By Joe Bageant
“It’s only a system,” she said, as we floated through the sprawling supermarket’s gleaming commodity lined indoor streets. “THE HELL IT IS! It’s a goddamned air conditioned zombie hell of waste and gluttony,” I thought to myself, before the usual vertigo completely enveloped me. Just back from Central America’s simple, comprehensible mercados, bodegas and street cart vendors, the effect of this most common American shopping venue was, as always, one of vertigo. Head splitting light beats down on pyramids of plastic eggs, as if to incubate their hatching of the ladies stockings within, dozens of kinds of toothpaste, well scrubbed dead chickens, lurid baskets of too-perfect flowers, plastic wraps, tissue for faces, asses and wrapping gifts, row upon row of polished vegetables and fruits standing like soldiers waiting for the annihilation of salads or the ovens of casseroledom.
And all those hushed and not so hushed shopper cell phone conversations, this one consoling someone at the home base pod:
“Oh I am so sorry, baby, but I think they’ve quit making the Ranch flavored Pringles. Yes I know you don’t like the jalapeno Pringles. I am so sorry. Really I am.” Both parties seemed genuinely distraught.
And I imagine Allen Ginsberg in this supermarket, as he once imagined Walt Whitman in a supermarket in California and wonder, as Allen wondered, “What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate their brains and imaginations?”
The meat department workers in blood stained white smocks recite their corporate programmed litany: “Welcome to Food Lion. How can I best serve you today?” I cannot help but politicize such moments, so I say, “Humiliating, isn’t it, to say that a thousand times a day to people who just want to be left alone to shop.” Once in a while I get a knowing glance back, but usually they do not respond, because cameras cover every inch of the place.
Only the Mongoloid bag-faced boy seems happy to be here. His smile is a deep mysterious void. What it must be like to be so unfazed, to be in another country of the mind? What sphinx rules his Republic of One? Does it have the same unknowable corporate face as governs our obedience to this one?
It was to the spectral triumph of corporatism Allen Ginsberg referred in the epic poem, “Howl”: Moloch, whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!
The world at that time, 1956, understood what Ginsberg was saying. Around the planet, Howl, remains the most well-known American poem of the twentieth century. Here in the Republic of Amnesia though, “Howl” is all but lost amid the crackling digital noise of the immediate moment. Allen’s hairy assed existential yalp for humanity just doesn’t go well with the body waxed décor of our current American aesthetic.
President Obama understands the featureless not-so-new American aesthetic. So well that he had the world’s most politically correct, authority sanctioned, but absolutely worst poet, Elizabeth Alexander, read at his inauguration. (“We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed, words to consider, reconsider”) Like the soothing, ambiguous language of the Super Corporate State, it sounds as if it means something. Which is close enough for government work. More importantly, she has been vetted by proper authorities and is credentialed and licensed by Yale University to practice poetry. The marketing theme of the event was Obama’s s alleged blackness. Alexander is a sorta black too, but not black enough to scare away business. Welcome to the domination of the business aesthetic. Literate people all over the world found Alexander’s reading to be like one of those eye watering farts you just wait through until it blows away. Still, millions of Americans listened and cried, in accordance with the marketing theme almost on command, “happy to be born in America, where a black man can be elected president.” Personally, I was sorry as hell I’d sworn off bourbon for the month.
If you ask, you will find that most of our citizenry are indeed “happy to be born in America” — Fat City, the beacon of bacon. The great 24/7 all-you-can-eat buffet republic, where you can walk in without a cent in your pocket and buy a car, or, until the credit meltdown, even a house. People immigrate here for just that: to possess more commodities and goods than previously available (as in none, zilch); or to accumulate money to ensure such goods in the future. Or to escape political machinery that deprives them of goods, and sometimes kills them if they object. “Your basic lack of democracy,” as we’re constantly reminded. I’ve met a few genuinely starving people in my day, and to be truthful, democracy was the last thing on their minds.
However, they usually believed the American free market sell job about a profoundly bountiful place with plentiful opportunities, or at the very least, plenty of edible commodities. And from their experience and perspective, there surely is truth to the claim. For the most part, these immigrants are utterly unconcerned about the resource depletion or ecocide inherent in a superheated capitalist system designed to burn up as much of the planet as possible as fast as possible, in order to generate as many commodities as possible for the quickest buck possible. Show’em the money and the meat! If I were an average citizen in Haiti or Somalia, I’d feel the same way.
But even more fortunate people among them believe the hype. My Central American friend Rodrigo, who is in no danger of starving because he owns a couple of tamale and panade street carts, says, “A new car, that’s what I want to go to America for. A car and an apartment with one of those things that go up and down inside the buildings.”
“Si! An elevator. A glass one!”
When I get back down there, I’ll be sorry to tell Rodrigo that we went bust before he got his glass elevator ride. But if he needs an eight-bottle Pier 1 wine rack or a particle board book shelf that leans decidedly to the right, we can fix him right up. America is one big yard sale now, as we close out the books on industrial capitalism, only to discover that all our neighbors were as broke as we were. That it was all “on the plastic,” the furniture, the wines, the digital toys, the camping gear that never got used. There is something eerily sad in these tens of thousands of suburban Saturday morning sales. There are seldom any buyers, not even many “free box” takers — only sellers. An uncharacteristic silence hangs in the air, and there is the feeling of some unspoken recent disaster of immense proportion, some Chernobyl like thing that left everything standing.
“It’s only a system,” I told myself during the 24/7 blanket coverage of Michael Jackson’s corpse, deeply suspicious that that so many millions of Americans were really distraught over the loss of this weirdly mutated media flesh puppet. Morbidly curious maybe, but not distraught. There were the high ceremonial triubutory rituals, the carefully written and rehearsed incantations as to how Jackson pushed the global cause of racial equality to new heights. Even Nelson Mandela said so. Why am I not sharing in this great and tragic stirring of the masses? This news event apparently of massive import?
A politician dips his pecker in the wrong honeypot, and it plays for days, dies down, then returns months later when the honeypot sues him for support, his wife sues him for divorce. A congressman offers a black dude a blowjob in a public restroom because, “I was afraid of him and wanted to accommodate the situation.” Cheap spectacle and the distractive buffoonery of folly, along with the latest reasons we should be afraid, these are primary grist for the media entertainment divisions called “news.”
But seldom to never do we get news and information as to the global scale of the genuine emergency facing humankind. Bad news is bad for business, therefore said to be bad for you and me. We all accept that consumer confidence is the foundation of the whole shebang, the confidence game that is capitalism. Thus confidence and cheery optimism is mandatory among the citizen consumer-producer marks. Willingly we self-police our behavior, shunning, criticizing or mocking what we perceive as “negative people.” We drive past the empty parking lots, abandoned housing developments, through networks of cameras and cops with radar guns, stun guns and real guns every few blocks, numb to it all, listening to government commercial propaganda officialized by Katie Couric and Ben Bernanke. Just like us, they have internalized the system as a matter of education and “professionalism.” But unlike us, they’ve done it to such an effective degree as to warrant seven figure remuneration.
Somewhere waaay down the ladder of the propaganda machinery, we find the anonymous guy or gal who writes the crap that keeps the front page of our web browsers so slow. The top story on my browser yesterday was: “Is Facebook hurting American productivity?” (begging the question as to whether there is any production to hurt). On one level you gotta wonder who the hell put that story there and for what reason. On the other hand, the story carried a link to Facebook. Was that a small act of personal rebellion at AOL? A corporate state message? Or a Facebook plant to direct traffic in its direction? In all likelihood though, it was just another piece of meaningless shit, generated by some kid news editor at AOL, a guy who has one of those rare things in America these days, a job, because he’s already internalized the system far too well. In any case, my attention was momentarily diverted, sucked into AOL World, snared away from what other world I do not know, but certainly one fraught with paranoia, or at least hyper suspicion, if a browser screen can arouse so much speculation as to its motives.
Speaking of motives, there are those who worry about an American authoritarian police state one day rounding folks up, shuffling them off to geographically remote camps, such as the Department of Homeland Security’s scattered FEMA Camps. But physical geography isn’t the only geography. There is geography of the mind too, where another kind of hellish internment may be conducted. One without razor wire or sirens but surely as confining and in its own way, as soul chilling as any concentration camp. One with plenty to eat and filled with distractions and diversions enough to drown out the alarms and sirens that go off inside free men at the scent of tyranny. If a round up of Americans is real, then it began years ago. And as far as I can tell, everyone went peacefully, each one alone, like children, whose greatest concern on that day when the gates were closed, was the absence of Ranch flavored Pringles.