Nobody talks about it
out loud, but a few million Americans are seriously doubting their sanity these
days. Or having their sanity doubted. Or both. They seldom speak their minds
because what is going on in there is a vision of society that conjures grave
doubt, if not outright horror. It is the kind of stuff that will get your ass
kicked off the island in a heartbeat. Nobody wants to hear it.
Yesterday I was
gridlocked with my wife in traffic near the new mall, surrounded by cars full
of monsters. Every redneck face and bloated or coifed middle class head in
every vehicle was a grotesque, awful thing. In them you could see the meanest
kind of white man ignorance, or smug middle class obliviousness, the kind that
could care less if all the babies in Iraq were fried on spits in the Green Zone
of Baghdad, so long as their nails get done on Saturdays. (Ah, you�ve seen the
monsters too, haven�t you?) There was that fleshy, overweight killer ugliness
America seems to produce these day, the faces of a happy motoring people whose
armies hold the world at gunpoint so they can stuff down pizza and check out
this town�s newest mall. Underneath the ugliness, there's a festering mean streak
caused by frustration of knowing deep-down that government and commerce are
corrupt -- everybody knows this, but tolerates it for fear of losing their
bling. The choice was ever thus (Toqueville noted its beginnings) but now has
become a waking nightmare. One that brings up rage for some if us, rage that,
if expressed in the wrong places and too often will get me thrown into the
psyche ward if I tarry too much longer here in the land of the free.
�Lookie there,� I
told my wife, who was driving, �A fucking car wash right over the spot where
Nancy Hanks Lincoln�s mother was born! I remember when it was in a cornfield.
And all these zombies who don�t give a crap about the bloody sand and
sweatshops they create, just so they can buy a cheap skirt and drive cars worth
10 years of wages in most of the world through a goddamned car wash! If every
American died tomorrow, it is unarguable that the planet would be way more
sustainable for not having to feed their greed!� On the inside I was bawling
and screaming at the same time. I go off on these tirades increasingly these
days. It is not good.
I could see by my
wife�s face she was wondering if �getting Joe some help� was in order. Oh yes,
getting some help---which in America means calling the authorities, in this
case the psychiatric medical ones. Advanced technology and the skills of the
medical cadre of the super-state offer its citizens wondrous ways to reach out
to those in need of help. But it always comes down to prescribing drugs or
possibly of even being locked up �for your own good,� until your ideations are
And so it is that
many of us keep the rage inside as best we can, unwilling to destroy a job, or
a marriage. And there are many of us, judging from the emails I receive (see
www.joebageant.com), men and women alike, mostly over 40 with lots at stake,
who fear being judged unstable by the well intentioned folks around us who
never in their wildest thoughts would consider themselves good Germans. At any
rate, who wants to be seen as unbalanced at the very moment in our lives when
we unexpectedly find ourselves seeing Americans and America as they really are
(and may have always been) for the first time? Not that it required insight.
The sheer scale and pervasiveness of our national condition, plus decades of
exposure, made it so damned obvious we could no longer escape it.
me it gives rise to an alter ego I call THE SCREAMING MAN, who luckily for me,
only screams inside my head. I�ve come to learn lately that plenty of other
Americans have their own SCREAMING MAN and even see the same monsters I see in
the traffic. (A big thank you to the L.A. Times reporter who was the first to
tell me he saw the same creatures). The thought that so much of my readership
is comprised of such folks is worrisome at times.
Once the monsters
in the traffic reveal themselves, life can never be the same. We are left to go
about doing all the ordinary things we always did, but with the building
inexpressible moral outrage, living out our lives as rote actors in a theater
of iron. Inside the iron theatre---a place surrounded by high walls of
normalcy, where to discover a window to the outside is considered madness---the
majority has apparently learned their scripts too well. So we are left in
sitting in traffic jams to fester on our evil situation.
The great evils
both past and present---the American genocide against the red Indian, My Lai
and the uncounted others like it, Chairman Mao�s purges, the Israeli war crimes
against the Palestinians, the Muslim slaughter in Darfur, Bosnia, and most
notably the Holocaust---were not carried out by sociopaths, but by ordinary
people who believed in their states their leaders and their gods. The machinist
who made instruments for Nazi Germany felt no guilt. Nor does the anonymous
mailroom employee in the Department of Homeland Security. I make a living
editing military history magazines, thereby providing �pompous reaffirmations
of a great past amid present mediocrity and immediate disorder,� as Marguerite
Yourcenar put it. And right next door to my workplace Pakistani and Croatian
programmers design death dealing aircraft circuitry for Curtis Wright, yet
inside our florescent lit, air conditioned reality, there is not an ounce of
guilt, much less a sense of accountability. Our work feels unquestionably
ordinary, just as does the work of the traffic monsters, most of who work in
Washington DC or the beltway around it.
(Vertigo, a taste
of vomit in the throat, then . . . ) SCREAMING MAN HERE! AND I SAY FRY ALL THE
PORK-FACED PUD-PUMPERS WITHIN A HUNDRED MILE RADIUS OF DC! BULLDOZE THEIR
WINE-SOAKED CONDOS. RAZE THE BELTWAY AND SOW IT WITH DEPLETED URANIUM! WE NEED
A REAL KILLER ON THE JOB. WHERE THE HELL IS THAT MURDERING GODDAM NAZI JEW
SHARON WHEN YOU NEED HIM? GET ME MOKTADA AL-SADR ON THE PHONE!
Oprah, LSD and the Lycra Micro Jukebox
How did we become
so numb to the greatest moral issues of our time? Our time? Probably in human
history, considering the irrevocable destruction of our ecosystem. Especially
considering that 40 years ago they seemed to dominate the national arena . . . The
Vietnam War, civil rights . . . A hell of a lot of wrong choices built the
200-year long road to where we now find ourselves, and I must admit that my
generation did its share of the paving, laying down much of the roadbed during
the Sixties. Despite much talk since then about the Sixties fight for moral
justice, talk still easily launched by the pop of a chardonnay cork or the
appearance of The Grateful Dead at the local arena, nearly to a man or woman,
my generation, regardless of affluence, has traded principles for simple
materialism. Assuming of course, they had any identifiable principles, which
Perhaps it was only
part of this country�s ongoing struggle to accept successive waves of
immigration, but the Sixties saw a push toward openness toward diverse
viewpoints and values. There has always been great pressure on our social and
public institutions to be capable of accepting the diversity thronging at its
doors, a pressure yielded to only when it looks like things are about to blow
sky high: �OK niggers, you can ride in the front of the bus. Pssst! Jeeter, get
out the fire hoses and turn the dogs loose.� No institution is more pressed
than the educational system. �Aw now the Mexicans want bilingual education!,�
which has been handed the responsibility of building character by parents, and
charged by the state with creating obedient, functional citizens who can
multiply at least to the sixth power, are willing to file income tax forms, and
at least pretend they don�t smoke pot. We are talking bare minimum standards
here, although lately the multiplication standard has been dropped in favor of
a willingness to be subjected to surveillance and mass body cavity searches at
football games. In a nation where real education remains under suspicion by
both the devoutly religious right, and the all-but-antireligious left, it was
natural that school administrators and 10 million or so state teachers college
graduates---themselves products of the mediocrity characterizing our common
denominator approach to democracy and education---would arrive the
�morality-is-all-a-matter of opinion� solution. It was the only way out. And,
besides, from their standpoint, it looked true.
(Hissss . . . crackle
. . . can this truly be a signal through my fillings?)
AW, SHUT THE FUCK
UP BAGEANT! NO MORAL ISSUE EVER GOT "EXPLORED" IN THIS COUNTRY.
NEVER! THEY JUST GET EXPRESSED IN LOATHESOME SHORTHAND AT DISGUSTING LENGTH
BETWEEN G.O.P. CRETINS WHO, IN THEIR HALF-WITTED SELF-DELUSIONS BELIEVE THAT
RONALD REAGAN SHOOK HIS FIST AT THE BERLIN WALL AND ENDED THE COLD WAR . . . AND
FAGGOT DEMOCRATS, A MISERABLE LOT NOW FORCED TO PRETEND THEIR VOTES WILL EVER
GOING TO BE COUNTED AGAIN!
Godammit, I was
trying to establish rational discourse here. Now where was I? Oh yes. The
erosion of moral principles . . .
So we now we find
principles treated as mere opinion by most young people and their parents, call
it diversity tolerance overshoot, and any answers posed to the great questions
of our age neatly written off. Global warming? Just some scientists� opinion.
The unjustness of our wars? More opinion. Inequity in society? In whose
opinion? Wastefulness of our lifestyle? A matter of opinion.
Over the course of
two generations of this, a predictable thing happened. Because the first
generation avoided the questions, the second one never learned that they could
be asked. The atmosphere could not be riper for pure triumphant consumer
capitalism and its inherent militarism (Somebody has to clear the way for
Wal-Mart democracy.) If there are no overarching public moral or intellectual
questions, then the only remaining questions are material ones: Which is best?
The iPod or the RCA Lycra Micro Jukebox? Headphones, cell phones and polyphonic
ring tones, everyone is plugged into the white noise of pure commerce. It�s the
new �Turn on, tune in, and drop out.� I liked then old version better. Used
appropriately, LSD posed the great questions. And sometimes highlighted a few answers,
But it doesn�t take
a psychedelic experience to pursue the kind of truth inherent to fleshly human
existence, the kind that seeks justice from within our bones. In fact, it takes
effort to avoid it. I�ve never seen a culture or human being that did not have
an inherent sense of justice, an innate desire for balance. Most consider this
to be the spiritual side of man, if they consider it at all. Most do not. A
huge portion of the world is commodity addicted, while another portion is
simply looking for a warm dry spot in which to shit or lay down and die. There
is not much room for contemplation of the finer points of existence in either
instance. Whatever the case, the American lack of even minimal spiritual
observance inducted us into the Empire�s cast of featureless players inside the
iron theater. Nobody needs answers to meaningful questions that are never
asked, or dare not be asked.
Some days however,
change does seem to be afoot, as it certainly must be, given that change is the
world�s only constant. A majority of Americas now disapprove of the war in
Iraq. Just three years ago when I started writing from this town�s taverns and
churches, working people therein absolutely loved George Bush. Now they have
returned to their normal state of political apathy, seldom speaking of Bush,
but with one difference---they no longer approve of his war, and express
disapproval generally in the form of grumbling. They grumble because television
has given them permission to do so, through its constant touting of polling
results expressing �dissatisfaction� with the war. Being �dissatisfied� with
something, a war in this case, is more in accordance with their programming as
consumers, not citizens. They will never get permission to be really pissed
off, much less pissed off enough to burn anything down.
Television polls never specifically count the outraged and the heartbroken,
thus reducing our deepest emotions, once more, to mere opinion in another
opinion poll. Outrage is impermissible, except for the pretend outrage of
Crossfire, etc, which has entertainment value, thus profitability. Which is why
the majority of Americans know little about Cindy Sheehan. Sorry to say that
here in lefty blogdom, but it�s true. Cindy Sheehan has never been on Oprah.
When and if Sheehan
ever is on Oprah, we will know we have won regarding the war in Iraq. We will
have won if your standard for victory is acknowledgment by the high priestess
of emotional vapidity and Barnes and Noble sales, talked to by a woman who uses
her child rape as a credential. In her particular celebrity delusion, she
considers herself the emotional caretaker of the nation, the Martha Stewart of
the soul. Lusting for proximity of your cause to celebrity may be a gratifying
short-term antidote, but lusting for universal justice is the ultimate cure.
But even assuming
getting within four feet of Oprah Winfrey constitutes victory, we will have won
far too late for the already dead on both sides. Vietnam proved that the
Empire�s wars are easier to stop than the overall trajectory of national hubris
and folly. Winning is stopping wars before they start, or creating a society
wherein war is the last resort, not a casual preemptive option. As for the
growing rejection of the war, copping to the obvious in the face of defeat,
then claiming moral high ground after we have scorched it and everyone on it,
well, that�s no victory at all.
Which leaves me
here to fester on celebrity and moral victory under the looming possibility of
forced medication by the state. Hmmmm. . . .
Where the hell are you Aldous Huxley?
So are they gonna
medicate me and you or what? Surely I must have some time left before that
happens. And if they don�t, then I�ll have to do it myself anyway. You cannot
win in the Iron Theater. What its producers and directors want to happen is
destined to happen. They are always in control. And when it comes to control,
you can�t beat the good ole US pharmaceutical industry, which has clearly met
the challenge of adult rage and despair, and is now doping down the kids before
they even hit puberty. Over the past six years mental health drugs prescribed
to children have jumped 550%.
Recently the NFC
(New Freedom Commission on Mental Health) recommended the mandatory mental
health screening for 100% of America�s school children and drug treatment for
all children �judged to in need of drugs.� Hell, every kid in the whole damned
country needs drugs, if only to face their future in the global gulag being
constructed for them.
you saw it coming, didn�t you? But I don�t think it will be nearly as much fun
as your grim vision. You held out the possibility of science perfecting bread
and circuses�Soma. Now THAT was an idea, bud! Three brands of pharmacological
reality: Technicolor Soma a pleasant hallucinogen; Soma medium, a Valium-like
tranquilizer; and El Crusho black gold, the heavy sleeping pill. And for the
rugged freedom-loving individualist, you offered those tropical islands
offshore. There was really nothing coercive about it all. If the corpocracy had
listened to you Hux, about how to do oppression the right way, I�d be curled up
in the lap of Halliburton right now, gurgling happily. I have nothing against
state-controlled euphoria if they don�t skimp on the euphies. By the way Hux, can
I do the Technicolor on the Island? Or will I be kicked off that one too?
Anyway, we seem to
be truly dicked now. Man the machine making monkey is so proud of the machines
he has created he now pushes toward the machining of human nature itself. Why
not? It was always so damned unpredictable. So yes, by dammit, let�s do�er! Let
the scientific and economic machinery we have created remake us in its own
likeness. Let there be technology without wisdom and efficiency without human
benefit. Let there be one blissful nation of highly medicated sleepwalkers in a
scientific hell that, if you get doped up enough, feels like paradise.
A visitation from Diogenes and Stonewall Jackson
So what about that
rage, huh? My own personal experiences tell me that, being part of human
nature, it�s also unpredictable stuff. Tonight I went to a dinner party given
by a freedom-hearted couple, the female half of which is probably the most
intellectually courageous woman in town. I can�t know that with certainty
because even the most liberal people in this Southern burgh would never dare to
invite me to dinner. Word has gotten around.
Two hours into the
dinner party, I did a bad thing. I called a nice-enough but gutless, apolitical
guest, �one more ignorant motherfucking American wanting respect for his
self-imposed blindness,� adding that �Everything is not just an opinion, you
know.� My good wife stood horrified. (Yes, there was alcohol involved.) Now, I
know I am not the judge of that man�s days, and that he has the right to his
opinion or non-opinion. But some days I cannot find even the dinner party
pretense of respect for American denial, and this was one of those days.
By way of
rationalization, I tell myself that if Diogenes of Sinope could live under a
tub and take shots at the entire Greek world, then I am entitled to a snootful
and an occasional outburst, despite the disparity between my talents and the
long dead old Greek�s. It�s either that, or the deer rifle and water tower
solution. Or the cheap online polemics you are now suffering. All of which is
more bullshit, but it is the best I can do at the moment to rationalize bad
It is 11 pm, after
the dinner party, and I sit in this muggy summer darkness on a bench in front
of the Stonewall Jackson Headquarters Museum, located right behind my house.
sat on his horse and sucked on lemons while he calmly managed the slaughter of
thousands. I should probably take up lemons instead of gin. But at least I am
guilty of mere stupidity, not slaughter. Tomorrow I will repent. Maybe. Depends
upon whether anyone with legal authority finally decides I need help.
Meanwhile, any kind of resistance, even the stupidest sort waged against fools,
gives relief on a hot night inside the iron theater.
This anger will all
come out in the morning as prose. Most likely, bad prose. (It did and you are
reading it now.) But at least it will be out. Hell, there is only the world at
stake.*For Al Aronowitz, �The Blacklisted Journalist,� (1928-2005). A friend
and mentor in art.
Copyright � 2006 Joe Bageant
Bageant is the author of a
forthcoming book," Deer
Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America�s Class War," from Random House Crown, about working class
America, scheduled for spring 2007 release. A complete archive of his online
work, along with the thoughts of many working Americans on the subject of class
may be found at joebageant.com. Feel free to contact him at email@example.com.