Camden, a city of 80,000 people, has three public libraries. Last week came news that these three branches may close for good at the end of this year, with most of the books given away or destroyed. This, in the city where America’s greatest poet, Walt Whitman, spent two decades, and where he is buried.
Camden is one of the poorest cities in America, with an extremely high illiteracy, high school drop out and murder rates. Officially, unemployment is at 25%, so you can double that figure. Not too long ago, Camden, like America itself, was an industrial powerhouse. During World War II, it had the biggest shipyard in the world, employing 40,000 people. Campbell Soup’s main factory was here. RCA Victor was here. All that remains of this industrial heritage is a huge downtown mural showing smiling workers engaging in productive activities, quite a contrast to the mostly dazed, overweight, well tattooed and underwear flashing citizens strutting back and forth on surrounding streets. Like Detroit, Camden is an extreme example of our industrial and social disintegration, but look around you, there are incipient Camdens and Detroits all over this country.
The most impressive structure in today’s Camden is, no surprise here, its baseball stadium, just like in Detroit, where Comerica Park is the jewel of a downtown that flaunts several completely empty skyscrapers. A few blocks away, the one-dollar houses sprout. Hey, we may be going down the toilet, but our stadia are still the best! Circuses are not just necessary to cheer up and anesthetize a disheartened and increasingly angry populace, but in America, our nightly sporting contests also have ideological contents. The American dream, the idea that anyone can rise to the top, even a ghetto youth or a remotest farm boy, is now only alive in the sporting realm. It is our remaining proof that discipline and perseverance will pay off. In spite of regular scandals of doping, crooked refs and other forms of cheating, the playing field is more or less level, where anyone can kick anyone else’s butts if he’s truly superior. Sport is also continuity, hence the fans’ obsession with records, past legends and traditions. Watching sports, we can pretend that nothing has changed, that we’re still a country with the disposable income and leisure to enjoy things that don’t matter. And true enough, during the two or three hours of watching, real life catastrophes and personal worries are kept at bay. Nothing is allowed to interfere except the SUV, fast food and beer commercials. Nothing has changed.
American workers cannot compete with Chinese. This has much less to do with any cultural factor, it’s not so much because we’re less industrious or disciplined, we can’t compete simply because we’re not slaves. Transplanted to America, a Chinese wouldn’t be able to compete with his clone in China. China is a totalitarian country where unions are disallowed, and this helpless, disempowered work force is exactly what the Capitalists want. Hence the seemingly odd marriage between corporate bosses and these “Communists.” The real meaning of globalism, its true aim, is to exploit as ruthlessly as possible the workers, and also the environment, the earth, so that a few fat cats at the top can become insanely wealthy. If Chinese workers had a voice, they wouldn’t put up with, as Johann Hari described in a recent article, having “to work and live in giant factory-cities that they almost never leave. Each room sleeps 10 workers, and each dorm houses 5,000. There are no showers; they are given a sponge to clean themselves with. A typical shift begins at 7.45am and ends at 10.55pm.” Many have literally drop dead from overwork. Sounds just like conditions in America itself, before our unions gained the upper hand after decades of being beaten up and shot at by State Troopers and National Guardsmen. In 1941, just before the U.S. entered the war, Bethlehem steel workers had to go strike to demand, among other concessions, a 10 minute lunch break and a “welfare room,” where they could shower and change into clean clothes to go home at the end of the day.
With most of our factories crumbling, our unions are no longer players in national politics, and American workers who once manned assembly lines now bag foreign merchandises, or serve up transfat specials with a crooked smile. As wage slaves, we belong to no teams save the ones we see on television. Falling behind on cable bills, we can still cheer for these sweating millionaires, our ideal, hallucinated selves, as they can still compete and be successful more or less half of the time.
Previous generations battled management, police or troops for each concession. Today, we show our defiance by mutilating ourselves and dropping our pants a few inches. Many hurl racist insults at the President or those of the wrong faiths or shades. Most of us simply can’t recognize our true enemies, and the ones who do feel helpless to make these criminals, and their enablers, nearly all of our bobbing head politicians, pay. Fed up with Coke, we elect Pepsi. Pissed off at Pepsi, we switch back to Coke. Since our rulers hold all the cards, they don’t really mind our rising anger, which they can manipulate and steer through the mainstream media. Trawling new depths of absurdity, these mind control apparatuses derange and rob us of any sense of proportion. In this economy, bullshit shines. Breaking news: Obama’s grin found blossoming from Britney’s armpit! Details at eleven!
LINH DINH is the author of two books of stories and five of poems, with a novel, Love Like Hate, scheduled for July. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.