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Fig Leaf Nation

When any man falls, we laugh, and when an upright citizen is exposed as just ordinary slime, we hoot and holler. Glad it ain’t me, we reflect. At least I’m not important enough to be publicly shamed. Rest assure, us nobodies could disseminate a steady stream of spine chilling pics of our hirsute or well-shaved shady regions and nothing would happen.

So big man LeBron got upstaged by little J. J. Barea, generously listed at 6 feet even. LeBron couldn’t score when it mattered. He talked big, but acted tiny. His mouth was huge. His deed puny. He shrank before climax. Many of us little people, so miniscule we’re invisible, got a big kick out of witnessing the biggest man, a self proclaimed King, brought down to size.

It’s always about sex, of course, and all performances are sexual auditions in disguise. At least Congressman Weiner thought so, for he sought to convert his public, well-dressed success into a series of ego-swelling, virtual striptease for half a dozen, oh so lucky (?) ladies. It was all a harmless prank, Weiner thought, because he hadn’t done anything but sent out pixels of his relatively adorable or icky self. Everybody is doing it. Hall of Fame football players, teens, preteens, grandmas. What’s the harm, really, aren’t we here to spread the joy? Shouldn’t we all be virtual friends, at least, with virtual benefits? Like countless men before him, Weiner also figured that public triumphs ought to be redeemable as private, sexual rewards, but since Weiner is not JFK or even Clinton, his mistresses are no fleshy Monroe or Lewinski, but wi-fi mirages of an ex porn star, a black jack dealer and a get-out-of-my-face college student.

So LeBron and Weiner have been stripped of their fancy fig leaves, but the most elaborate loin cloth of all is the one still taped to the groins of America. Uncle Sam talks a big game, still blusters about universal freedom, democracy and economic recovery, but what’s left, really, behind that humongous cod piece?

America hides behind state of the art fig leaves. She has long led the world in well-designed, colorful and seductive packaging. Don’t worry about substance, just jazz up the graphic design. Wrapped well, even crap will sell. It’s all packaging, advertising and public relations.

Sport arenas are themselves fig leaves. In city after city, stadia are the best, most impressive pieces of architecture, with the televised fans neatly dressed and well groomed. Slobs in the cheap seats are not visible, but the biggest, fattest slobs are priced out of these spectacles altogether. Drowning out guns and sirens, they can cheer from home, in their distressed neighborhoods. Who else but the well-heeled can afford these hundred-dollar tickets, not to mention overpriced parking, food and drinks?

Beyond the outfield is gorgeous downtown, with their phallic banks jutting into the sky. Americans get their glimpses of distant cities most often through sporting events, so with these slick, beautiful stadia and postcard perfect downtowns, everything looks first rate and first world, still.

In slums across America, you can go for a mile or two without sighting a supermarket or a bank, only donut or fried chicken shacks, check cashing agencies, liquor emporia and store front churches. Though ubiquitous and spreading, this America is almost never seen.

A block may be half abandoned, yet each occupied home, even one with a leaky roof or collapsed porch, will sport a working satellite dish so images of a glamorized normalcy can be beamed in nightly. White, black, brown or yellow, most Americans look fantastic on television, don’t they? All of television is a commercial for its host society. This is how we live and play, or, rather, this is how we want you to believe we live and play. All of television is a fig leaf.

Take New Jersey. (Please.) On television, it’s an ocean lapped playground where a nice tan and decent sex are the only aims and worries, but in real life, a desperate Atlantic City casino has just added a “naked circus” to draw in customers. In South Jersey, three women were just arrested for removing 380 military grave markers, plus flower urns, from cemeteries and selling them for scraps. Some of these date back to the Civil War. The same week, firefighters fighting an arson, set in a long abandoned factory, had to draw water from the river because nearby hydrants had been vandalized. Their brass threadings had been stolen and sold for scraps.

How much can you get for a bit of brass, you may wonder? But when people are desperate, they’ll resort to anything. In Philadelphia, I often see men pushing shopping carts filled with aluminum cans. Scavenging, they can make about 20 bucks a day, though one claimed he earned 50 daily. “I have to get up at five every day,” he proudly said. An impressive dude, he even wore a work uniform with a “SERVICE” patch on his chest. In Denver, one man explained that to make a single buck, you have to walk a mile. In Detroit, 500 bricks will fetch you a hundred dollars, and I saw two young men trying to knock down an abandoned
factory wall with hammers.

Is it that bad? Of course, it’s that bad, but you wouldn’t know it from the mainstream media. There are more than four available workers for each job opening, but that’s the official statistic, so you can double it. When McDonald’s had a national job fair recently, a million people filled applications, but only 62,000, or 6.2%, were hired. A McDonald’s job used to be the last resort, a joke, really, but now it has become an out-of-reach, first aspiration for many Americans. I know a recent law school graduate who considers himself lucky to be employed as a manager at Subway. An ex security guard told me he had applied for over a hundred jobs in six states. Out of options, this 34-year-old was thinking of joining the Army.

Except as criminals or horny garbage, desperate Americans rarely make the news, yet stories like “Celebrities Out of Makeup,” “Celebrity Styles Worth Stealing” and “Michelle Obama Steps Out in $29 Gap Dress,” etc., have become national fare, presented each day for our contemplation and edification. Evening, we can sit behind our triple bolted doors and stare at a televised ballgame in a beautiful stadium, with a serene yet virile skyline in the background.

But at street level, even the beautiful downtowns are showing cracks, with commercial spaces at prime business spots abandoned. It is now customary to cover empty stores with large photos or false fronts touting their potentials. Imaginary, well dressed clients are tastefully displayed, and over them, the screaming pitches. IMAGINE THE POSSIBILITIES! PICTURE YOURSELF HERE! YOUR RESTAURANT HERE!

Across America, these potemkin hallucinations are mushrooming, and in New Orleans, I even saw a smallish, much graffitied shell of a building projected as a future time travel terminal! Among the destinations, Paris 1968, San Francisco 1957, Berlin 1973, Enlightenment, Garden of Eden and Victory Condition. It is telling that no recent years are on offer, no 2001 or 2008, for example. The current mantra of recovery, recovery means that Americans would rather not be in the here and now, but as things get even worse, we may yet develop a nostalgia for this frustrating, desperate and confusing era. As hard as it is to believe, we may grow to miss 2011.

Thanks to resource depletion, primarily oil, the entire global economy is contracting, but this crisis has been compounded by corruption, misallocation and waste, with none greater than the trillions our Pentagon spends on its six, is it six?, illegal wars. As the United States shrinks, its bright, kinetic fig leaf will swell until the country is nothing but giant fig leaf masking the rot and emptiness within. Don’t bother switching the channel, because it will only be the same show at another station. Try looking outside.

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories and five of poems, and the recently published novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.

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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.

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