Counter to stereotype, most Americans are quite civil in person. They consider the comfort of others, readily say "excuse me" or "I'm sorry," stand in straight lines, try not to offend those around them. It's more than just the Capitalist strategy of pleasing all customers, ingrained from one's first job at a fast food joint, "Have a great day! Come back again. Do you want to supersize that?" American civility is inculcated in the home, at the dinner table, don't chew with your mouth open, etc., but the operative phrase is "in person." Given the anonymity of an online persona or the quick escape, protective armor of a car, preferably a militarized SUV, American civility can quickly unravel.
Road rage is all-too-common and abusive comments run rampant on the web. Before the widespread use of the internet, a decade and a half ago, Americans didn't have such a ready, anonymous outlet to vent their anger. Normally, one hesitates before calling someone an idiot or a coward face to face, at a bar, for example, not merely out of civility but because a crisp right cross might crashes against one's eyeball, but online, there are no corresponding restraints. Freed from the burden of having a name, face and personal history, one can rail against strangers, flirt with children and do pretty much whatever. Even when a real name is used, there’s still enough safety and privacy to unleash one's secret desires and demons.
We're constantly thwarted from life itself, since all media are mediated, and what connects also separates. The seductive screens we’re addicted to keep us isolated, unsocialized and removed from whoever’s sleeping a wall or a floor away. Reduced to pure minds, we may yet realize that the body, without mouthwash and deodorant, is not such a bad buffer after all. Phone sex isn't a long-term solution. Tila Tequila isn't all that, put your discount family jewels away. She needs a spine specialist, them headlights are fake. Cars and ipods are yet more emblems of our isolation. Glimpsed through a windshield, life comes at us with the unreality and speed of television, that ultimate control freak.
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Zombie machine, electronic pacifier, the boob tube is at the heart of American relaxation and good times. Americans sit in bars not to talk but to be fixated by a whole bank of televisions, showing half a dozen sporting events in different time zones. They go to ballparks to gaze at the Jumbotron, then home to study TV highlights of what they've missed at the games. As for family entertainment, Americans gorge on a diet of kitschy, feel-good stories interspersed by sadism, a normal American pastime by now, bubbling up from the subconscious, complete with nooses and feces, trickling down from the executive level.
Passively watching, Americans feel no complicity enjoying scenes of staged yet real degradation, in witnessing an endless parade of people being screamed at (Hell's Kitchen), punched, kicked and kneed into a bloody mess (Ultimate Fighting) or eating cockroaches and maggots (Fear Factor). The Toyota, Froot Loops, Coke and male-enhancement commercials, interlarded between these vile, entertaining scenes, reassure viewers that they're still safely within the mainstream, that they're still God-fearing, patriotic, baseball-loving Americans. The cheeky rudeness of the Gong Show are now super quaint by comparison.
In this TV environment, natural disasters and wars are also entertainment, to be enjoyed with a Bud and a tub of Dorritos, with Abu Ghraib an even more thrilling version of Fear Factor. It's true that people have always rejoiced at each other's misfortunes, and nothing is more cathartic, fun and funny than someone else's death--one even feels slightly taller in the presence of a corpse, Elias Cannetti has written--but our appetite for death porn is being whipped into a frenzy by an endless orgy of destruction, all with the aim of selling us a few more bags of Cheetos. Asian tsunami, San Diego fires or Katrina disgrace, they're all cool to watch, dude. Chill, everybody else is into the same shit.
Radio, on the other hand, has long been populated by a truly creepy fraternity of adolescent men, so-called shock jocks, who earn their market shares by spewing boorish, crass, racist, sexist, homophobic and genocidal opinions. The audiences for these borderline psychopathic losers are just as charming. It's such the norm, no one remembers that it only started with Howard Stern in 1981. Rush Limbaugh, a pill-popping lout, became so popular, Monday Night Football hired him to be a commentator.
Capitalism is predicated on growth, its profits dependent on increasing demands for everything. Desire has to be stoked, all addictions encouraged. As every pusher knows, junkies make the best customers. Five hundred TV channels and 162 baseball games a year are not enough, nothing is enough. Through BabyFirstTV, even infants are being conditioned to seeing everything and getting nothing, so they can spend the rest of their life lusting after merchandises material, psychological, spiritual and pharmaceutical, so they can become good consumers. "Mom is boring, give me more teletubbies!" By the time these pavlovian babes get into a classroom, a flesh-and-bone teacher, talking at normal speed, coughing and yawning every so often, cannot compete with the sped-up special effects and cool graphics they've come to expect from life, albeit a virtual one, the only one most of us have. Get a virtual life, dude!
Numbed by all the fleshy and opulent come-ons, eternally frustrated and restless, many Americans cannot even be sated with an open-ended snuff show that’s Iraq, now in its fifth season. Many are clamoring for a sequel in Iran, so they can channel surf between a Kobe slam dunk, nuclear war and American Idol.
Some of these pissed off zombies are suicidal, brainwashed or broke enough to enlist in the military, the ultimate depersonalizing apparatus. Before a man will obey orders to kill or be killed, he must be broken down. When every able body is drafted--a never-achieved, Utopian ideal--the moral risks of war are spread evenly. At its best, an army is a necessary evil, used as a last resort, but at its worst, it becomes a professional tool, corporate and mercenary. It will go anywhere to fight anyone, without asking too many questions. It will consent to be stationed in at least 702 bases in roughly 130 foreign countries, as long as the bottom line, personal or corporate, is agreeable. Sounds familiar?
Linh Dinh is the author of four books of poems and two collections of stories, including Blood and Soap, which was one of The Village Voice’s Best Books of 2004. A novel, Love Like Hate, will be released in the Spring of 2008. He maintains a regularly updated blog, Detainees.
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