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The flaws of bad government, oppression, injustice and corruption, etc., can be masked by an unearned windfall. Take Saudi Arabia and its oil, for example, or the United States and its oil, which was first sucked from its own soil and sea, then everybody else’s, thanks to its status as an empire.
With oil, even hillbillies can live a comfy life and slather a veneer of culture onto their persons. That’s us. With oil, even a bad government can appear decent, because living standards are up, and the masses can buy toys. A barrel of black gold equals 3.8 years of human labor, and since each American consumes a world-highest 24 barrels a year, that’s 91 slaves for each man, woman and child. With oil, even debt and wage slaves can have their own slaves.
What a coincidence: the world’s first major oil well, Empire, was established in 1861, in Pennsylvania, the same year the American Civil War began. With black liquid slaves gushing from the ground, there was less of a need to enslave black (or any other) humans, at least not so overtly. The new black slaves are also much more powerful, flexible, storable, transportable and tradable. Cheaper to maintain, they also don’t revolt.
Oil is not just fuel, but also fertilizers, pesticides, food preservatives, food colorings, ink dyes, solvents, plastics, foams, asphalt, tars and so much else. We walk and ride on oil, wear oil, sleep under oil, eat oil. Millions are killed and maimed because of oil, but it’s those most addicted to oil, as in the SUV-steering NASCAR freak waving his oil-byproduct, made-in-China flag, who will be first to deny that oil is the real reason behind any war. The state didn’t invent oil, obviously, though it will take credit for the benefits that oil brings, while denying all liabilities.
Oil is wealth, so with its increase through the last century and a half, we’ve seen a corresponding rise in standards of living and population. However, since peak oil is here, i.e., since demand is starting to outstrip supply, we will see living standards plummet, although a global headcount shrinkage is still a way of. After all, a slice of bread can be divided into two, four or eight pieces, and just as a fat man can lose his jiggling lardship, an obese country can slim down considerably. A bank CEO, too, can be tranché into two, four or a hundred pieces, then fed to defrauded investors, buffet style. With our own eyes, we will see that.
Concurrent with the increase in oil and the actual wealth that it brought, we’ve also witnessed an explosion of magical or illusory wealth, in the form of images. It began with the invention of photography in the mid-19th century, just before the Empire oil well and American Civil War. With photos, then moving images, now on television, desktop, laptop, cellphone and Ipad, any man can own so much with his eyes. In actual life, he may be dirt poor, but through the screen, large or small, he is in control of a huge, almost infinite realm. One click, and he’s in Shanghai. With another, he has an Italian girlfriend. He can travel the world and has a thousand lovers, of all different races, in a day. If his mother is on Facebook, Twitter or Eroshare, he can date her too, but under a screenname, of course. Lured by the reproduced image’s lizard brain come-ons, its saturated colors, quick cuts and yes crotches, he is barely dwelling in this world, so that its outrages and scandals, even when committed in his name, hardly matter.
Flesh-and-blood exchanges are starved by virtual commerce. With an endless stream of screen lovers, unsatisfying as it is, a person is less likely to give money to actual pole and lap dancers, prostitutes and pimps. Or, take music. Spending money on recorded tunes, one enriches distant moguls and singers, while ignoring the crooners, strummers, blowers and bangers closer to home, not to mention the boozy venues they play in. Awful or excellent, they are the true portrait of a place. If in Cleveland, for example, I’d rather hear a local band of plumbers and roofers than anything in the juke box, even if it’s Patsy Cline or Thelonious Monk.
With the virtual universe eclipsing the real, perennial losers are comforted by symbolic victories. Recently, a black man rose to the top of a predominantly white society. His groundbreaking achievement is presented as proof that his nation is fair, decent and forward looking. A leading newspaper even declares him the country’s ultimate symbol as it enters a more enlightened era. Here, I am paraphrasing Corriere della Sera as it celebrates soccer player Mario Balotelli, but similar words escaped many pie holes when Obama was elected.
The state will appropriate anything to vindicate itself, be it oil or individual achievements, and as with Martin Luther King or Pat Tillman, it will even honor the people it’s killed, since talk is cheap, and televised images even cheaper. Consider also the case of Mary Kom, Olympics boxer from Manipur. Annexed by India in 1949, Manipur has tried for half a century to regain its independence, resulting in thousands killed by the state, but now that Kom is world-famous, New Delhi is proudly claiming her as a good daughter of India. Though the US has made so much noise about Tibet, it never mentions Manipur, a sovereign land invaded by an ally. The state will rob and murder, then grant you symbolic victories, such as a Martin Luther King Boulevard slicing through each ghetto, but enough of token bones tossed under the table. It’s time to overturn that table.
The reproduced image allows you to escape the local and forget how you really live, whether in slum, trailer park or gated community. Of course, soon as you go offline, turn off the wide screen or yank out your ear buds, increasingly rare occurrences these days, you’re reunited with your individual poverty and richness. Have you talked to yourself lately? Oil, on the other hand, lets you pretend that you’re not essentially enslaved and dispossessed.
Stripped of our black, viscous lifestyle and bright, kinetic illusions, we will see what’s what, finally, then a real conversation can begin. It’s time for a paradigm shift. Individually, we must voluntarily wean ourselves from our oil and image addictions.
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.