In this game we consumers are reduced to plastic playthings, happy to be fingered. This and other thoughts on American culture.
However desperate or degraded American political life seems, we cannot forget that we are privileged to live in the most advanced, enlightened, and peaceful era that humanity, on the whole, has ever known. For the enlightened among us, this privilege always seems bittersweet, of course, because our detached erudition does nothing to mitigate the eruptions of coarse violence, myopic rhetoric, and adolescent egotism that overwhelm mass media.
Doomed to a bittersweet existence, we might be considered lucky, but over the years, the vain, enveloping emptiness of middlebrow American chatter sifts out all the sweetness, leaving us with a trickle of unalloyed acridity, implicitly political in nature. Nietzsche demonized this feeling as ressentiment; the French diluted and distended it as ennui. We Americans, romantic optimists, have no word for it, which means that we feel it all the more keenly.
Do we still trust our own enlightenment? I suspect your enlightenment is as impure, or nearly as impure, as mine. In any case, rampant American illiteracy makes appearing enlightened relatively easy -- too easy, in fact, and tarnished by a necessary, Socratic contempt for politicians. Our disillusioned ability to see through every political deception and oratorical fraud is only the byproduct of an irremediable alienation.
But could it have been otherwise? Did we ever expect, even on those rare days when we awake with clear eyes and a lightened head, that wisdom and disillusionment were two different things?
Though inflected with a grumbling cynicism, our enlightenment isn’t worthless. It has, for instance, made unthinkable a kind of naïve, overeager consumerism that was commonplace 30 or 40 years ago, when participating in a sanitized, corporatized culture still seemed excitingly novel. Consider this miniature model of a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise operation, once sold as a baldly acculturating -- yet terribly modern -- game for elementary-age children:
Less a friendly invitation than a societal dictum, the moniker, “Let’s Play at Kentucky Fried Chicken” already turns the game into a form of organized labor. We might be thankful that the word “chicken” isn’t followed by a hectoring exclamation point. Presumably dating from the early or mid-'70s, the game -- and let’s call it a rule-bound game rather than a freely usable toy -- makes no effort to conceal its propagandistic intent. On the contrary, the object flaunts its brainwashing in ways our “enlightened” culture of irony has made unbearable, if not impossible.
The box’s capitally-lettered subtitle, “A CHILD GUIDANCE TOY”, clarifies the indoctrinating purpose of what hardly seems fun. The box tells us -- as if the information were comforting -- that “the Colonel and His Customers are Finger Puppets”, slyly conflating the real locus of power (the Colonel) with obedient servants (consumers) by reducing them all to plastic playthings, happy to be fingered. The real-life puppets, children aged three to eight (as per the box’s recommendation), remain unaware of the subterfuge. One might assume that enlightenment and disillusion attend a child’s ninth year. But what about the parents, fully secure in their maturity, who long ago purchased the game as an un-ironic means of social “guidance”?
The box depicts children, amazed by the engines of poultry-based enterprise, rewarded with an object that “Swings Open for Double the Play Value”. By no accident is the consumerist word “value” introduced into the child’s vocabulary through the means of “play”, ensuring that even the freest expressions of intrinsic desire (play) are tethered to capitalism’s icy quantifications. The box’s lower right-hand corner pictures two felicitous children exhibiting that dual quality of forced happiness and implicit obedience endemic to Soviet propaganda. The children’s rehearsed smiles are as carefully moderated as the thinly painted lips of the legless, two-inch customer figurines, who helplessly enact the speedy ritual of poultry intake and immediate flight. That the children do not pose before ascending suns or patriotic flags only means that propaganda, in the omnivorous guise of globalized capital, has finally superseded natural iconography and national interests.
It may have seemed baffling even in the '70s to see the Colonel (as pictured on the box) working behind the counter, distributing breaded thighs and dispensing pennies from the register. As the game imagines the CEO reincarnated as a merry wage slave, capitalist expansion pretends to Marxist justice. According to the displayed image, there are (oddly) no other workers, no underpaid employees begging for maternity leave, no harried middle-managers reduced to containing toilet overflow. Curiously, the pictured set-up omits a kitchen, rendering the cuisine’s etiology unknowable. Such a mystery certainly confirms our worst suspicions, for whenever grey beef discs or abject chicken segments materialize, they seem to withstand or defy every scientific method of decomposition and degeneration. Fast foods arise in the world through some inorganic magic, never to vanish, only sliding across one’s inner system, exiting through sheer, unlubricated force of will.
Looking closely at the faces of the tiny humanoid figurines, all circling the chicken compound as if they were planets orbiting a life-granting sun, we are overcome with a multilayered pathos. Yes, we’re devastated by the bankruptcy of the cute, clueless faces, and as we reflect on them, we come face to face with our own empty (if fattening) American childhoods. Confronting the reality of the past, even for a moment, consumes us with pain. What can we do but try to redeem our emptiness with irony’s cheap enlightenment?
Perhaps, we hopefully think, our enlightenment isn’t so new. Yes, our childhoods were emptily consumerist, but we weren’t always dumbly, cluelessly beaming; somehow, even at the age of seven or eight, we were in on the joke and, caught up in the zeitgeist, voluntarily decided to make ourselves stupid. But we think a second time, a little more honestly: no, we didn’t really have a clue, certainly not at seven. In a perpetual frenzy, we just glutted ourselves, coveting bigger piles of plastic destined for the landfill.
At one time, the fast food experience proudly embraced everything American. Commercials of the '70s and early '80s framed fast food as a childlike, magical experience enrobed in Post-Fordist efficiency. Today, as we feed on Lipitor or diabetically crawl to railed sickbeds, cheapest gluttony is leavened with a dose of embarrassment.
Yet our pride hasn’t faded. We are simply proud in a more stubborn fashion, ingesting mechanically separated, ammonia-washed meats as a sign of our undying stamina and our exceptional ability to stare down Death himself, who has no comprehension of the immortal American intestine.
Though our bloated intestinal fortitude has globalized to a degree, I suspect cheap gluttony will remain for some time an exotic American phenomenon. Several years ago, Quick, a French fast-food outlet, widely promoted “Le Menu Homer”, which featured a Homer Simpson burger, a meat disc on a donut-shaped bun. The artifact is both parodic and aspirational, mocking the absurd permutations of American consumption but also optimistically manifesting our American shamelessness. Even the French, apparently, tire of cultural pride and protectionism and long to be transatlantic lowbrows, if only as a momentary joke. Doubtless Parisians felt guilty ordering “Le Homer”, but some surely rose above the shame unknown to our Homer Simpsons.
Today, it's easy to laugh when irony corrupts our perspective. But 40 years ago? Certainly, we may have laughed at the miniature plastic chicken franchise in the '70s, but I wonder if we laughed in the same way we do today, with the hideous knowledge that deadening corporatism was not a passing fad or marketing technique, but our collective dystopian destiny. Presumably there's some conservative minority neither repulsed nor amused by the notion of using the chicken-game as a tool of corporatist conditioning. We’d call these people the Old Exceptionalists -- the Newt Gingriches -- who, with forked tongue and strong religious conviction, believe it perfectly rational to train children as automatous consumers and functionaries. After all, many of us will need to purchase, swallow, cut, deep fry, publicize, and/or vend the standardized chicken segments of the future, and these inculcated behaviors are inarguably superior to gang lifestyles, drug addiction, socialized medicine, unwashed artists’ communes, hippie protest encampments, and other quaint conservative bugbears.
Those who’ve experienced the transformation of mild neurosis into acute panic know that, in the throes of madness, the first thing to vanish is one’s sense of humor. This explains why conservatives can never be remediated or redeemed by comedy, even when it lacks the acidity of satire. Always in a panic about the past slipping away, yet never admitting to history’s injustices or horrors, the conservative brain holds incompatible ideas in a delicate, humorless balance they never see as incongruous, precisely because humor is the stuff of incongruity.
It is thus fruitless to point out those typical conservative hypocrisies that strike as so amusingly unselfconscious. If you joke with a Christian conservative that Jesus, surely, favored a capital gains tax, he will not see a humorous incongruity but instead will become enraged, for he knows that Jesus was foremost an American individualist and only incidentally an anti-plutocratic advocate for the meek. All that talk about turning the other cheek was merely an ideal suggestion to which original sinners needn’t aspire. Likewise, it's useless to remind impassioned conservatives that Ayn Rand was a feministic, pro-abortion atheist because they are far more interested in the piecemeal mythology of her novels than in her holistic, amoral objectivism.
If you can stomach it, consider the case of antigovernment activists lamenting the death of Lavoy Finicum, who illegally occupied federal lands and was shot dead by police. Online mourners not only claimed that Finicum “died for your children's liberty” (as one Facebook post read) but insisted that “when our liberty is restored” a “Lavoy Finicum Memorial Highway” will be established. How could these small-government, anti-tax crusaders, deaf to cognitive dissonance, not realize that new highways -- even ones dedicated to martyred patriots -- mean bigger governments and higher taxes?
The religious conservative believes that he is oppositional but never believes he is subversive -- this belief is his essential characteristic. The nature of this paradox -- the conservative opposes decadence only to restore an apocalyptic faith that is itself an ultimately decadent construction -- is easy enough to understand, as its internal contradictions bear the usual stamp of unselfconscious delusion. Nevertheless, I confess that I often don’t know what radical theists mean, even in the most simpleminded sense. Partisan cleric Mike Huckabee, attempting to deny that racism persists as a widespread social problem, remarked online that people have “a sin problem, not a skin problem.”
I doubt I’ll ever understand what this means, though I readily admit that “sin” and “skin” do rhyme. Does racism -- through some arcane, reverse-hypostatic schema -- have nothing at all to do with the flesh? Does his religiosity mean to neatly divide form (sin) from content (racism), as Christianity divides the soul from the body? But even this makes little sense: why would a dogmatic moralist suggest that racism isn’t related to skin, that is, to the limiting material and bodily conditions against which Christianity has traditionally railed?
For Huckabee and his ilk, the “skin” problem, belonging to the political realm, must be simplistically separated out from the spirit of religion. As Reinhold Niebuhr observed,
The Ethic of Jesus does not deal at all with the immediate moral problems of every human life -- the problem of arranging some kind of armistice between various contending factions and forces. It has nothing to say about the relativities of politics and economics, nor of the necessary balances of power which exist and must exist in even the most intimate social relationships… It does not establish a connection with horizontal points of a political or social ethic or with diagonals which a prudential individual ethic draws between the moral ideal and the facts of a given situation. It has only a vertical dimension between the loving will of God and the will of man.” (An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1963, 23-24)
Niebuhr’s remarks explain the incongruous beliefs of Christians who see no contradiction between, say, vulture capitalism and the Sermon on the Mount, because earthly or “horizontal” politics play no role in Jesuit ethics. Turning the other cheek applies only to the spirited individual, not the politicized nation-state, the ghostly ethic of corporate personhood notwithstanding. If the meek shall inherit, they will do so not through socialistic contracts, collective bargaining, or nonviolent resistance; they will inherit only because Vertical God has prophesied it.
Likewise, the Protestant conservative (not the religious liberal, admittedly) apolitically sees Jesus as a bringer of anthropomorphic love, not as a force of generalized benevolence or social justice. Given the conservative’s sexual repression, the choice of “love” as a defining characteristic is both an embarrassing sublimation and an ignorant claim, since love, not always a tonic, is also the province of sadists, obsessives, and assorted psychopaths.
Yet Niebuhr’s explanation of the axes of belief seems predominantly Catholic, for the disintermediated Protestant, in his “personal” relationship with Jesus, has collapsed the hierarchical, vertical steps into a horizontal intimacy. Claiming the spirit not merely as a floating omnipresence but as an internalizable opiate, the Protestant makes the ascending steps to heaven an invisible part of his own body. To the observer, this radical personalization is difficult to distinguish from the cult of American individualism, which is underwritten by the admittedly more Vertical dicta of Manifest Destiny.
To the nonbeliever, the “personal relationship” Protestants have with the inhaled spirit is as unintelligible as the desire to split skin from sin. With all its disintermediating tendencies, Protestantism mustn’t turn into Big Religion, in the same category as Big Government, Big Data, or Big Abortion -- it must be, like Small Tobacco or Small Gun Ownership, a personal choice opposing and disconnected from institutional powers. By bringing Jesus down from heavenly precipices and facing him horizontally and personally, believers come to see the earthly and the divine on the same level, without separation, incongruity, or contradiction. It's no wonder they fail to see incongruities generally, having gone to such theological pains to collapse the axes of three dimensions into two, much as the Christly body is ritually consumed as a flattened biscuit, bereft of depth.
To the believer, personal relationships with the savior signify not the believer’s narcissism (or spiritual magnetism) but the savior’s illimitable magnanimity toward even unworthy souls. Of course, Protestants did not invent the personalization of theistic belief. The Greek understanding of “enthusiasm” (from enthousiasmos, or “divine possession”) reveals the believer’s conviction that through ecstatic states he is individually unified with the beyond. Likewise, primitive, pre-Sumerian cults centered on ingesting hallucinatory mushrooms, believing they internalized roaming divinities under the spell of their fungal visions.
Obviously, this strained emphasis on personalization encourages narcissism, an occasionally harmless weakness of the ego that tends toward toxicity when multiplied with the complementary subjectivity of religious fervor. In the American tradition, the best zealot is not content with weekly prayer and the avoidance of pork. Bloated by egoism, he must make a valiant stand against heretical armies, taking up weapons and internalizing the whole world as much as he can, pulling spirit, body, family, and politics alike down into the earth with him. How deep into the indulgent self must he venture? The zealous Chosen One will burrow far underground indeed, finding refuge in his tailor-made fallout shelter, which in budget or deluxe models encapsulates the annihilating conclusion of America’s cocktail of Christianity, capitalism, and exceptionalism.
The bomb shelter, an ultimate retreat into the self and the “personal” spirit, reframes narcissism as a new perversion of the verticality Niebuhr sees in the apolitical Christian spirit. Making the vertical into a personal horizon isn’t enough when the apocalypse lurks around the corner. Now, the vertical trajectory that was bent into a horizon must be straightened and pointed downward, such that the believer connects with an apocalyptic God by burrowing directly underground. Through this “negatively vertical” conviction, the believer delves blackly into his narcissism, utterly convinced that his presence is indispensable for Christ’s eventual return and the waking of the dead.
Most importantly, he will be safely entombed when the preparatory apocalypse comes. After all, what good is the Rapture if you aren’t around to witness it safely through your shelter’s periscope or the slots of its escape hatch?
And how does precious capitalism operate within this exceptionally American doomsday scenario? The survivalist’s narcissistic steel cocoon, coming at a steep price, is the evidence of his wise, knowing consumerism. One leading website, the self-explanatory undergroundbombshelter.com, suggests that prospective buyers finance their shelters with a home equity loan averaging about $165,000, presumably enough for an enviable shelter within the apocalypse community. The site sells a number of standardized goods necessary for life after the fall, including “Survival Cave Canned Ground Beef”, which boasts a life expectancy of 12 to 35 years, and a “Chocolate Candy Variety Case” categorized under the heading “Future Essentials”.
Oddly, the site categorizes the luxurious chocolate, and not the “NukAlert Radiation Detector”, as a post-apocalyptic “essential” for the underground American who has brought Nietzschean ressentiment to its logical, blind conclusion. Inevitably, the shelter’s stench of testosterone gives rise to brawny cinematic fantasy, and the leather-jacketed, millenarian survivalist will be unlikely to resist The Road Warrior Emergency Kit, though one is hard pressed to imagine Mad Max resorting to its Wet Naps or Reflecting Highway Triangle.
Buried deep in his expensive iron coffin, surrounded by eschatological darkness, the apocalyptist mortgages some piece of mind along with his soul. He’s poured his life savings into a tomb he believes will be a temporary gateway to paradise. As he waits in his unallegorical cave, never imagining a future because he never believed in evolution, he sits individually wrapped like a slice of factory-processed cheese or a mummified, conveyer-belt burger, yielding neither to the promise of life nor to the inevitability of an organic demise.