“Here There Be Monsters”
Essay by Jason Miller
Thomas Paine’s Corner
“America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”
—John Quincy Adams
While it certainly was not his intent, Adams’ assertion serves to remind us of a truth revealed by vast oceans of tears, torrential rivers of blood, and formidable piles of human remains. Leaving murder, mayhem, and misery in its wake, America does “go abroad,” but not, as Adams noted, “in search of monsters to destroy.” What Adams failed to perceive, despite living in the midst of the Native American genocide and the abject evil of chattel slavery, is that America is the monster.
Yet like most monsters that exist outside the boundaries of imagination, the printed word, celluloid, or digital imagery, the United States and its denizens ostensibly appear rather harmless and mundane. In fact, it would probably be more accurate to say that a fair number of people still perceive us as downright heroic, cloaked as we are in our beguiling raiment of freedom and democracy.
“You need to ask why is it that we’re so surprised when the alleged BTK killer [in Wichita] ends up being someone who lives among us and works in our church and is a Cub Scout leader,” says Daryl Koehn, an ethicist at the University of St. Thomas in Houston and author of a new book, “The Nature of Evil.” “We want evil to be monstrous,” she says, “because if evil is monstrous, then by definition it doesn’t look like us.”
—“Calling Evil by Name” from the Christian Science Monitor (3/10/05)
While Jefferson penned the words, “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” in our Declaration of Independence, the notion actually evolved from Locke’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of estate” and Adam Smith’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of property.” Smith’s version even found its way into The Declaration of Colonial Rights, crafted by the First Continental Congress in 1774. We in the United States act monstrously because in spite of Jefferson’s re-wording, we did not divorce ourselves from Locke’s and Smith’s notions. We perceive an inextricable link between our happiness and the degree of material success we achieve.
Forged within the context of capitalism, which has become savage beyond comprehension as it rages against its inevitable self-destruction, our relentless devotion to our “inalienable right” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” focuses primarily upon enhancing our own lives (others be damned), filling our heavily-mortgaged homes to the rafters with as much “stuff” as we can acquire, and satiating every hedonistic desire the law will allow, and then some. We rarely pursue the spiritual form of happiness to which Jefferson was probably alluding. In a nation where “I” rarely defers to “we” and property rights trump humanity, we US Americans tend to be all about “me” and hell-bent on dying a winner by possessing the “most toys.”
“About 24,000 people die each day from hunger or hunger-related causes. Three-quarters of the deaths are children under the age of 5.”
—-The Hunger Project, United Nations; Fall 2003
“You can find your way across this country using burger joints the way a navigator uses stars.”
Think about that figure of 24,000 for a moment. Each day that passes, nearly three times as many human beings succumb to malnutrition and hunger than the total number of people we have lost in our illegal and murderous invasion of Iraq that began in 2003. Yet as Charles Kuralt pointed out, there is no shortage of victuals in the United States. Fast food restaurants, the progenitors of numerous evils, including factory farming, Mcjobs, the corporatization of culture, and the “throw away” society, are nearly ubiquitous. We US Americans are “lovin’ it” and having it “[our] way” so much that highway weigh stations stops may eventually become mandatory for all motorists. 40 million of us are obese and 3 million more are morbidly obese.
Ironically though, we are so selfish and self-absorbed, that not only do we use our immense military and economic might to extort and force the rest of the world to supply our tiny percentage of the world’s population with a shockingly gluttonous one fourth of the Earth’s resources, we allow hunger and homelessness to exist amongst our own people!
Television, which is both our grossly distorted window to the world and a Siren’s call to viciously lacerate our souls upon the jagged coast of the Isle of Avarice where we ultimately find ourselves spiritually devoured by the beast called Consumerism, acts as a powerful catalyst for America’s pathological fascination with shopping.
While our multi-national corporations rape and exploit developing nations, our insanely over-funded death machine wages wholesale terror with a vengeance, our power-brokers on Wall Street man the bulwarks of predatory capitalism, our almost infinitely corrupt government protects and advances the interests of a cynical plutocracy, and the corporate media cover their collective asses, we US Americans disregard our consciences (which have been rendered virtually impotent by the inculcation of the notion of American Exceptionalism anyway) and pursue our “happiness” through serial retailing. What better way to inject a dose of instant nirvana into our lives without becoming another of the 300,000 non-violent drug offenders behind bars in the US?
Aside from its legality, shopping’s beauty lies in the ease with which one can attain the high it offers. We merely arm ourselves with a fistful of readily obtainable credit cards (remaining oblivious to the usurious interest to which we are obligating ourselves), jump in our SUVs that were actually designed to be used for public transit but somehow became modes of personal transportation, and head for the nearest leviathan, cookie-cutter retail establishment. (Who knew the stairway to heaven had only three steps?)
Once one arrives, there is a high probability of having a profound spiritual experience, like this for instance:
Entering the mall, you find yourself captivated by a kiosk peddling expensive sunglasses. One pair in particular demands your attention. Initiating a moment of narcissistic bliss, you casually don the shades and catch a glimpse of yourself in one of the many mirrors the vendor has generously provided. Smiling with self-satisfaction, you tell yourself you look “killer” in those $300.00 Dolce and Gabbanas. Madison Avenue’s indoctrination has convinced you that you deserve them and that you need them to show people who you are. So of course, you make them yours. You, my friend, have just been elevated to a higher plane of existence in retailing paradise.
On a really good shopping day, we find ourselves in the midst of an enchanted world where the line between reality and the American Dream becomes an indistinct blur. An upscale mall in suburban America is THE place to be on a weekend afternoon if you fancy yourself to be one of the “beautiful people”—white, at least comfortable financially, attractive, and thus amongst the only people who truly matter in this world.
Yet there is also plenty of room for the rest of us—those who refuse to relax our death grip on the losing lottery ticket that our magical thinking tells us is a guaranteed winner. Why do we refuse to let go of a pipe dream? Because we see ourselves as a nation brimming with Horatio Algers. “The good life” is just around the corner, if we just work hard enough. So potent is this pernicious lie, they will have to pry this metaphorical lottery ticket from our “cold, dead hands.”
Posturing, preening, styling, profiling, seeing, being seen, and best of all, exercising their patriotic duty to God, country, and retailer, the “beautiful people” set the trend for the rest of us. It’s hard to conceive of something more “inspiring” than the most spoiled and privileged human beings on the face of the planet filling their Hummers with bags emblazoned with the likes of Abercrombie, Neiman Marcus, the Limited, Nordstrom, and Saks so they can stay ahead of the fashion curve, play with the latest electronic toys, best the neighbors, and to have more contents to dampen the echoes reverberating throughout their relatively empty McMansion domiciles, which are large enough to house fifty people but often afford shelter to only a few.
Whether we are amongst the “blessed elite” of humanity or not, as US Americans it is our patriotic duty to shop. Shopping was our first “counter-terrorism measure” after 9/11, remember? Our very way of life depends upon our wallets and our willingness to open them.
If we falter in our sacred duty to over-indulge our desires at the expense of humanity and the Earth, dear reader, our world as we know it will be lost to the “Islamic hoards”, “Godless Communists”, and “Hispanic invaders.”
As long as greed, self-absorption, selfishness, and consumerism are so deeply woven into our sociocultural fabric, we who comprise the collective in the United States will exist as a living testament to Victor Hugo’s observation that, “Adversity makes men, and prosperity makes monsters.”
Jason Miller is a wage slave of the American Empire who has freed himself intellectually and spiritually. He is Cyrano’s Journal Online’s associate editor ( http://www.bestcyrano.org/) and publishes Thomas Paine’s Corner within Cyrano’s at http://www.bestcyrano.org/THOMASPAINE/. You can reach him at JMiller@bestcyrano.org