It’s Sunday night and Club Chuck turned the lights back on hours ago. Three friends and I are trying to push the weekend into extra innings with the last of our drugs and a shitty live stream of the latest clash in Manhattan’s Zucotti Park. Huddled tightly in my party bunker on Maryland Ave., we try to process grainy, 140p moving pictures of people not unlike us, being hosed, clubbed and pepper sprayed by the NYPD.
They had an LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device) cannon, which made its U.S. debut at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh in 2009, used on them as well. The sonic weapon created an uncanny feedback in the stream we were watching on my booze-soaked computer. A former dealer who served in Iraq later tells me that he’d used the same kind of weapon against civilian crowds there in the endless hunt for “insurgents.”
You can gauge a government’s legitimacy by how many cops it employs, and by how well-armed those cops are. Scenes from the protests of armored personnel carriers barreling down New York streets and paramilitary forces masquerading as police barked at peaceful U.S. citizens, spoke volumes about the state of affairs in America.
Inevitably, the drugs run out and Monday’s sun begins to mock us. I fold up the laptop and take my comrades home to City Arts through a fog of double vision. Upon returning home, I call the NYPD customer complaint hotline provided on the stream. But I was put on hold for 20 minutes, not even able to leave an angry, cracked-out message. The sum of the evening would simply be another overslept, hungover morning.
It’s still hard to believe that all this was no more than two-years-and-change ago. I was more beast than man then. And although I’ve since gotten sober and completely changed my perspective on life and those living it with me, I still often find myself paralyzed by the comforts of being a middle-class American.
American complacency, that grand conceit that I am afforded by virtue of my Americanness, is a ravenous beast gnawing at the marrow of our nation’s future. I am not immune to the indifference. I stay on top of the news cycle, voraciously reading every op-ed, expose, and interview I can find in a quixotic, epistemological race to the bottom. And knowing all that I claimed to know, I still didn’t Occupy shit.
This was surely more a statement on me than the protests. Despite its ultimate demise, the movement was truly a sight to behold, a captivating and encouraging flash in the pan that meant that there was some sort of fight being taken to those that run this land.
Two of those friends that bleak Sunday night were heavily involved with Baltimore’s Occupy scene, so perhaps I was hoping for the revolutionary-by-osmosis effect. Seeing the Arab Spring unfurl earlier that year elicited a similar non-response, as those were people “over there,” with whom I had nothing in common.
My deep-seated American Otherness may delude me with poisonous thoughts that I am that much different than those an ocean away fighting tyranny (imagine the hubris, let alone the fate, of a nation of people who fancy themselves terminally unique). Yet, as I slog through the days, obsessed with my plans and my wants and my precious opinions, how can I reconcile with the fact that mothers, fathers, sons, and sisters on the other side of the world are laying down their lives for so many of the things that I take for granted?
Even in the wake of the past decade and a half in this country, there still seems to be no shortage of people, from the corridors of power to the backyard barbecues of Rockwellian wastelands, who feel the need to declare the U.S. the GREATEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD!
The “greatest country in the world,” that also jails more of its people than any other, often in deplorable conditions for harshly long amounts of time. That nation on the hill that ranks 46th out of 48 countries in a 2013 Bloomberg study of most efficient health care systems (we’re last in terms of quality of care, despite spending more per capita on health care than any other nation, according to the Commonwealth Fund, but you knew that already).
Gun violence has become a normalized aspect of life from Englewood, Chicago to The Mall In Columbia, and there seems to never be an appropriate time to “talk about it” as a nation. We rank 98th in number of elected women in government office, and too many of the men taking their seats see fit to dictate women’s reproductive rights.
The “well, what are you gonna do, it could be worse” default setting of indifference that often comes about when confronted with seemingly impossible, dubious statistics about The States, needs to be supplanted with downright indignation. Stats and rankings are just swell for making one feel like shit about one’s homeland, but it’s easy to forget that there are actual people living in those numbers, lives deteriorating and all too often lost due to systemic failures and the detriment often brought about by “Do Be Evil” slave-to-the-rhythm of corporations and the political entities that serve to protect and bolster their interests.
The real American Exceptionalism seems to be our egregious underachievement when compared to similar nations, as well as an unparalleled commitment to accepting just how shitty we’re being, to one another and to our neighbors. I’m told by those more grounded and wiser than I that acceptance is the answer, but God damn.
Chris Rock nailed it in his 2004 “Never Scared” special when he said that for black people, America is like the uncle who raised you, but also molested you. But as the sins of the hegemony are slowly brought to the fore by whistleblowers and citizen journalists alike, we can now see that we are all sharing in this plight, borne of the greed and selfishness of our ruling class.
To still our hearts and minds in the ever-blackening night, we rest on laurels that have long since withered, a fact evident to everyone but us Americans, it seems. And as much as I loved Michael Jordan, Happy Meals and the Blue Angels back then, I won’t say that we should get back to the big-dicked USA! USA! USA! that everyone* loved in the ‘90s, were it even possible.
I’m saying let’s humble ourselves, if only enough to begin to fix what’s broken. It’s been said that if Americans knew how often and how thoroughly they were lied to, stolen from and poisoned, there’d be the blood of bankers, politicians and lobbyists in the streets. I posit that in this age of information, we are more aware than ever, if not always accepting, of the widespread treachery of the powers that be, and that’s Wack City Mitch, Wack Wack City Mitch (McConnell).
When the harsh reality of our floundering empire is laid at his feet, The Patriot (he’s “proud to be an American, where at least he knows he’s fray (sic)”) may quote Alec Baldwin’s brass-balled blowhard from “Glengarry Glen Ross:” “If you don’t like it, leave.” Well sure. There is that, of course. And I couldn’t count on both hands and feet the number of friends and acquaintances I’ve talked to who long for life elsewhere in the face of American Insanity. But I’d much prefer to remain in my nation of birth than cede it to the shitheads making it an awful, unsafe place to live.
The sane among us may struggle with the notion of how anyone with half a brain can be proud to be an American today. You can measure the content of a nation’s character by how it treats its most vulnerable, and we basically tell our ever-increasing class of poor to “Cloooose, or hit the bricks!” “Always be closing!” may as well be minted on our coins, if “In God We Trust” weren’t so precious to us, that is.
In recent weeks, with the typical cabal of pasty-faced pod-people poisoned off of money and power in Congress screaming like harpies for war, on the World Police tip, in response to the escalating situation in Ukraine (you can almost hear their war-boners singing in the cold March air to the tune of “Saaanctionsss, saaaaanctionsss”), maybe it’s just plain easier to obsess over whether normcore is lame or not (it is), or to watch Justin Bieber’s deposition video 15 times in a row. Maybe, it’s easy to turn our backs to extent of which our nation broken.
That dull hum you hear is the static on the wire resonating off of a million and one distractions meant to keep our eyes off the prize. Oh yes, this is the Sound Of Settling (shouts out to Ben Gibbard), and the only thing louder is the silence of a nation that’s totally chill with letting itself drift into existential oblivion. Diffusion of responsibility isn’t going to work anymore, especially when that responsibility is diffused to the Whores On The Hill who’d, in the words of the O’Jays, “steal from their own mother… rob their own brother,” for the love of money.
Will we be able to reconcile the cognitive dissonance that results from our outmoded, ironclad individualistic spirit clanging against the dire need for a collectivism at all levels of our society? The world may never know.
In most parts of the country, at most points in time, we are not experiencing scenes like those playing out in Greece and Spain, let alone those seen in the land of the junta and the autocrat. But in the words of almost every character in “Game Of Thrones,” with economists warning of another potential economic crisis, the impending challenge of caring for aging Boomers and the omnipresent threat of our creditor nations calling in their markers, “Winter is coming.”
And it’s gonna be an awkward conversation with our kids when we’ve passed the point of no return, and we can only respond to the question of “What were you guys doing?” with “I ‘unno, Twitter/House Of Cards/Call Of Duty.” If I’m honest with myself, I’m not a part of the solution here, so I must be part of the problem. I am not immune to Ving Rhames Syndrome (“Better them, than me”). It seems a push for social change will look different than it did for the children of the “greatest generation,” however. There is a foot on the hose, so to speak, and that energy has to go somewhere. The question becomes, what will it take for me to do more than just “Yelp about it.”
It is encouraging that people far more intelligent and far more driven than I, are making genuine efforts to make this country a better place. To be sure, there is a vibrant community of activists fighting for causes as diverse as this nation of ours. Yet, today, thanks to a focused campaign put into play by the oligarchy, standing up against the twisted system is seen by many as cruisin’-for-a-bruisin’ fringe activity. And that trademark American apathy asphyxiates the aspirations of genuine agents for change even further.
A rallying cry to “make this country great” again rather misses the point, because yesteryear’s greatness excluded a great many from the so-called American Dream. Maybe our march to renewed American greatness could start with a collective end to the set-tripping over the no-brainer that is equality for our LGBT brothers and sisters (the majority of Americans support gay marriage, but we are only as strong as our weakest, most radicalized link dontchaknow).
Furthermore, perhaps greatness for post-Americaland should mean more than just being the best of the best of the best, in your face and in your space, at all times. What if we all strived to not only better ourselves as a nation, but to better the world we live in as a whole, with America as World Partner rather than World Police?
One can only hope that above the din of incessantly beating war drums and the puerile, pointed rhetoric of whores for war and money beholden to a number of industrial complexes will rise a truly new American voice that isn’t so much screaming “Me first, gimme that!,” but rather, “What can we do ya for?” But is hope enough in the face of such concerted evil?
Pride costs, often quite dearly, and as such, our national imperative has become combatting the collective delusion that we are taken care of by virtue of simply being American. It is last call on the U!-S!-A! coked-out fucking werewolf blood rave. Will it take catastrophe for us to get sick of the taste of bile, blood and stale cigarettes in our mouths every morning?
There’s a difference between a fool and a damn fool: A fool will do the same fucked up, negative thing over and over expecting a different result. A damn fool will repeat the negative behaviors knowing full and damn well what the results will be.
Maybe we’re so comfortable in our own apathy that we’re doomed to inaction and a patently American death: a preventable one.
*= Not everyone, and certainly no one more than ourselves