One of the
best things about the hundred or so book festivals in America is that, with
luck, a writer can manage to get drunk with some of his or her readers. And with
more luck, the readers pick up the tab. Bear in mind that 90% of all real
writers, people for whom writing is their sole income, spend much of their time
counting their change in the rest room of the hotels where they are being put
up while on tour. Believe me, there are better rackets than writing.
So here I am at the Virginia Festival of the Book copping a
smoke on the back dining patio of the Omni Hotel in Charlottesville with one of
my readers -- a somewhat elegant sixty-plus blonde who runs a small public
library financial support group down in ancient marshy Northumberland County,
Virginia. Created in 1648, it is the area James A. Michener wrote about in Chesapeake,
and a place where, she tells me, periwinkles planted three hundred years
ago on the graves of slaves still bloom. My wife, a historical librarian doing
colonial African-American research, tells me these periwinkle marked slave
graves can be found throughout Virginia.
Immensely energetic and a lifelong activist for literacy and
informed thought, this cigarette voiced Northumberland librarian has built the
county's new little library, and even managed to coax enough money out of the
local government for two employees,. In a county with a population of 12,000,
that's no small political feat.
At the moment though, politically speaking, the
Obama-Hillary dirt fight is in full fury, so I asked the obligatory question of
the week, "Who will you vote for?"
"Oh, Obama, I guess. It's so hard to get excited over
the elections. Lately I've been just plain depressed," she said.
"Oh just everything. It seems to have become so
pointless in America, as if we are entering a Dark Age. I've come to wonder why
I do anything at all."
On that melancholy note, we return to the lounge to join my
wife for that last drink. The next one always of course being the "last
one," in the early stages of these situations, before all pretense is
dropped and people start taking off their clothes or falling off those infernal
high stools that replaced good old fashioned chairs -- the kind where your feet
reach the floor at all times and with arms you could grip if the room starts
Over the past couple of years I've had hundreds of
encounters with reading Americans -- and by encounters I mean conversations,
not falling off chairs -- which is to say book loving, thinking people like the
Northumberland librarian, people of every stripe. They have ranged from the
good ole boy Texas electrician who took me to a real smoke choked
pool-table-and-concrete-floor joint to professors of literature and Washington
policy wonks who actually use the little red cocktail napkin that accompanies
During this period I have noticed a change in the nature of
discussion with these previously unmet readers. Four years ago, much of it
centered on the outrageousness of the Bush administration, the stomach turning
criminality of the Iraq War, Cheney The Fanged Man of Wax, with a little rage
at our planetary ecocide thrown into the mix. In other words, about what you
might expect from a baby roasting alien commie readership such as mine, made up
of such folks as school teachers, union members, sociology profs and other
congenital malcontents, the sort of people who resent things like student strip
searches in public high schools (HR 5295, The Student Teacher Safety Act of
2006, which, to its credit, at least bans cavity searches by faculty. You gotta
be a cop to do that in our public schools) and other subversive types.
Lately though, I don't hear so much outrage. In fact, the
readers seem to be suffering from what someone aptly called "rage
fatigue." Which is another way of saying the bastards have simply worn us
out. And it's true.
I am not kidding when I say rage fatigue victims have fallen
into an ongoing mid-level depression. (Looks to me like the whole country has,
but then I'm no mental health expert.) The less depressed victims can be found
lurking near the edges of the Obama cult, consoling themselves that a soothing
and/or charismatic orator is better than nothing. Obama may yet be borne
through the White House portico by a Democratic host of seraphim, but he cannot
do much without the consent of a bought and paid for Congress. Only George Bush
can do that, and we can only hope God broke the mold after he made George. And
like whoever else wins the presidency, Obama can never acknowledge any
significant truth, such as that the nation is waaaaay beyond being just broke,
and is even a net debtor nation to Mexico, or that the greatest touch-me-not in
the U.S. political flower garden, the "American lifestyle," is toast.
But then, we really do not expect political truth, but rather entertainment in
a system where, as Frank Zappa said, politics is merely "the entertainment
branch of industry."
Still, millions of Americans do grasp at The Audacity of
Hope, a meaningless marketing
slogan of the publishing industry if ever there was one. At least it has the
word Audacity in it, something millions of folks are having trouble conjuring
up the least shred of these days. And there is good old fashioned
"Hope" of course -- that murky, undefined belief that some unknown
force or magical unseen power will reverse the national condition -- will
deliver us from what every bit of evidence indicates is irreversible, if not
politically, then economically and ecologically: Collapse.
Compounding everything is the fact that it is quite human
and even pragmatic to passively accept reality as it is. Until it's too late to
do anything. As my late friend Virgil, the philosophical backhoe operator,
summed it up: "If we fucked everything up so bad tryin' to do our best,
maybe we oughtta just leave'er be for a while. Quit thinking about it so
More Band-Aids for the trained chickens, please!
Virgil may be popping open a Keystone Light lager somewhere
in heaven, or in maybe a much warmer venue. I dunno. But people are thinking
about it more than ever. Among sentient people everywhere there is a deep,
visceral unease, and among those most aware there is genuinely acute suffering.
I hear this expressed quite articulately not only in places such as this Omni
Hotel "writers' lounge," but in working and middle class living rooms
and in emails from Americans and around the world.
Naturally, the bunny and cupcake set of Americans are still
oblivious, or at least pretend to be, but even at the more inchoate and private
level, there is a growing awareness that things are going very wrong, and doing
so on an incomprehensively massive and complex scale. There is the feeling that
even if what is happening could be made comprehensible to the majority of
humanity, to all those people just trying to keep afloat on the planet, from
Zimbabwe to Flint, Michigan, overall it is unstoppable. Unfixable except in the
fleeting media/politics Band-Aid sense, and then only in locales rich enough to
afford the illusionary Band-Aid fixes politicians dream up when they write
their campaign "plans for change."
All of which is horseshit, of course, since real change
would entail undoing most of the machinery of planetary destruction and extreme
pressure to standardize humanity that we have come to know as modern
civilization and mass society -- halting, then reversing the momentum this
monolith has achieved.
We now live as the technoculture's subjects, not its masters
and will from here on out as viral technology mediates, homogenizes and
monetizes human experience worldwide, in ever more remote corners. I watch it
regularly in the Third World, where the power of gadgets such as cell phones is
wiping out the core foundations of indigenous or longstanding cultures within a
decade or two. The global machine's technological nervous system and production
musculature, the techno grid now embedded in the world, grows in quantum
fashion to control every aspect of our lives deeper and more thoroughly than is
imaginable by the folks living those lives. It's so pervasive we don't feel it
For instance, I just hit the ATM machine in this hotel for
40 bucks. And in doing so I joined the Manhattan book editor, the black Carib
village fisherman in Dangriga, Central America, and the taxi driver in
Capetown, South Africa, in performing the same activity. We all stand
submissively before the global ATM machine network like trained chickens
pecking the correct colored buttons to release our grains of corn. Freedom, and
to a large extent joy, as we understand it in our common technoculture, is
mostly just the grid's monetized consumer offerings, each with its own type of
packaging, its own technologically produced overlay of commercial skin. These
choices, by the way, do not include the non-uniform products or experience,
unauthorized products or joys such as hashish or deviant sex. Not officially at
least, but perhaps when technoculture solves the uniform packaging and delivery
If anybody solves that problem, it will be the Japanese.
There seem to be no bigger suckers for technoculture than the people who have
given the world plastic dirt ("half as dense as and a thousand times
cleaner than real dirt") the UFO-detecting keychain, the online
lie-detector and the hydroelectric toilet, which "assesses what variety of
waste you've just put into it." Technoculture is stressful enough, but
obsessing over how clean or dense dirt is, and assessing the varieties of you
bodily waste (last time I looked there were only two) well, there may be a
certain justice in the Japanese suffering the highest levels of anxiety,
stress, and depression. It's so bad that according to Dr. Kunio Kitamura,
director of the Japan Family Planning Association, "Japanese people simply
aren't having sex, and the suicide rate has been rising rapidly."
Personally, I am not having much sex either, but that has
not yet pushed me to toward suicidalism and probably never will. After age 60,
sex became perhaps my fifth highest priority, just below the availability of
cheap beer or maybe even a double bourbon after six pm, which of course has a helluva lot to do with that fifth
priority and its likelihood. All of which is more than you cared to know, I am
Sucking the cuff in Totoland
the system will reach a point where the social cue is 'integration'--where the
universal dependence of all moments on all other moments makes the talk of
causality obsolete. It is idle to search for what might have been a cause
within a monolithic society." -- Theodor Adorno
In other words, Teddy boy, a totalitarian society.
Not a nice word, according to our Western Civ instructors. An ironic one too,
considering that Americans and Europeans sowed so much of its original seed.
But the reality is that totalitarian society (dubbed "Totoland" in my
household in a grim effort toward mockery: Dear Dorothy, fuck you and your
little dog too! Signed, Bill Gates) is already here. And most of the planet
accepts that as long as nobody next door is getting beheaded and at least some
grains of corn keep dropping out of that ATM machine. Such is the belief in
technology's supposed production efficiency in dealing with the supply and
demand problems of this world's 6 billion.
That belief will remain because the technology will remain.
Until it collapses along with the corporate aristocracy that make and own it.
Otherwise, it cannot be dismantled without dismantling the world as we have
made it and we cannot undo our own evolutionary species trajectory. Regardless
of what the New Agers and Earth worshipping goddess cultists believe, we cannot
haul 6 billion people back into pre-technology or support them in any natural
sustainable fashion. Most of the world's common people accept this, however
unconsciously, thus the lack of protests and counter efforts on any meaningful
scale. The new totalitarianism is its own justification, and nobody in America
or Europe is going to kick up much sand so long as the Darfurs and Haitis
remain on the goddamned TV screen where they belong.
At the same time, those empowered to do what little can be
done, the world's aristocrats, do what they have always done: surf the crest of
power and wealth with their dicks pointed into the sunset of their civilization
and their heads up their asses. A delighted nation cheers as a brunette
corporate aspirant sucks on Donald Trumps pant leg on the Donald Trump Show.
("Ya gotta really want it, baby!") As a hobby, the guy owns The Miss
Universe Organization, Miss USA and Miss Teen USA pageants. He'll never want
for pants suckers.
Meanwhile, I've got 40 ATM bucks that have to last me two
days at this book bash.
A new Dark Age? Hell, why not?
new barbarism, illiteracy and impoverishment of language, new kinds of poverty,
merciless remodeling of opinion by media, immiseration of the mind,
obsolescence of the soul. Massified, standardizing modes, in every area of
life, relentlessly re-enact the actual control program of modernity. Capitalism
did not create our world; the machine did." -- Jean-Fran�ois
I've painted a grim picture for sure, made worse by claiming
that hope is a sucker's game, even a religion for millions of "people of
faith" who believe hope and faith are the same thing. Ah hope! That fuzzy
hearted Hallmark world of mass-produced sentiment and emotions, even about
"bereavement," a world where thinking is regarded as a rat in the
larder of bourgeois smugness. Thinking gnaws away at everything so
relentlessly, until it finally breaks a tooth on one truth or another. And one
of those truths is that the technology enabling those digital greeting cards
that play "Happy Birthday" is systematically destroying nature and
toxifying and maiming the millions of drudgery filled souls whose sole purpose
for existence is industrial.
I'm convinced we are watching Lyotard's illiteracy and
impoverishment of language and merciless remodeling of opinion by media and
"massified" standardizing in action. I could be wrong -- my wife and
kids assure me I am wrong about most things. But I have at least one scholarly
author type on my side, Dr. Morris Berman, who argues that we are indeed seeing
the approach of a new Dark Age. I'm willing to bet that the tens of millions
living on less than a dollar a day or any of the women and children sold into
the world's multibillion-dollar sex-slave trafficking (including those under
American auspices of DynCorp and Halliburton subsidiaries like KBR) feel that
it's here already. Not that anyone is asking them or anyone else in the Third
Living as I do much of the year in a Third World village,
watching daily the cost of the American lifestyle on the village's people, the
technocultural cheapening of their lives, physical hunger, I feel guilty even
being in such a posh hotel as the Omni. I should be back in Central America
finishing up the water and sanitation project I recently started there (and
probably would be if I were not out of money). Yet, through the patio's glass
door I can see the people round my table, the Northumberland librarian, the
writer Tom Miller whose moving testimonies of Latino immigrants open up worlds
unseen by white Americans, my own good wife who brings to life the truth of
slavery by excavating memories in an amnesiac America These are people who
understand that human life is short and history is long, and that their humanly
elegant efforts will not only go unheralded by that history, but mostly go
unacknowledged in their own darkening time, and be all but eradicated by the
sheer impoverishment of language and literacy in their native country during a
New American Dark Age that comes cloaked in glittering technology instead of a
coarse woolen cowl. Such unassuming and dedicated people are among our best.
This sordid American drama, the one I am calling a Dark Age,
will in all likelihood not be completed until well into this century or the
next, with a slew of increasingly nasty episodes along the way. Everyone here
in the hotel lounge will say goodbye to this world long before America says the
Until then, we are left to play out the game day by day.
That being the case, we should elect to play it out with the best among us, the
ones on humanity's side, that hidden and unheralded aristocracy those quiet
lamp lighters making their way through the deepening dusk of American
E. M. Forster
described them as, "Not an aristocracy of power, but an aristocracy of the
sensitive, considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all
nations and classes and through the ages, and they know each other when they
meet. Authority, seeing their value, tries to net them and to utilize them. But
they slip through the net and are gone; when the door is shut they are no
longer in the room; Their temple is the Holiness of the Heart's Imagination,
and their kingdom, though they never possess it, is the wide open world."
In this they are
Joe Bageant is
the author of Deer
Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War, from Random
House/Crown about working class America. Bageant is also a contributer to
"Red State Rebels: Resistance in the Heartland," edited by Jeffrey
St. Clair and Joshua Frank, forthcoming this spring from AK Press. A complete
archive of his online work, along with the thoughts of many working Americans
on the subject of class may be found at: www.joebageant.com.
Feel free to contact him at: