Gone Banana Republic
On top of its brusque and decidedly unromantic sexual fondling, TSA agents have also been caught stealing electronics, jewelry and cash. A TSA manager ran a prostitution ring from a motel room, and a supervisor is a defrocked priest, kicked from the pulpit for molesting two young girls. Lots of kids pass through the Philly airport, so this shamed minister has found his true calling. If you want to browbeat and grope, the US Government has a job for you, and if you fantasize about torturing and killing, and committing outrages on corpses, that can be arranged too, and call Langley if you want to get into the heroin trade. The latest TSA scandal involves an agent opening an urn containing cremated human remains, sticking her fingers into it, spilling ashes and bone fragments onto the floor, then laughing about it as the deceased’s grandson tried frantically to gather what’s left of his granddad from the carpet.
Airports are national gateways, what foreign visitors see first and last, so it’s astounding how America greets and bids goodbye to its tourists. Come back soon, so we can be surly and violate you and your children again! I was just at Heathrow, in a country with a long history of domestic terrorism, and now increasingly militarized thanks to the upcoming Olympics, and I was untouched, so don’t tell me unwanted groping is a necessity. Even flyers in wartime Vietnam, where I was born, were not subjected to such absurdity. The officially-sanctioned violations at American airports don’t serve a security purpose. Instead, they condition Americans to be meek and abject, and knead into their muscles, fat, breasts and crotches that they are in an open-ended yet ill-defined war. These and other intimidation tactics tame the recalcitrant as well as the my-government-can-do-no-wrong-and-tell-no-lie sheep. As the poor gentleman in the ash incident most tellingly told the Orlando Sentinel, “I didn’t want to cause a scene because I didn’t want them to throw me off my flight or put me on the no-fly list.”
It’s all going according to plan, this transformation of the US into a police state and Third-World nation, but what’s meant by “Third World,” exactly? A Third World country is one that is poor, with inadequate infrastructure, an obscene wealth gap and a corrupt government. America is by far the most-indebted nation on earth, with a record-setting trade deficit, so we are, in effect, much poorer than Greece, Zimbabwe, Somalia or any other basket case, but it hasn’t become manifest because we have guns, missiles and drones pointing in all directions. Using our gargantuan military to hold the world hostage, we receive more foreign aids, in the form of debts, than all the other nations combined. Riding a nuclear-armed mobility scooter, America is a gross welfare queen barging down the world’s sidewalk, but this is how an empire is supposed to work, many will smirk, and they are right, of course, until this extortion racket falls apart, and soon enough. Preparing for the inevitable, our ruling class is becoming more belligerent abroad, in a last ditch effort to prolong its advantages, and nastier at home, to slap down domestic rage at a sinking standard of living. Splurging beyond our means for decades, we will revert to the universal means, and not because we care about justice or equality, but because we don’t have a choice.
Just as there are pockets of First World opulence and luxury in even the most dismal Third World countries, rich nations also have stretches of Third World squalidness and destitution, but Third World isn’t all bad. Not by far. To survive on little requires enterprise, resourcefulness and cooperation, virtues that will emerge and even blossom as we slide downward. Ubiquitous in most Third World countries, peddlers will make a comeback here, and the black market will thrive. As globalism recedes, the local will rise. Instead of being slaves to huge corporations, we will become tiny businessmen, as long as we’re not hunted down, then fined or locked up. Of course, as work become scarcer and scarcer and manual labor even cheaper than now, many of us will become slaves to our neighbors, as house servants. You will learn to cook, clean, wash, sweep, mop, iron and massage from sunup to lights out, every day. Dressed like Lady Gaga, many mothers and daughters will loiter at street corners.
Back to the positive aspect. Each home can become a store or a restaurant. Each car is a gypsy cab. In totalitarian Vietnam, the government actually gives its people much more leeway to conduct petty business than is allowed in America. A private home can display a table with, say, five cans of soda, two brands of cigarettes and some candies, and that’s a store, though nobody is manning it most of the time. To get service, you might have to shout. It’s not their only source of income, but this pee wee initiative does bring in a buck or two a day, so it’s better than nothing. The adjacent home might sell bags of rice. A third is a two-table café serving coffee, soda and beer, and if you want to eat something, the proprietor will run down the street to get it for you, for a modest surcharge. If you have just one van, you can pick up people at a predetermined spot, where many other vans, unaffiliated to you, also go. Driving passengers to another city, you can also snare business along the way. At just about any street corner, men wait on motorcycles for clients. You negotiate a price for where you want to go, then hop on the back. Just a handful of rides a day will earn each man enough to feed his family. It won’t be steak, but he is self-reliant and his own boss. There is no welfare, food stamps or Social Security in a Third World country, no safety net outside of your extended family.
My Philadelphia neighborhood, the Italian Market, has long boasted or flaunted Third World aspects. In its heydays thirty or forty years ago, it resembled Naples, one of the most Third World-like cities in all of Europe, and now it evokes charming Chihuahua. Here, Italian, Mexican, Chinese and Vietnamese-Americans coexist, and within a five-minute walk from my door, you can get a live chicken, duck or even rabbit, goat meat, ox tails, an Italian tripe sandwich, a beef tongue taco or a Vietnamese rice porridge with pork innards. I’ve had better pho here than in Hanoi, its birthplace, and I’m not kidding. Third World business arrangements are also common. To get Mexican clients, a Chinese-owned barber shop has a Mexican barber, with the split 6-4, in the house’s favor, though the Spanish-speaking haircutter keeps her own tips. Half a mile from me, there’s a restaurant that’s half Mexican, half Vietnamese. Splitting the overhead, two families share a kitchen and operate under one roof.
One can get much more creative, obviously. In New York’s Bowery, there’s a women’s clothes boutique that’s also a bar, and in a Chicago pub off Milwaukee Avenue, I saw a Honduran peddler coming in, then ambling from table to table, offering sweets on a tray. In a black Philly bar, or “lounge,” as it’s often called, I encountered a Chinese takeout tucked behind a curtained window. To get the cook’s attention, you bang on a receptionist bell like at a hotel. For real Third World funkiness, however, I take you back to Hanoi. In 1995, I went into a modest joint for dinner and ordered a beef dish. Proud of the freshness of her meat, the proprietor/waitress/chef/dishwasher showed me a bleeding slab before she cooked it. Pleased, I went back the next day for lunch to discover that it had become a motorcycle dealership, so there were two completely separate businesses alternating in a tiny space.
Left alone, we will figure out a way to scrape by, but it remains to be seen to what degree, and for how long, the government will try to prevent us from surviving on our own. One can say that the United States is becoming a police state because it is turning into a Third World country. Already, choppers snake through skyscraper canyons and tanks roll down main streets. The police state protects and advances the interests of the ruling class, which in our case is the military banking complex, and since an informal market nibbles at the profits of banks and corporations, you can expect their henchmen, cops and regulators, to stomp hard on us smallest fries. (Underpaid in a collapsed economy, cops will also use these opportunities to shake us down, so that’s a kind of tax we’ll have to pay.) In any case, it appears that as we become poorer and thinner, not to mention more enterprising or devious, and more colorful too, since everyday will be casual Friday, we will have to fend off our bullying state, if not the gangs that rise up in its place.
Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.