are real, but we don't notice. They are able to lift our wallets, or our spleens, for that matter, but if it's not on Fox, it didn't even happen. But hey! did you see the Oscars this year?
It's an interesting question, cause and effect. Theoretical physicists are working with new findings in quantum mechanics, trying to grasp something fundamental about the way the world operates. Einstein got us started, musing about what he termed "spooky effects at a distance," and now we don't know, not for sure, whether the temporal relationship among physical objects is anything more than coincidence. Likewise, whether the dumbing of America and the rise of American fascism are two legs of the same grotesque beast is not entirely clear. Perhaps one causes the other, perhaps not. The question will not be addressed by a chickenshit media. It will not be the subject of a special PBS documentary, nor of a "reality" TV series. We don't want to think about stuff like that. It makes our heads hurt. We've had a hard week.
Tomorrow morning's Chronicle will feature front-page stories about Terri Schiavo, the latest medical bulletins, the posturing obscenities of criminal hacks like Tom DeLay, and maybe even a pious editorial. If there's any room left over, I figure there'll be another snide story about Barry Bonds, who may or may not have wittingly or unwittingly used steroids, and has had the bad grace to be African American at the same time. On the inside pages, if we're lucky or it's a slow news days, will be the little pieces which hint at the rot in the national polity. Lethal mercury levels in the soil. Toxic substances permeating the food supply. A few more Iraqis dead while in custody. The appointment of another cretin to a position of high authority. But never mind, no else does, either.
So as we head into the first weekend of the spring, forget your troubles, forget America's troubles. It's not so bad. Next week there'll be another exciting story, another media frenzy, another huckstering to keep your mind off real life. Meanwhile, our nation's fate is in good hands. Karl Rove. Dick Cheney. Donald Rumsfeld. Don't worry about any of that. We're the USA! We've got more stuff than anybody. And we really care, too. Just ask Terri Schiavo. Uh, maybe not right now.