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 cpitalist 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 crash 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 hot, 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.
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
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 is
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 Doritos, 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 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 tsunamis, 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, the 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 by now; 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, it profits dependent on
increasing demand 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 now being conditioned to seeing
everything, getting nothing, so they can spend the rest of their lives lusting
after all merchandise, 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-bones 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. Sound 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.