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Deranging America

The coarsening of a people doesn’t happen overnight. When I came to the States in 1975, the Gong Show was about as rude as it got on television. Some earnest sap would get bumped for crooning, “Feelings, nothing more than feelings,” but no one ever got screamed at, had their wig knocked off or made to sob in public. No tune ever urged murder, and even a group named War only sang, “Why can’t we be friends?” The year’s top hit was The Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together.” Compared to now, it was a cheesy time, for sure. American cheese.

Then came Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh and Jerry Springer, etc. Before Stern made it nationally, he was only big in the DC area, where I happened to live at the time. In 1982, an airliner crashed onto the 14th Street Bridge, killing 78 people, so Stern called Air Florida the next day to book a flight from National Airport to the 14th Street Bridge. Many kids at my school, Jefferson High, thought it was brilliantly funny, and I’m not sure now if I laughed along, but even then, I could sense that not only Stern, but the country itself had crossed a line. If 78 corpses in a freezing river is an occasion for any kind of collective mirth, then we’re certainly fucked. Stern’s reputation has been built on such jokes, remember, and he’s no fringe character but one of our most popular radio personalities. Ever.

By 1989, I was standing on a ladder, house painting while subjected to my boss’ radio always tuned to Stern in the morning, then Rush Limbaugh in the afternoon. It’s a miracle I still have live brain cells. A Limbaugh show would start with a sustained burst of gunfire and hand grenades exploding. Now, I have nothing against “shock” per se, or black humor, but we’re not talking about Celine, Artaud, Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski or Andy Kaufman, but simply crass idiocy. Loutish Limbaugh became so popular, he was asked to be a commentator on Monday Night Football.

Violence, always violence. From infancy, Americans are conditioned to enjoy violence, then lured or pressured to support it at every stage of life. Merely by voting, Americans sanction carnage against foreigners, and to have a healthy stock portfolio, one should also invest in mass murder. Even holding onto to a job can mean implicit or explicit participation gratuitous violence. Let’s say you’re an honest and mild-mannered cop, but if your colleagues were kicking a prone suspect, LAPD style, you’d arouse suspicion and ridicule for not joining in. What are you, a snitch? Who do you think you are, Christopher Dorner? And in war, massacres and mass rapes are initiation rites and bonding rituals, what bonafide heroes indulge in, for to abstain is to be a queer or pussy. What are you, a snitch? Who do you think you are, Bradley Manning?

With preemptive wars, drone hits, extrajudicial killings and torture, illegal violence has become institutionalized in the USA, and as we normalize such outrages against humanity, we become more corrupt on every level, for if one can justify greed-driven, random or even recreational or therapeutic killing, what Limbaugh called “letting off steam” in regard to Abu Ghraib, then one can justify any other immorality.

In all spheres of our public life, governmental, media, entertainment, sports and even academic, violence and corruption have taken over. CEOs bankrupt millions, while TSA flunkies lift cash and electronics when not fingering nuts. To watch bouncing balls, we must thank the troops repeatedly. Our jocks are lying junkies. Gotta gain that edge, you know. To keep their jobs, even elementary school principals and teachers fix grades. In such a foul swamp, the honest man or woman is a fool, at best, and may soon be out of a job, if not already.

Corroding individuals and nations, corruption weeds out the honest and competent, while abetting the ruthless yet servile, towards inferiors and superiors, respectively. With so much corruption in high places, even the bought media must acknowledge that there is unprecedented mistrust in the entire system, but feeling impotent, all the hoi polloi can do is cheer when one of their own fight back. Seventy-year-old private contractor Arthur Harmon was hired by Fusion Contact Centers, and when it tried to stiff the old man after he had done his work, he shot its CEO, Steve Singer, and Singer’s lawyer, Mark Hummels. Harmon then committed suicide.

With public trust plummeting, poor Capitalism will suffer, the media lament, but what about the contagion of so much lying, cheating and unchecked violence? Our grinning Prez continues to kill so casually, so often, after joking about drones. Our Secretary of State gleefully chirped, “We came, we saw, he died!” It should come as no surprise, then, that hardly a week goes by without at least one multiple shooting where innocents are killed for no reason, beyond the fact that the shooter may have had a bad day, week or life.

And as the heavyweights steal big, us strawweights shoplift, filch from work or barter our boss’ merchandises. Gotta supplement those starvation paychecks. Barista, I’ll give you a free cappuccino, smart blonde-blended amaro joe, in exchange for a frankenchicken enchilada from your minimum wage shack of employment. Or take this schmuck working at Ross, the Dress for Less store. For a while now, he’s been sneaking shirts, wallets and belts into the trash, to recover then peddle for cheap.

Last May, 47 U.S. Marines and 21 civilian accomplices were charged with stealing assault rifles, bullets, night vision goggles and $800 flash lights to sell on eBay and Craiglist, at garage sales and through direct meetings. Buyers included domestic gangs and foreign agents. Since the country itself is, by far, the world’s biggest arms dealers, why shouldn’t its lowly grunts get in on the action? Last April, six US Army soldiers were arrested for selling stolen weapons, trafficking cocaine and offering murder for hire, “wet work,” with a hit costing $50,000, plus five kilos of coke. Your gang’s initial could be carved, free of charge, into the deceased individual.

In an AT&T commercial, a suited guy asks a bunch of kids, “Who thinks two is better than one?” All the kids shout, “Two!” Suit continues, “Now, what’s better, being able to shoot two lasers out of your eyes at the same time, or just one laser out of one eye?” A kid then explains, “It’s just fun. One beam, OK, it does a little bit of damage. Two beams, it makes something explode!” So there you have it. To sell a gadget that allows you to bungle two activities simultaneously, they use cute, goofy kids to gush over a futuristic weapon, as fired by a cyborg. We subject our children to maddening, nonstop and inhuman stimuli, then wonder why they’re suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. With them going apeshit inside their No Dummie Left Behind cages, we drug them some more, as if there weren’t enough toxins already clogging their veins.

Our media push violence and stupidity on us, then justify it by saying this is exactly what we want, since we are belligerent morons, more or less, but it’s clear we haven’t always been this way, and don’t think I’m just using the cheeze whiz 70’s as a benchmark. In 1927, “I’m Looking Over a Four Leave Clover” was a huge hit, and you don’t have to understand its lyrics to know that it’s not about banging some ho. In 1929, Fats Waller scored with “Ain’t Misbehaving.” Even as Al Capone’s boys were mowing them down in Chicago, Americans were singing along to, “I don’t stay out late, don’t care to go / I’m home about eight, just me and my radio / Ain’t misbehavin’, I’m savin’ my love for you.” Compare that with 50 Cent’s “remember the good times, the chips we stacked / the clips we packed / and all the bricks we cooked from coke to crack.” Or, “Y’all can love me, or hate me, or suck my dick / I like my hoes just like Summer, no class.” Good Lord, and I thought smoking unfiltered Camel, drinking half a six pack or making out with a girl outside the 7-Eleven (after working eight hours at McDonald’s) was badass. Forgive me, Ice-T, for I’ve wasted my corn syrupy teens.

A question worth asking: Who benefit from a more compulsive, hence more violent, population? Well, if you’re pushing eternal warfare, which we are, you’ll need a pool of nutcases who are willing to shoot anyone for any reason, or none at all, and more deranged oafs at home to go “Rah! Rah!” over any bombing run or drone hit. Are we going into Mali next? Why not? Where is it, by the way? There has never been a country fighting so many wars without a serious debate about any of them. And if you want people to buy first, think later, to rack up life-wrecking debts to satiate all ephemeral cravings, then you ply them with poison, flickering television and thumping music. You don’t want a population capable of deliberating, reflecting, thinking clearly or even listening attentively, much less reading, but one that can be jerked around by any sexy come-on or dumbed down slogan. In Allentown, I saw a hand drawn sticker featuring a large “HAPPY” pill, with this caption, “POLITICS IS THE ART OF CONTROL. GO BACK TO SLEEP.”

Americans are the most drugged and indebted people on earth, with the highest rates of teen pregnancy and childbirth among developed nations. We don’t think much about the future, nor can we envision what it might bring. With no universal healthcare, many of us don’t even dare to think about our own bodily decline or vulnerabilities. “Kicking the can down the road” has become our mantra. Each speech by the President is a vapid pep talk with no correlation to reality, yet, clouded by virtual or real narcotics, many of us still clap and cheer. Others mumble that it’s time we fight back, but with our enemy ill-defined or out of reach, we’re reduced to shooting innocents or ourselves.

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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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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