Down the Yellow Brick Road

I’m afraid I disagree with Rafia Zakaria’s article The Tragedies of Other Places — That the tragedy in Boston (and Americans’ reactions) shows that America isn’t as complicated as the rest of the world.

We are indeed just as “complicated,” if not more so, than any other place.

True, we didn’t have 652 bombings last year like Pakistan did. And poverty abroad looks like: life expectancy of 57 in Ghana; inability to read a book (a billion people worldwide), and per-capita monthly income of $106 in India.

Poverty in America itself often looks (and is) less-severe than elsewhere, because our standard of living has been so high for so long. Most households in even our worst neighborhoods have cell phones, cable TV, air conditioning and access to clean water.

So what then are our “complications”?

For starters, America had 31,672 deaths by firearms in 2010 alone.

How about our immense wealth too? Check.

Innovation? Check.

Hunger? Check.

Inspiration and Hope? Check and Check.

Corruption? At all levels.

Kids without two parents. Millions.

And – Dropping bombs on brown people decade-after-decade while waving our flag with pride? And acting shocked — and pissed off — that sometimes they bomb us back? Another nauseating check, unfortunately. (Don’t smirk, Africa, you’re next)

Speaking of starvation – we’re the fattest nation on earth, yet just a few kilometers here from my middle-class neighborhood in Philadelphia, there are tens of thousands of people who literally don’t have any food to eat today.

Is it complicated in America? You betcha.

So what’s the difference here in America?

Well – Things just don’t SEEM that complicated to us.

Why? Everything’s fake here. We live in a fantasy world. And – we love it.

What’s fake? Everything. Our food, our wars, smiles, TV shows, the news, our nails, boobs, and noses. (I just found out too that wrestling AND American Idol are both fake too?? Ugh!).

We don’t see our meat until it’s in a clear plastic package at the 100k square-feet grocery store. The first time I saw an animal slaughtered was on the streets of Kathmandu in 2000. A butcher suddenly and unceremoniously beheaded a goat on the sidewalk in broad daylight. I was so shocked and physically nauseated that I had to walk away and sit alone to calm down. Don’t get me started on Disney World either. I cringe when I read that even adults love going to America’s ultimate fantasy camp (I know, there’s one in Hong Kong and France too).

Where does America’s fake-ness come from? From all of us. We’re all in on it. From the “We” in “we the people”, to the media, Hollywood, our teachers, politicians, sports teams, even our cuddly grandparents. It’s like we’re all living in our very own Land-of-Oz, constructing a reality that ain’t real.

Cultural narratives fit into this for sure. Narratives to help us avoid the messiness of reality. Narratives about how to live, what to aspire to be, what’s “evil”, what we stand for (as individuals and as a nation). And narratives of course to tell us what to buy! Because if it ain’t making money, we in “A’murka” ain’t doing it. That’s the real goal here, no?

Narratives need actors, and we’ve got plenty here. An old friend from Australia always remarked how well everyone in America handles being on TV, even little kids. She’s right. Stick a camera and microphone in any of our faces on the street and we’ll perform well. Try that in Pakistan and you’ll probably get the back of a hijab. Here in America though, we’re all hams. A depressing number of us even admit that being famous is a genuine career goal. We know all the scripts, all the narratives that certain situations call for. All of America’s a stage indeed.

Even the Marines are in on it. They can turn (stage) a statue-toppling war event in Iraq into a made-for-TV propaganda reel for the folks back home. But don’t blame the soldiers (too much). Instead blame my fellow dumb Americans who just WANT to believe, HAVE to believe, that our country and our leaders (government and corporate) are doing noble things around the world.

We Americans simply don’t want to know about reality – whether at home or abroad. It reminds me of the old joke: “Are you just ignorant or apathetic? Answer: I don’t know and I don’t care.”

But if that only describes how we feel about the world, how did we actually get here (and stay here) in this state of perpetual know-nothingness?

Distraction. Endless distraction. We’re simply obsessed here in America with leisure and entertainment. Pick your medium, and a distraction is at your finger tips 24 hours. TV, movies, sports, alcohol, drugs, eating, sex, travel – and that’s all before the Internet era and our electronic lives and selves  (cell phones, surfing, chatting, gaming, porn). (Hmmm, maybe this article is just another distraction? So sorry :=) )

This theory of distraction isn’t a new one. In 1985 educator Neil Postman wrote the book “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” It’s a lament about TV and its detrimental effect on human intellect and our understanding of reality(s). He also said later, in 1995, that he worried that personal computers would harm our socializing with each other. Think about that the next time you’re on public transport and everyone under 25 has ear buds in (full disclosure: I got ear buds too!)

Of course we Americans have real feelings too. There is genuine grief and sorrow felt by all us normal Americans when we see events like the bombing in Boston. We’re not robots. We’re human beneath our Facebook profiles. Seeing the photo of that boy who was killed while waiting to greet his father at the finish line is too much to bear. I saw it on CNN briefly out of the corner of my eye (looking up distractedly from my laptop) – and I can tell you that I’ll never-ever look at that photo again.

But the horrible reality of lives and limbs being lost in Boston doesn’t sell any ketchup. It just makes us sad and angry and despondent. Unless… It’s packaged and re-packaged ad-nauseum until it becomes a heroic struggle against evil, with all of us buying in (sometimes literally)…..Maybe I’ve said enough for now.

But wait,there’s more!

These days, the Wizard of Oz that has stood behind the curtain orchestrating our American culture and reality (with our participation) is in the uber-painful process of being exposed. Things like our housing crash, Wall Street meltdown, budget deficits, health care disaster, and endless wars are not just potholes along the yellow brick road. They are a collective sinkhole from which many Americans may never escape. Our narratives may get lost as well. Our greatest one – Work hard and you will succeed – has already died for millions of Americans (even with advanced degrees and experience).

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