1980s >> 1987 >> no-997-september-1987

Editorial: The Real Thing

America was first sighted through a fog by a discerning Viking, who refused to let his crew go ashore and turned his prow out to sea. A thousand years and billions of hamburgers on, who is to say he didn’t set a fine example? For the nation that gave us chewing gum, Nixon, muzak and Hiroshima has been relentlessly creating the world in its image to ensure that we all have a nice day, like it or not.

In a society at war with itself and its perceived enemies, everyone must try to outdo their neighbour and since no one is to be trusted completely, human traits like modesty, honesty and generosity are luxuries for display by losers only. Success is its own justification. The axioms underlying all that frenetic activity are miserably negative: fear and insecurity are the best generators of wealth; earning a living is life enhancing; people will always want to kill other people on a mass scale, god’s attitude to wrong is the same since Adam; the rest of the world needs faster food and better insurance. And since what everybody must want is more—of anything-the gospel of market forces infest every waking minute: somebody, somewhere, will sell you exactly what you don’t need to fill the void in your life or anaesthetise that pain. The precise cost of human and supernatural endeavour, from cancer care to eternal salvation in the loving arms of Jesus, is measured and weighed to guarantee a healthy bottom line. It’s one small step back for man, but a giant leap for market penetration.

As not even force is permitted to subvert the power of money, those who claim to represent the free world have to learn to speak with permanently forked tongues, to elevate hypocrisy to the level of science. Meaningless abstractions—right, wrong, justice, truth—straighten the necessary twists of foreign policy, so that the dictatorships are allies when it suits, notional democracy is demanded when it doesn’t, and former enemies are welcome if it pays. From the Indian Wars to El Salvador, America has been on the side of “right”. What it arrogantly calls “the developing world” has a free choice: the attentions of the CIA or Kentucky Fried Chicken and the cherished principles of free trade—here’s a dime, we keep a dollar. And if at times it begins to look as if life itself is a communist conspiracy, rest assured they have the antidote for sale on the never-never.

But have all these dreams and images which pour into Western living rooms clouded our judgement, leaving us unable to distinguish between reality and appearance? Is American life experienced only at the extremes? Well, what we can say for sure is that only six out of ten is able to read about capitalism’s daily traumas; that the world’s great art is appreciated only in the nation’s bank vaults; that babies are now born singing the Stars and Strips and clutching pocket calculators; that just 9,000 rapes and 70,000 serious assaults occurred in the country’s classrooms last year, an improvement on casualty figures for an average year of the Vietnam war. And although one child under 16 is shot on Detroit’s streets every day, only 34 died last year. People with no food on their table, but a lot of forks and knives have to cut something.

The philosophy of do-it-yourself even extends to civilian defence. Guardian Angels patrol the subways and sidewalks, photographed and fingerprinted and carrying solid canes or fondling heavy metal wrenches. Nobody’s going to snatch their wallets! New weapons supermarkets have sprung up, offering fetching arrays of ice picks, drills and ball pens with whip handles. Some devices were banned by the courts; others accepted. CD in some areas has become obligatory, like jury service, and they seem to know exactly where to look, who to follow and how hard to strike without killing the prey. CD freaks can become national heroes overnight.

Those with faith in an American change of heart over what is called arms control should remember that cosmetics are a national obsession. The Pentagon still believes that a general nuclear war can be limited, could be won, and therefore may be protracted. Its present arms procurement programme favours weapons which open up new areas of major military competition to make us all sleep soundly in our beds. If, then, we are due for more summitry and paper waving, it has to do with economics and places in history, with the competitive weakness of the national economy and the challenge of European and Japanese capitalism. Merely temporary restraints on a policy that must be written in stone.

Across the world the great majority of wage and salary earners strive to overcome anxiety, boredom and dreariness, most of them too busy earning a living to live much themselves. An alternative to caddying their time away is not on the agenda and just watching the players has become a major recreation. In America, the pace may be faster, the sense of unease stronger, the casualties heavier, and the deceptions and obscenities on a grander scale; but the malaise has the same roots in an essentially inhuman economic system. Republican and Democrat politicians are about to go to great pains, and spend millions of dollars, to persuade voters that their lives can be different if they exchange a President with a neck that flaps in the wind while the hair keeps its shape, for one with a smooth gullet and standard coiffure.

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