Thursday, June 5, 2014

800 Words: The Modern America Hall of Fame

We’re going to be hearing about Bowe Bergdahl for a long, long time. As horrible a distraction as it’s going to be - the first true scandal of the Obama administration - I can’t deny that a part of me is looking forward to it. What’s good for this country and what’s great about this country are two very, very different phenomena. America itself and the way America views itself are almost polar opposite concepts. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we have been the isolated superpower, viewing ourselves as completely invulnerable even after 9/11 and The Great Recession. The more bad things happen to us, the crazier and more entertaining this country gets. We’re completely unconcerned with how to save ourselves because we’re so entertained with ourselves. We’re almost completely unaware of how other parts of the Globe have surpassed us, because it’s nearly impossible to see over the horizon of our noise machine to any other place in the world. Surrounding America is a mirror that lets us gaze back into ourselves.

Even in the age of the internet and 24 hour news, there are always plenty of events in a country this big and diverse to obsess us endlessly. Part of the reason I’ve never successfully left this country is because it’s so endlessly entertaining, and every other place I’ve ever been is ultimately kind of boring in comparison. I used to dream of living my life abroad, but please, let Israel and the EU keep their lofty ideals; ideals are boring and predictable. Why live in countries where everyone has so much in common? America may not be the greatest country in the world. These days, it may not be in the top 30. But the sheer excitement and entertainment value of living in America, the national Vaudeville stew of high and low brow, is surely unmatchable at any time or place in human history. It’s a place of endless diversity and variety, endless intelligence and endless stupidity. Every day, there is always some new fad and obsession, some new activity, something new to devote your attentions to. The majority of it is terrible, but who cares? At least we’re experimenting with new things. Even now, as the decline begins, perhaps especially now that we fail to achieve our ideals so spectacularly, this country generates more vitality than anywhere ever before. At any moment, you could meet an endless stream of people with whom you have absolutely nothing in common - no values, no history - in spite of the fact that you lived a mile away from them for your entire life. This is what Europe must have been like a century ago, its craziness and endless variety multiplying every year as it danced ever more dangerously upon the volcano’s precipice. At any moment, your concentration will be gripped by issues of the greatest consequence for the two minutes before and after Miley Cyrus reveals a new body part. As stupid and insipid as American can sound, you have to live here to understand just how much fun it can be. Once you live in other countries, it’s enough to make you know that you’ll never be as endlessly fascinated by the world if you ever live abroad  - no matter how much truer that country’s conception of the world may be than ours. This country is clearly heading toward disaster, and as with all drunk joyrides, it’s the joyful, rebellious adrenaline rush you’ve craved for years until your car runs into a lamp post and you nearly total the car.

The people who make this country fascinating are usually not the most famous people. Almost invariably, it’s either the people behind the most famous people who tell us what to think that are interesting, or it’s the people randomly plucked from obscurity because they did something which every average person in America unconsciously wishes they’d have done themselves, or feared they might do yet. Our prurient obsession with sex and violence in this country is as important to us as our voyeuristic obsession with fame (and all three concepts are linked inextricably), because we live vicariously through all the News’s trumped up stories. Every time there’s a murder on the national news or a grizzly abduction, the whole country pretends to be horrified, meanwhile gobbling up every sordid detail hungrily. We barely concern ourselves with the victims, but the criminals themselves become endlessly discussed celebrities.

We’re addicted to scandal, hopelessly. Every taboo’s been broken, and our attention span is occupied by a race to see who can flout our former taboos most flagrantly. The people most successful at that are the ones whose outlooks determine virtually everything we ever see. Look up the names listed below. Some you’ll know instantly, some you haven’t thought about in years, some you’ve completely forgotten, and some you’ve never heard of at all. Go to Wikipedia and Google, read their stories, try to understand their motives and the motives of the people around them. If you can, you have an understanding not only of the events, often trivial ones, that obsess this country, but also of the people who obsess the country, and of the way a certain kind of mythology grips Americans that has very little to do with how the world truly works. Any writer who can artfully fictionalize stories like theirs would be the writer for our time and place.

Since 2000 (along with many I’ve forgotten):

Katherine Harris
Elian Gonzales
Thomas Penfield Jackson
Jeffrey Wigand
Jerome T. Murray and Marilyn J. Murray
Bernard Kerik
Bruce Edwards Ivins
Frank Luntz
Timothy McVeigh
Jim Jeffords
Chandra Levy/Gary Condit
Karl Rove
John Allen Muhammed
Ken Lay/Jeff Skilling/Lou Pai
Cardinal Bernard Law
Donald Rumsfeld/Dick Cheney/Paul Wolfowitz
Colin Powell/Richard Clarke
Charles F. Bolden/Steve Sitch/LeRoy Cain/John Harpold/Wayne Hale
Grey Davis
Katelynn Farber
The Arvizo Family
Elizabeth Smart
Bob Shrum
Howard Dean
Lynndie England
Mel Gibson
Michael Moore
Michael Brown
Ray Nagin
Harriet Meiers
the Schaivo family
Valerie Plame
Roy Moore
Charles Carl Roberts IV
Ted Haggard
Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay
Tom Tancredo
Liviu Librescu
Barry Bonds
Lisa Nowak
Anna Nicole Smith
Larry Craig
Michael Vick
Sarah Palin
Hillary Clinton
The Koch Family
Dick Fuld
Angelo Mozilo
Sully Sullenberger
Ron Paul
Max Baucus
Ben Nelson
Glenn Beck
Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly
Bradley Manning
Charlie Sheen
Nafissatou Diallo
Casey Anthony
David Graeber
Steve Jobs
Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno
Anthony Weiner
John Boehner
Dotty Sandusky
The Lanza Family
Chris Stevens
George Zimmerman
Michelle and Marcus Bachmann
Jimmy Carter III
Susan Rice
Louie Gohmert
Joe Biden
Paula Deen
Uncle Ruslan
The Tsarnaev Brothers
Kathleen Sebelius
Chris Christie
Jodi Arias
Edward Snowden
Cliven Bundy
Donald Sterling and V. Stiviano

1 comment:

  1. Oh Evan! This is a view from 30,000 feet post if I've ever read one. Does all this fascinating intrigue and scandal not make us the greatest country on earth I ask you? I think we're drifting more slowly towards disaster than you think though. I'd disagree that we never think seriously about why other coutnries are surpassing us in various areas. In fact I'd argue that we OBSESS over why countries are surpassing us and don't always learn the right lessons from that obsession (but maybe that's because I work in education). The dichotomy you describe is the most interesting to me. Yes- we have a lot of ABSURD amount of lunacy. We also have most of the solutions to our greatest challenges in the minds of absolutely brilliant Americans which are held back from being brought to fruition by institutional and systemic issues- which are the ones we need to address most desperately. If I can take a moment to be optimistic in some way, I think the most relevant political quote would be Bubba Clinton's- "There is nothing wrong with America that can't be fixed by what is right in America." That doesn't mean it'll ever happen though...we might be too distracted by shiny metal objects :)