Explaining America

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Letters pour in from desperate readers (or would if they did) saying, “Fred, explain America today. Say something tendentious and irritating about what is going on in this curious country. Why do we do what we do? Sock it to us.”

All right.

The United States is an uneasy, frightened country, yet aggressive, truculent, and looking for trouble — which it finds. Fear: Terrorists are everywhere, like cockroaches and governmental cameras. Citizens should watch each other on the subway and rat out suspicious behavior, such as speaking a language other than English. People need to go through metal detectors in county courthouses, because the government is scared of them, and get spied on by the government to protect them against the ever-present danger of…of, well, the unspeakable and unspoken angst of existence. And so, in the customary manner of large scared bullies, the country lashes out, at Iraq, Iran, Syria, North Korea, Afghanistan, Venezuela, wherever.

A friend says, “Fred, gringos want to be controlled. They love this police-state stuff. It gives them meaning. They lead miserable lives in boring suburbs. The husband is a mouth-breathing oaf with his retinas sewed to the football machine. His wife is a pucker-faced shrew with cellulite like the dark side of the Moon and his kids are whining dopers who gawp at the box and gurgle over stupid video games. The guy has no control over anything in his life. He’s scared of the boss and the pissed-off middle-aged man-hating divorce with thick ankles in Human Resources who would love to outsource his job to Mumbai. He knows he’ll get raped if he splits from the wife. So he wants to kill something. He doesn’t care what, and anyway finding out might require reading a book, which god knows he isn’t going to do.”

This may be harsh. It also may be true of more people than one would like. The United States does not look real happy just now. It is a lower-middle-class country with an upper-middle-class income, except the credit cards are maxed out and people are in debt up to their gills. They don’t read much. The cultural center of gravity is the black ghetto with its irremediable anger. Americans tend to equate social class with income, but Archie Bunker in a call-me-Arnold SUV is still Archie Bunker. And his job, no matter how air-conditioned the office, is probably as rewarding as screwing lug-nuts on cars passing on the assembly line.

It is a purely consumer society. There is not much to life out there except buying things. Granted, a medieval serf would have regarded this as a problem much to be desired, but it leads to a certain bleakness today. You don’t buy a house because you love it, because of the lush vegetation thereabout and ancient trees and an enchanting air of calm and antiquity. No. You buy a “starter house” with the intention of unloading it when you make partner. Then you buy a shoddy McMansion, exactly like three hundred others surrounding it. Then it’s home theater and granite counter-tops and more-complex iPods and, just maybe, one day, a Hummer, that most thunderous of motorized codpieces. A suspicion dawns that something somehow isn’t right. Yep.

Other uneases brood over the landscape. Women dominate domestic politics and so we have the Fear State. With them security security security trumps liberty or taking chances of any sort, and so we must ban pocket knives. They are afraid of guns, want kids to wear helmets on bikes, and think tag is a violent and dangerous game. Yes, there are exceptions, but fewer day by day. We must fill in the deep ends of swimming pools and fear second-hand smoke and things that go bump in the night. I suspect a lot of this vague anxiety stems from the lack of a settled and satisfying place in society.

Men run foreign policy, and do it with the ardor and brainless territoriality of retarded pit bulls. We must confront The Threat — this threat, that threat, any threat in a storm. After the Soviets punked out on us, we adopted Terr, Terrace, and Tersm as interim threats until China comes online. We must Fight, we must Show Them, we must Draw the Line. All across America men with grade-school minds and beachball paunches growl that we gotta gettem before they get us, if we don’t stoppem there, they’ll land on the beaches of Peoria.

Women are limited creatures. They couldn’t be this stupid if you wired the entire sex in series.

Anyhow, this division of irresponsibility leads to contradictions. In school, low-IQ teachers try to make little boys into girls and expel them if they play soldier and say Bang. Then the Pentagon recruits these transvestite artifacts and sends them off to shoot people they’ve barely heard of. What a plan. What clarity of vision. What consistency.

A thing about society now is that nobody knows the rules any longer, if there are rules. In the past, from about the lower middle class and up, women behaved as ladies and men as gentlemen, concepts now identified with oppression. Even the lower classes were usually courteous after their fashion. The arrangement had its uses. When general agreement enforces consideration of others, life is better. You can go for days without wanting to strangle anybody.

Today, many people are civil, but many aren’t. You don’t know what to expect. Do you respond to abuse by being abusive in return? Or get walked over? That is the question. We now have Road Rage. In the streets you find people pushing onto the subway like piglets looking to suckle, and throwing the finger. Women are worse, apparently confusing ill-bred pugnacity with virility. (Men are careful how they treat each other, as there are consequences. Women do not suffer consequences. It must be nice.)

Further, the ghetto rules everywhere, seeps in, or threatens. Americans are not social climbers, but social descenders, rappelling deliberately into the grubby depths. On the radio one hears regularly such lyrical confections as “Muthahf____, muthaf____, she a ho, sh__.” Ah, but the chief rule of discourse today is that one must never offend the offensive. You must never suggest that they straighten up and mind their manners, mouth, grammar, and work ethic.

The pervasive overregulation adds to the national edginess. The government decides what and whether your children will learn in school, and makes it nearly impossible to flee. Getting on an airplane requires a strip-search by federal dimwits. You can’t hire people without proving that you have enough of this race and that sex and don’t discriminate against left-handed Pomeranian sadomasochists with Hispanic grandmothers. Rules, laws, regulations, paperwork. A sense arises of being trapped. Many hate it.

Add it up. A frightened people over-controlled, having no communal roots, blocked by government from raising their children as they see fit, parlously indebted, sexually confused, and lacking a sense of permanence or of a connection with the natural world, both of which have since time immemorial mitigated a certain emptiness in human affairs. Like a dog tormented by evil children, the country is ready to bite. And it does.

I hope that was adequately irritating. I can do no worse.

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and the just-published A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be.

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