Thursday, February 14, 2013
The Old Man was sitting at the table in the Little House we built for him, basking in the brilliant light off the snow and reading the paper. He likes to read me excerpts of stories that seem particularly funny or absurd or telling. Today his hands were shaking as he read out the news that the Pentagon had developed a new class of combat medals, a Distinguished Warfare Medal, to be given to those who operate the unmanned drones that target bad guys and take them out from above.
What are they rewarding them for? The Old Man asked. Courage? Are they sticking their necks out? He paused and put the paper down. You know, he started to say. I….
But he stopped there. He put the paper back down, carefully, between the coffee and the plate of toast. He looked at me for a moment. I wonder what this guy Panetta’s military record is. After another long pause, he sighed, turned the page, and started to look at the used car ads.
I am a Quaker. Not a practicing Quaker in the sense that I go to meeting house. When I was in college, and the Vietnam War was on, meeting house was a sacred place, full of the crackling energy of a hundred people arrayed on rows of plain benches, all of them facing inward toward an empty center. After the war wound down, and I was in Texas, going to meeting was a different thing. It seemed no longer to focus me or to bring into the room what I had understood as the indwelling of the holy spirit. I took my meeting outside, by myself, and I’ve done so ever since. My alternative service was to run an Institute on American Culture and Life for the U.S. Department of State for 16 years.
The Old Man is 88. He was a Marine, and he landed with the Marines at atoll after atoll to face the withering fire of pillboxed Japanese and their kamakazi pilots. And he watched, time and again, as his friends to his left and right went down and he had to leave them to continue the charge up some coral reef or stony hill. He never talks about it. Except once or twice to me, and to his son Eddie, who was in the Peace Corps in the Marshalls and had to evacuate the Bikini Islanders that second time, after the U.S. had told them it was safe to return, the land was cleaned, and then conceded that it wasn’t, and would never be. The Old Man and his son are bound together by shared sorrows on blue-water havens full of hidden dangers, far from here.
The announcement this morning was brief. The medal is to be called a Distinguished Warfare Medal. It is meant to reward especially competent service among the technocratic corps manning the controls of the drones. It was invented and pushed through by outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. I’ve never liked Panetta. He has always conveyed a sort of unctuous manliness that’s the very opposite of the Old Man’s reticence. He’s paid lip service to the Veterans’ Administration, but we have to beg the V.A. to repair the Old Man’s hearing aid. When he needed a wheelchair they told him he'd have to come down to the hospital to be "fitted." 40 miles away. It didn’t excite any interest when we suggested that the necessity of a wheelchair precluded a nice little drive, a long wait, and then a long drive back. Besides, they told us, we’d have to come back to pick it up. Sometime. When it was approved. And delivered.
Panetta joined the armed forces of the United States in 1963, after law school. He stayed for three years, starting as a second lieutenant, and leaving in 1966 as a first lieutenant.
1963-1966 were tough years to be a soldier. Lyndon Johnson had decided to drastically escalate the Vietnam War, with a surge that brought the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution—the Vietnam equivalent of George W. Bush’s attack on Iraq after his invention of “weapons of mass destruction.” Between 1961 and 1964, the Army's rosters multiplied from about 850,000 to nearly a million. Shortened tours of duty increased the dangers for inexperienced troops and, more importantly, for the young lieutenants who were to lead them into the jungle battles.
Leon Panetta never went to Vietnam. Despite the vacuum of intelligent, well-trained lieutenants, he stayed at Fort Ord in California, after a stint in Army Intelligence School. Fort Ord is on the Monterey Peninsula, just off the Coastal Highway from the dunes and the ocean. Panetta was Chief of Intelligence Operations at Fort Ord.
Somewhere along the way, Panetta earned an Army Commendation Medal. It’s given out, the Pentagon tells us, to any member of the Armed Forces of the United States other than General Officers who, while serving in any capacity with the U.S. Army after 6 December 1941, distinguished themselves by heroism, meritorious achievement or meritorious service.
In my old office at the university, I had a string of odd awards given out for various reasons. They were interspersed with a very impressive collection of bowling trophies I had inherited from an old roommate, Bradford Collins, who liked to collect them at yard sales. I think of Panetta’s Medal as falling in the same category as all of those—somewhere between a meaningless reward for the activities expected of the recipient, and overblown, meaningless junk.
But it’s not surprising that one of Panetta’s last acts as Defense Secretary was to invent a Medal rewarding activity as trivial and yet as deadly and morally, ethically, legally and tactically insubstantial as no doubt was the labor for which he was once rewarded, in another war. It was not hard to volunteer for combat duty in Vietnam if you were a lieutenant. There was a desperate vacuum of intelligent, educated, well-trained young officers. Fort Ord, by contrast, is about two hours from the Condor Club on Broadway in the North Beach section of San Francisco, where, in 1964, Carol Doda first danced topless.
Here’s an excerpt from the DoD’s press release:
“This new medal recognizes the changing character of warfare and those who make extraordinary contributions to [drone and cyberwarfare],” said Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “The criteria for this award will be highly selective and reflect high standards.”
The most immediate example is the work of an unmanned aerial vehicle operator who could be operating a system over Afghanistan while based at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. The unmanned aerial vehicle would directly affect operations on the ground. Another example is that of a soldier at Fort Meade, Md., who detects and thwarts a cyberattack on a DOD computer system.”
There is an Army recruiting page devoted to the category of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Operator (15W). It shows a boy—perhaps 12—wearing army fatigues, holding up a model airplane glider. Further down the page is this:
*Interest in remote/radio control vehicles
*Organize information and study its meaning
*Think and write clearly
*Attention to detail
It’s not important that the grammar is wrong at a level to make any 7th grade English teacher cringe. It’s not important that being able to think…clearly is merely considered helpful. It is important to see the conjunction between that picture of a boy with a toy, and the notion of a grownup with a murderous weapon directed via heads-up video-game technologies. It puts the enterprise within that young boy’s limited moral universe—of good guys and bad guys—that’s also central to the wave of new video games that mimic war without threatening to cause the player pain or consequence.
Almost nothing about the drone program makes sense to me except its extraordinary power to do military and diplomatic harm without the inconvenience of dying American soldiers. What this new reward clarifies is the way the old values of American military mission—courage, bravery, risk, injury or death at the hands of clearly defined military of enemies in declared wars—has been utterly upended.
The Distinguished Warfare Medal is the first new medal designated since the Bronze Star was initiated in 1944, during the worst of World War II. The Bronze Star also can be given for meritorious service… in a combat zone.
Only four words. But they make all the difference.
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Last Friday they forecast a storm of the century, but our little valley was right in between the two big storms that collided over Connecticut and Massachusetts to devastating effect. The Old Man, who’s living with us now, was worried she wouldn’t make it out of New York before it hit, remembering with his long view the time she spent three days in a rest stop in Ohio, and the time she ended up on the floor of some airport for a couple of days. She made the last bus out—at 3:30 pm.—and was home by 7. The next day I shoveled for three hours, clearing a path for the EMT ambulance in case the Old Man took a turn for the worse.
Yesterday started with a frozen rain that coated the piles of snow with a crust of ice. Today a warm burst from the south pushed the clouds aside for tears of blue that ranged from pale pastel up to the east on the ridge, to a brilliant saturated Technicolor over to the south. Tomorrow it was supposed to plummet back down ahead of a new storm, but now it looks like sunshine for the next week.
This is normal winter weather here in the rural stretches of New York a couple of hours north of New York City. Down there, though, where the coastal regions whip up winds and froth the weather with salty air, floods and freezes, high winds and surge tides aren’t giving up. Out in the Midwest, in Chicago where we used to live, there’s been almost no snow at all, and the temperatures have been wildly off their averages.
I’ve been reading back copies of Life magazine—starting with its first issues in 1936 and ending up around the moon mission. Weather is a favorite subject for American obsession, and sensational picture journalism loves to ramp up the rhetoric. But Life started publication two years after what had been the hottest summer and hottest year on record in the United States. 1934 seemed to confirm the dour predictions that the Dust Bowl was not an isolate phenomenon. After that, though, a long stretch of temperate weather led us back through the rest of the Depression and the war.
Actually, Life had a hard time with the weather for its entire active lifespan—the climate in the U.S. seemed pretty temperate all the way up into the ‘70s. There were tornadoes in Tornado Alley, always good for a sidebar, and local news photographers made a little cash with time-lapse pictures of the twisters eliminating barns and false-front Oklahoma and Kansas towns. There were hurricanes in the late summer and fall. Typhoons and floods and earthquakes hammered the rest of the globe, but Life didn’t have the best luck with freelancers in places where they took place.
The Missouri River flooded nicely in 1955, and Margaret Bourke-White did her trademark fly-around yielding a flood of aerial views of the spreading waters. There was a good flood in Texas in ’53, and Life’r John Dominis got a great shot of a man astraddle a homemade raft made out of three inner tubes, some scrap lumber, and an orange crate, floating in the midst of a fruit orchard with only the tippy-tops of the trees showing in neat rows. In ’53, Life got some official pictures of a flood in the Netherlands—dull, but serviceable, and one or two even showed a picturesque Dutch windmill. ’52 was a hot year, thanks to some very picturesque flooding of Venice, enabling the return of the ever-popular gondola moorings, this time with some newsworthiness. Kansas also had some good flooding, and Life got a man out there to show the U. of Kansas students heroically piling sandbags. ’47 was good because both the Mississippi in the U.S. and major rivers in the U.S.S.R. flooded, providing a we’re-all-in-this-together counterpoint to the Cold War rhetoric of the moment. Oddly enough,1938’s great flood of the Huang He River in China, a location dear to the heart of publisher Henry Luce, didn’t get any photo-play at all, probably because the magazine hadn’t yet set up a sufficiently wide net of stringers in the backcountry there. But ’37 had sent superstar Bourke-White down to Kentucky for some heartstring-tugging images of pitiable victims of the floods there.
‘53’s North Sea flood, though, is worth returning to, because it’s the one that drove the Dutch to invest billions in a flood control system that’s now being touted for the New Jersey-New York-Long Island coastline that was devastated by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The Delta Works, begun shortly after the ‘53 flood and still being modified today, has so far cost each Dutch citizen 16 Euros—not a bad price, but wildly outdated. Building it today would require something more like 100 Euros per capita. Doing the same to the East Coast of the U.S. would cost, at a low estimate, a hundred times the Delta Works cost, and it would take decades to get into service, even as it deflected the floods and troubles elsewhere. Staten Island doesn’t have much of a future; nor does the Jersey shore, or the Far Rockaways, or much of the coastline of Long Island. The Outer Banks of the Carolinas won’t be there long. Georgia, Florida, Texas…
Not that we need to worry about that here in the Rondout Valley. Yet. We have the Shawangunk Mountain ridge to our east, and the Catskills to our west. But every river and stream running through here takes its source up in the mountains, and every year the flooding has shocked oldtimers and flooded houses and barns dating to the 1600s and 1700s. Two years ago, we got a swimming hole where our property abuts Harry’s. Last year, it filled in again. The farmers are losing their ability to predict a year’s season; Hurricane Irene left the Davenport’s farm almost entirely underwater, and the Gill’s up 209 toward Kingston was pretty much a washout, too. Rumor had it, if they’d had a buyer, both families would have packed it up.
This year the price of firewood plummeted as the devastated woodlots of Irene’s winds came in the market fully seasoned. Propane hasn’t moderated, and heating oil’s still high and going higher. Natural gas prices have dropped quite a bit, but that doesn’t do a rural dweller much good, since the nearest pipeline is all the way up in Kingston, 20 miles north. A lot of wood is being burned this winter.
Around here, there are three classes of people when it comes to climate change, and all three of us are contributing to the problem, all three of us have our heads in the sand and our short-term interest driving our daily actions. There are the non-believers. Kurt, Jr. up the hill has a top-end 4x4 pickup—long bed, double-cab, flare fenders, the whole bit. He’s put stacks behind the cab with glass-packs and when he downshifts they make a lot of noise. At night, you can see the flames popping out the top. God only knows how he gets the thing to pass state inspection. Last year and the year before he and his friends used to smoke pot and drink beer around a campfire they’d build in Harry’s clover field and then when they were ready, usually around 10 at night, they’d fire up the Snowmobiles and race around the field doing figure-8s before crossing the stream to run an obstacle course set up in our hayfield, then hit it up to Paul and Sarah’s, then onto the Rail-Trail for a little illegal drag racing. Somebody talked the Staties into running a few patrols, and that led to some DUIs and some trespassing charges and fines and safety school stints. This year the Snowmobile crowd has tiptoed quietly along the edge of our woodlot before ducking into Harry’s and heading for the rail-trail.
But Kurt, Jr. hasn’t forgotten. He knows who made the calls—hell, we all told his dad, Kurt, Sr. Every time he comes past the house now, he downshifts and hits the accelerator, hard. He’s my alarm clock. He does the same in front of the Baker’s up the hill—God knows what crime they committed to deserve it, but there it is. In the summer, Kurt, Jr. races dirt-track Modifieds over in Accord. He’s got a few other toys too—an ATV I seem to remember, and a dirt bike.
Kurt, Jr. doesn’t believe in Global Warming. It’s too inconvenient. Everything that gives him pleasure contributes to the problem. By contrast, his father, Kurt, Sr., has worked for the Ulster County roads crew for thirty years or so. After Irene, he and his crew had to repair just about every culvert and county-road bridge, and he knows damned well that things are changing. He also knows damned well just how much money it’s costing the county and the state with every disaster. Our county’s small enough in population that you can see the effect on your property taxes and it’s not pretty. He’s got a fair amount of land, between him and his wife and his mother, and like a lot of people he’s gone over more and more to woodburning stoves and furnaces as the taxes eat at the heating oil budget.
Around here, a month’s propane in winter runs you $500 or more—and that’s with a well-insulated house and a habit of keeping the thermostat low. Heating oil is worse. So the winter mornings are aromatic with the smell of woodsmoke, just as the clear fall days are a symphony of chain saws and mechanical splitters and tractors dragging the sledges full of split wood out to be covered and allowed to season for a year or two.
It’s a romance of the senses, especially for the weekenders who like to think they’re embraced in the bosom of the rural life. But most of the wood stoves and furnaces around here are old-school, which means each one contributes the equivalent of four of Kurt, Jr.’s 4x4s worth of climate-change pollution. Moreover, the trees being cut down for firewood aren’t being replaced at nearly the same rate as they’re being depleted. This is an area full of forests dating to the years after the great blueberry burns of the early 20th century gave way as blueberry farms made wild blueberry picking uneconomical. The good burning trees, like oak, are at full maturity now—a century or so later. If they’re replanted one-to-one, they’ll be back to soaking up CO2 in the early 22nd century.
Meanwhile, the weekenders drive up from New York City on the Thruway, doing 80 and 85 to get here sooner, stuck in interminable traffic jams down by the city where they idle and inch, idle and inch for sometimes hours. Their houses with the picturesque huge stone fireplaces ablaze on Friday and Saturday nights and all day Sundays are paid for by hard corporate labor, long hours, and lots of travel—air travel. A single New York-L.A. round trip contributes about as much to global warming as a year’s worth of driving a moderately new car. A weekender doing two round-trip flights a week makes Kurt, Jr. look like a Sierra Club eco-hippie.
The sun is setting on the hayfield, turning the snow shades of pink and red. The hawk is perched in the top of the ash tree that will soon be dead from the devastations of the Emerald Ash Borer, a virulent parasite brought to the U.S. from Asia by international trade in the ‘90s. The creek is rising as the snow melts up in the Catskills and by tomorrow it will have overflowed its banks, depositing small icebergs within the treestand that separates Harry’s clover field from the hayfield. The trees are already compromised; the rise and drop of the creek so accelerated this last decade has undermined the old ones, leaving them to topple into the water where they capture the branches and logs and scraps of old farm structures during the spring thaw, making dams that push the creek up over its banks. The old outhouse, once far above flood stage, has listed to the side and will probably collapse this spring. I didn’t have time to shore it up this year; I was too concerned with getting culvert and French tile and working with the Bushes, Wayne and Wayne, Jr., to dig drainage swales in the hayfield and between the house and the barn so the dirt could hold topsoil and nutrients. All summer, all fall, the hawk watched as we did this work. Now he has the hayfield to himself, except for the evenings when Kurt, Jr. and the boys run the Snowmobile caravan along the edge of the woodlot, duck onto the old timber road, and head out into nature.
Monday, February 11, 2013
I have been very busy this last couple of weeks at my new job as an American hero. Last night, in the midst of a desperate firefight involving violent jihadists attempting to take over an abandoned Soviet missile site that was, CIA informed the SEAL commander, still weaponized, I carried a wounded medic on my shoulders, fording an icy stream while my colleagues provided cover with AR-15s and an RPG-launcher. It was nighttime and my night-vision goggles turned the scene an eerie pixilated monochromatic green. Earlier, I had been heli-dropped into a Middle Eastern desert city—I was just a soldier: they didn’t tell me what city, or even what country it was, just that we were going in after some bad guys. With my radio picking up the chatter of my fellow grunts, I went house-to-house trying not to engage innocent civilians, though it seemed there weren’t any—even the young women hid machine pistols under their flowing robes.
When the Newtown, Connecticut elementary school shooting occurred a few weeks ago, there was a brief silence from the shill-organization for the major weapons industry. Most Americans have heard, though far fewer believe it, that the National Rifle Association is actually a wholly-owned subsidiary of the major American arms manufacturers. That interruption in shrill declarations of a constitutional apocalypse soon to come from jackbooted federal gun-confiscators was a dead give-away to the power behind the organization. No genuine American sodality could have remained quiet in the face of such horror; corporations, however, are not human and so they operate under the rules of efficiency found in algorithms and statistics about the depth and longevity of citizen response to actionable tragedy, and unrecorded phone conversations with the congressmen and senators they have bought and paid for.
For nearly twenty years, I directed and served as a principal faculty member for an international institute on American culture and life. It was a vocation I happened upon, and it took a little time for me to realize just what was entailed. Every summer, 30 or so teachers, teacher-trainers, university faculty members and education-ministry specialists would arrive for six weeks of intensive training on the current state of the study of the United States. Early on, I and my colleagues thought it was our mission to provide high-order scholarly briefs on new trends in scholarship here in America. What we learned was that this was not even remotely the job that needed to be done. As my friend and fellow faculty member Christian Messenger (great name for an Americanist!) declared, it was “our privilege to explain America to the world.” But even that wasn’t right. We learned that the subject, the verb and the predicate of that statement were all laughably imprecise. We didn’t know America, at least not the America that came to be the subject of the Institute. And so “explaining” was not a responsible activity. Moreover, the world that sat around us in the blandly efficient classroom wasn’t a monolith, and it certainly wasn’t going to sit still and drink in our wisdom.
Our constituency arrived, over the life of the Institute, from almost every country on the globe. We despaired of ever getting a Cuban, till one day Frank arrived; not only that, but his cousin ran an excellent Cuban restaurant in Chicago, and Frank had already mapped out an itinerary for himself with the help of the surreptitious extended network of Cuban-Americans in the area. Was it Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan or Turkmenistan from which tiny Yana arrived, with only a pair of high-heeled slippers (despite our instructions to all to pack “sturdy walking and hiking shoes”) with which she hiked the Petroglyph Trail at Mesa Verde National Monument and managed to get herself left behind accidentally-on-purpose in a truck stop outside Gallup, New Mexico, where she was surrounded by handsome, cowboy-booted truck drivers with whom she demurely flirted while showing them pictures of her home country?
There were America-loving Provencal teachers and America-hating Egyptian school principals, and we quickly found ourselves baffled by the Americas of both. They didn’t resemble in any way the worlds within which we lived—and we were a pretty motley crew of Americans: a guitar-playing country boy with a Ph.D. from Austin, Texas, and a Peace Corps alumnus from New England via Ethiopia, and a political scientist who’d grown up in the high-rise projects in Chicago and was, with his wife and his mother and a few sisters, still fostering an average of ten kids at a time. There was a lesbian economist and a neoconservative historian and a libertarian specialist on architecture and the city. Why the Department of State kept funding us, year after year, seemed a strange miracle to us. We thrived under the first George H.W. Bush administration, and we thrived in the Clinton years and we thrived under George W. Bush and we thrived in the first Obama administration. The Great Recession finally killed us off—we couldn’t build a program in Chicago that could compete with isolated state-college campuses in places we didn’t even consider for our road trips. We had a good run of it. We put the documents in front of our participants-- Dred Scott and The Declaration of Independence and The Plow that Broke The Plains and Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening and The Great Gatsby and The Statistical Atlas of the United States. We took them to black gospel churches and 4th of July picnics and corporate law offices. They listened to Navajo hat'aali and James Brown and Los Lobos and Dwight Yoakam, whose Guitars, Cadillacs and Hillbilly Music was a favorite of the woman from Senegal who won our "how many languages do you speak" that year-- 1987, with a still-unmatched record of 27-- not counting a few dialects here and there. She was the first person to click Xhosa to me-- a language my daughter now speaks with some imprecision.
One of my jobs as Director was to serve as the teaching faculty member during the two-plus week tours of the U.S.A. that culminated each program. Though there was a running joke that a lecture by me on the subject of the changing vertical ecosystems of the Rocky Mountain Plateau after a big Southwestern tamale lunch at a diner on the Res was the best way to guarantee a long nap, I grew to love the work of close observation as we passed through small towns and big cities, ranchlands and industrial parks, weaving together the fabric that was this country to which I had devoted my intellectual and creative life. After it was over, the alumni of those Institutes that had developed close-knit and continuing virtual Institutes via Facebook and websites extracted from me a promise to continue my tourbus lectures.
That was what began this series of essays. I warned those alumni that I wasn’t going to go political on them. That I would remain what I had always sought to be—a quizzical observer, pointing out the hidden significance of the details of everyday American life.
When the National Rifle Association’s shill, a man named Wayne LaPierre, gave his stump-speech after the Newtown murders of small schoolchildren by an automatic-weapon-toting young man, I struggled to keep my promise.
I am going to skirt as close as I can to the edge; I’m going to use a deeply personal voice to keep from seeming to throw some academic weight to what follows.
I was raised in the woods and farmlands of Connecticut. My father came from Mormon rancher stock, from the foothill communities outside of Salt Lake City. My mother’s family came from Mille Lac, Minnesota. Every one of them owned guns, hunted deer and turkey with them, shot snakes and coyotes when necessary. My grandfather’s World War I service revolver was in a canvas bag in the attic of my house. My father’s service weapon turned out to be up there too—we found it when going through his boxes after he died. I had a bb gun, then a pellet gun, then a .22 rifle. My Boy Scout troop master taught me to target shoot, and I once won a turkey in a turkey shoot in North Guilford, Connecticut. I was probably 13. The Bushes, Wayne and Wayne Jr., hunt deer on our farm, and we get a portion of the venison in return. We are glad to see the overpopulation of deer, who infect the dogs and the people with Lyme Disease and wander into the road to cause bad crashes and who die of starvation or parasites: we are glad to see it diminished, though not enough, by the New York State hunting season.
Some years ago, a dear friend who is a bit of a gun nut took me to a range to shoot, after an interval of two or more decades of increasing rustiness at the task. We were shooting at targets with pistols, and it was fun—a sport requiring precision and strength and intense concentration and an affinity between self and machine that’s not dissimilar to road cycling, though less demanding and less thrilling, by my lights.
But what struck me that day, and the days after that at the range, was that there seemed an inordinate number of fellow range-users who had what can most charitably be called paranoid ideation. They were convinced the economic apocalypse was upon us and only a hoard of heavy weaponry would protect them. They believed that jackbooted federal officials were conspiring to take not just their weaponry but their houses, their trucks, their children. They believed that crazy-haired black teen thugs were at any moment going to drive out of the city to rape their daughters.
All of them had very specific accounts of people very close to them who had been attacked in some way and saved from death or worse only by brandishing or actually shooting their weapons at shadowy marauders. None of them could tell me just who it was this had happened to. If they claimed it had happened to them, they couldn’t tell me when, or where, and when I asked, in what I thought was a tone that mixed curiosity and naivete, they became increasingly agitated and threatening.
There are many documented cases where this scenario either took place, or was alleged to have taken place. One site, gunssavelives.net has recorded over a thousand reports involving homeowners, residents, shopkeepers, carjack victims and vigilant citizens whose weapons killed, wounded, caused to surrender, or scared away bad guys.
But the count reaches back more than a year and a half. In 19 months, across the entire U.S. guns have purportedly beaten back the bad guys just over a thousand times. Around fifty a month.
There are two glaring problems with this statistic. There are close to 115 million households in the U.S. Just in sheer numbers, guns have saved .00096% of households over an 18 month period. As important, the number of households saved is just about 20% fewer than the number of households in which a member was accidentally killed by a gun in the house.
There’s more to this. If you read the stories in gunssavelives.net, you notice pretty quickly that the notion of salvation by guns is pretty flexible. One homeowner shot a man whom he reported was attempting to break into his house; he killed him after, he reported, the man refused to leave despite repeated warnings. But an onlooker who had noticed the man earlier looking into parked cars and come out with a baseball bat to scare him away decided it wasn’t an issue-- the man was talking to his hand and yelling incoherently. The onlooker then watched as the man approached and began banging on doors; the last one he banged on was the one with the armed family protector on the other side.
In report after report, home protectors provided the reports, often with no corroborating evidence. Many of the cases read disconcertingly like that of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager who was talking to his girlfriend on the cell phone inside the gated community where he was living, and was shot in what a community-protector called self-defense.
This is the issue of disproportionality: most of the cases I’ve read in a random sampling of those on gunssavelives.net involved unarmed “home invaders”—read, burglars, breakin-thieves, or smash-and-grabbers—shot and often killed by multiple gunshots.
And it is the reason, I think, that Wayne Lapierre, mouthpiece of the gun industry, broke the silence of the N.R.A. with a statement crafted entirely around the concept of “bad guys” and “good guys.” The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, Lapierre declared. The disproportionality of gun use—unarmed, nonviolent criminals or even noncriminals mistaken for criminals and shot—cannot be allowed to stand. The moral argument evens the score: one bad guy/one good guy.
In fact, many of the stories on gunssavelives.net concern lone individuals heroically holding off more than one bad guy. This is also very useful as arguments go. It sets the shooter as the victim of disproportionality. It defines the gun as the great equalizer, as it’s often called by gun advocates. And it links often-sordid, trivial confrontations of today within the context of America’s long mythos of the Western. Each one of these home protectors carries the mantle of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood and Gary Cooper.
Wayne Lapierre’s diatribe about the Newtown shootings focused on violent video games and movies that, he said, emboldened and incited bad guys to action. I’m ready to grant that premise, on one condition—that Wayne Lapierre concede the corollary—that the shootings of unarmed people in the names of home-defense, that the accidental deaths and injuries of gun-household children, that the numerous self-inflicted injuries by incompetent or inexperienced gun users, and the violent deaths of partners, spouses, friends and houseguests by gunowners: all be placed at the feet of the American mythos of the Western.
Let’s return to that other, brushed-aside circumstance: killings of family members by family members. I don’t have good statistics on this at the moment. What I do have dates back to 1995, when just around 1,500 households saw one adult member kill another. As far as I can tell, about ¼ of these deaths were by firearm. I don’t have statistics on the number of children killed by adults in their household. I don’t have statistics on the number of forcible rapes by gun-owning family members occurred, either. Or the number of children killed by other children in the house by a gun left there conveniently close in case of home invaders-- loaded and ready, in the bedside table drawer, or under the mattress or pillow, or on top of the dresser.
What has emerged from my recent obsession with gun-violence data in the United States, is this. There seem to be three broad categories of gun owner in America. By far the largest consists of people like me, and like my neighbors: gun owners whose guns are used for the purposes of hunting or, in some cases, recreational shooting—from target practice to skeet to the annual Thanksgiving Turkey Shoot. At the opposite extreme is a smaller but much noisier group of people who see the world as a place out to get them or theirs, and who view guns—big guns—as their only recourse. This group believes itself to comprise the good guys. What’s disturbing is that increasingly they are pushing those who don't embrace their vision into that other role: bad guys. In their eyes, I'm a bad guy. I threaten them. I need to be protected against. Maybe, soon, I and mine need to be taken out.
But I'm not worried. After all, there is my own recent change of identity, from bad guy to good guy. I’ve achieved this magical conversion by shooting down dangerous foreigners, murderous children (Arabs, so it’s ok), bomb-wielding women (Muslim), and, most recently (in Call of Duty: Black Ops) buffoonishly incompetent African Negro rebels and marauders whose faces seem drawn from Amos and Andy as much as from Muammar Gaddafi or Idi Amin Dada. Playing those games, I appear to be embracing their strange, paranoid vision, in which Americans are always good guys and everyone else... well...
I do not see in these digital bad guy faces any resemblance to my friends the world over—to Assam, to Yana, or Hiram, or Mohammed or Mamadou—men and women who teach small children and sullen teenagers and overly-materialistic university students and overly-obtuse graduate students, men and women who look at America as a place of failing promise, and who worry about us.
Consider that, Wayne Lapierre. All over the world, good-hearted people who love this nation and its heritage and promise are worrying about us. They aren’t worried that we’re not fighting enough wars, or that our drones aren’t killing enough bad guys or that we aren’t going to enter a small, insecure nation and attempt to eradicate its questionable nuclear capability, or threaten and bully another much like it until it starves its people to death and decides to nuke Japan. They aren't worried that we're losing our masculinity as a nation. They don't think that, without our rocket propelled grenades in their nation's capital all will fail.
They're worried we've lost our way. They are worried that we’re caricaturing our own Constitution and trivializing its humanity-uplifting propositions while celebrating its long-outmoded trivial features. They’re worried that American toleration of rage and intolerance and paranoia inside our border is undercutting the very doctrine of skeptical tolerance at the heart of the American Experiment.
They're worried that it's not just a small marginal minority that has abandoned evidence-based thinking or critical thinking in the name of bizarre, Judeo-Christian-seeming jihadist fundamentalisms, whether in Kiryas Joel, New York or Waco, Texas. They fear our increasingly paranoid behavior at home and abroad has already destroyed our ability to set an example in the world for fairness, kindness, generosity, hope, opportunity, tolerance and welcome. They worry we have lost our way and they wonder how any other nation or civilization can take our place.
For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world… We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till be be consumed out of the good land…
Therefore let us choose life
That we and our seed may live…
John Winthrop, aboard the Massachusetts Bay Colony ship Arbella, on the way to America, 1630
Friday, February 8, 2013
The Old Man is sitting on the white couch in the Little House we built off the back of the Old House. He has a fleece-and-down throw wrapped around him and on top of that there’s an electric blanket. The heat is set about six degrees higher than we have set it before. He is watching the Fox Business Channel and drinking Diet Cranberry juice. He is 88 years old and he has come to live with us.
This isn’t news these days in America. A string of trends has been woven together. The children born after World War II, the so-called Baby Boomers, are in their top earning years, and there are many of them. Many of them, perhaps most, are in the middle class, owning houses that are larger than they need, now that their children have left for college or careers. Those houses aren’t worth what they were six years ago, and in many cases, they’re valued at less than the combined debt on them. For many of this group, that’s not so important—they have stable jobs for the moment, and their houses have a patina of memories and associations they aren’t eager to give up. But they also know there will come a time soon enough when they will want to move to warmer climates or into more hospitable surroundings. They are an in-between generation, adjusting to a bustling family life that left the house echoing and empty when it left.
At the same time, their parents’ generation is entering the final years of life. They are in their 80s, or 90s. Their own houses are impossible for them—they have stairs that can’t be maneuvered, bathrooms too small for wheelchair or walker, yards that have to be maintained, and the terrible surprises of older suburban houses—furnaces that give out, roofs that start to leak, air conditioners that fail or are inadequate. Their houses are mostly paid off, if the housing statistics are accurate, but the equity in them, meant to support them in graduated or assisted living facilities during those last years, has evaporated. They need a place to live, contact and stimulation. They are afraid, even if they won’t admit it: afraid of falling in the shower; afraid of running out of money or food; afraid of dying in pain, alone. They are also afraid of being burdensome, of giving up their independence, of ending up like furniture, shuffling between an antiseptic room with its too-glossy paint and its too-cheerful wall decorations hiding the grimy corners, and a chair in a “day-room” with others too immersed in their sorrow to speak.
Houses, too, grow forlorn when they are not tended to, when they are left behind.
There is a particular type of empty house that you might not notice if you weren’t hipped to the subtle signs. In the sweeps of postwar suburbia you might see them dotting most blocks—one or two. But they tend to blend in with the others. Out in the countryside, though, they stand out boldly, particularly if you pass them regularly. They are of a certain age—built, that is, in the decade after 1948. They are relatively modest. They are often made of brick; if they are traditional wood-frame, they’ve been sided with vinyl or aluminum, and there are often awnings over the windows and odd little porchettes added to the front door area. There may be concrete patios in the front or rear, and in some cases tidy, smaller swimming pools in the back.
That’s the place where you’d most clearly recognize the house has been abandoned. Swimming pools need to be drained and then covered if they’re out of season or out of use. The covers aren’t usually particularly hardy. After a season, they fill with leaves and water. When the warm weather comes, they disintegrate, or the loam on top hardens and the cover cracks and breaks.
There are other signs, subtler, but more easily seen from the street if you’re attentive. Gutters fill. Window shades have a bleached-out look, and if you go by the house regularly, you notice that they’ve not moved. Weeds grow in the cracks in the driveway.
Usually the lawn gets mowed, though not as regularly or immaculately as it once was. And the car, if it’s outside, doesn’t ever move. Or there isn’t a car there. The paper delivery box overflows with old newspapers or it’s stuffed with circulars and solicitations.
Those are the houses of the abandoned generation. When the laissez-faire push to replace traditional retirement plans with self-managed 401-K plans came in, that generation was already in its 60s, 70s or even 80s. The daytime tv stations overflowed with reassuring promises from financial advisors and stock brokers. When the next burst of laissez-faire enthusiasm came through, this was the generation faced with a blizzard of Medicare option plans. Another blizzard of ads and plan prospectuses overflowed the mailboxes. When the George W. Bush administration gave full free rein to financial institutions in the name of the “virtuous efficiency of the free market” these were people whose retirement funds evaporated by half or more, just as their health declined and their needs increased. Their houses dropped in value and the class of Americans who might have been on the market, ready to take a modest, older, slightly out-of-style home at the right price—those people seem to have been swept away.
So the old ones were trapped in their houses, houses that couldn’t adapt to their diminishing powers, houses they couldn’t afford to adapt. An electric stair-climber costs thousands. Retrofitting a bathroom so the old tub-shower combination is replaced by a zero-clearance wheelchair accessible or walker accessible sit-down shower costs many more thousands. Kitchens need to be reorganized with the material for cooking right at hand, not up in a high pantry or down on lower shelves. And regular maintenance work that they’d prided themselves on doing was now impossible, and it wasn’t a matter of hiring a neighbor boy or girl to mow the lawn or clean out the gutters.
Perhaps they fell. Perhaps someone came to the door and saw they were dressed in clothes that needed washing. Perhaps even their pride wasn’t enough to hide the struggles from their children and grandchildren.
And so someone came and took them home. The empty bedroom on the second floor became the new family room, and the family room on the first floor became the old one’s place. There was a certain awkwardness all around. It’s hard to express gratitude to those who’ve moved you out of a place you built, and one that built you, to find yourself in a small, awkward room with a strange bathroom down the hall, and kitchen privileges if you’re lucky and your hosts decide you can be trusted.
We were luckier. We had seen things coming, and when contractors were desperate for work and interest rates low, we worked with a dear friend to design a place that looked like some farmer’s add-on, but inside was subtly adapted to the rhythms and requirements of the old. We would need it someday ourselves. It wasn’t a decision difficult to make.
And now the Old Man sits in the chair that was my father’s once, the one he sat in, too, as he watched his 80s pass and his 90s approach, and waited for me, or Su, or Mart, to come.
And now the dusky light outlines the houses that can’t be sold and can’t be lived in by those whose love affair with America and its promises seems about to end in betrayal and loss: they sit, still furnished, the heat still on, though turned as low as you dare—52, or 48—a few lights on timers, lighting rooms unoccupied. Walking past them with the dog, or riding past on a summer bike or driving by on the way to the market or the bank, you might chance upon the moment when the kitchen light turns on, and then the bedroom light, as if ghosts still lived there, ghosts whose lives were so caught up in these places that they left the living bodies of the old ones, and stayed behind, where the epithelia of their lives still clung to the walls and the furniture.
Sometimes, on bad days, it seems that way to me. It seems the Old Man eating his cereal or watching the business channel with the sound too low for him to hear it, out of deference to me and my habits, left the strongest part of himself back at the old house, the one I go to now and again, to change the lights, to mow the lawn, to empty the mailbox of circulars. On the good days, the brilliant light that comes across the hayfield has a strange and novel beauty that startles him; last week he awoke in the night to see the full moon huge beside the barn, lighting up the clothes-tree where his robe hung, and putting a silvery glimmer to the oxygen tank in its black-wheeled cart. He is grateful to be cared for though it is something he would never have considered dignified or honorable before.
I am glad he’s here. He is going to teach me the secrets of penny-stock fraud, and the scams of gold investing, and he knows the names of all the actors and actresses who ever played in the movies, and every detail of their careers. He has read every Larry McMurtry novel twice or three times. He looks forward to the night when his daughter comes back from the city to live, however briefly, with us, her weeknight bachelors.
When I was small, my grandmother came from Mille Lac Minnesota to live with us. She taught me how to make a pie crust and how to cheat at rummy. My children are grown, living far away, but they look forward to their times with the Old Man. They see in his long life not the past but history itself. And in their interest, their sense of his momentousness, he swells a bit, surprised that what was to him the inevitable rhythm of life is to them a key to understanding what was never theirs.
Tuesday, February 5, 2013
Looking at America:
On the Realities of the Games I: 9/11 and TheSim...: On the Realities of the Games I: 9/11 and The Sims There’s a swelling controversy around the virtual world and the way it infects and ...
On the Realities of the Games I: 9/11 and TheSim...: On the Realities of the Games I: 9/11 and The Sims There’s a swelling controversy around the virtual world and the way it infects and ...
Monday, February 4, 2013
On the Realities of the Games I: 9/11 and The Sims
There’s a swelling controversy around the virtual world and the way it infects and poisons America’s youth. Most recently, the National Rifle Association has sought to deflect the revulsion with weapons designed for murderous warfare and readily available, often without even a background check, to any adult. A young man killed a schoolroom full of small children with such a weapon, in a town not unlike the one I grew up in or the one I live in now, and the NRA would like us to believe it’s because that young man lost his moral compass and became addicted to violence by playing games like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, or Grand Theft Auto.
This isn’t a new proposal. It reaches back to the first mass-disseminated American mass shooting, at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. Before that, various killing sprees had been blamed on impressionable youths exposed to mass culture excesses— rock and roll music, comic books, trash fiction.
But it’s hard to resist a certain moral revulsion if you’re first introduced to video games by watching a 12-year-old boy racing through the streets of a Middle Eastern city shooting at civilians and watching the bodies flung backward against the stucco walls, their red blood splayed across the whitewash as they slide into the garbage-strewn street. It’s even more tempting after reading what is perhaps the most interesting video-game memoir out there, Tom Bissell’s 2010 Extra Lives. In that book, Bissell chronicles in graphic detail his multiple addictions, culminating with a coke-addled marathon of Grand Theft Auto IV while in the midst of a gambling binge in Las Vegas.
Bissell’s confessional follows a common trajectory: he sinks to excess, finds help, renounces his addictions while confessing his weakness, his sinful nature, and the many homely virtues he has thrown aside, and then is redeemed, granted another chance to live the archetypal American life, pursuing happiness: a nuclear family, a suburban home, a stable job. We are left with an implicit corollary: had he not been Saved, Bissell would have fallen deeper and deeper into the amoral morass of the decaying urban world in which murder, theft, prostitution, seduction, robbery and rape are the means to satisfy the virulent desires unleashed by immersion in the virtual world of GTW.
Personally, I’ve played GTW IV. I’ve played it a lot. And I don’t buy it. I’ve also hunted, shot pistols and rifles and shotguns, actual ones, and I don’t find any seamless connection between the virtual world and the real. GTW IV is an engrossing collection of puzzles—some related to recognizing plot, some to character, some to mastering specific motor skills, and a great deal to solving elaborate spatial, logical and temporal puzzles. Bissell’s narrative is a lot of fun to read. But it’s not the sort of story upon which to hang national policy concerning the ready availability of assault weapons.
I don’t find GTW IV to be the appropriate objective correlative for contemporary American life—at least in the digital world. For that, I turn to The Sims.
I will confess to an addiction to the virtual world of The Sims. I have certainly played it as many hours as had Bissell his versions of GTA. But my experience is dramatically different than was his. He experienced GTA as a fantasy escape from the restrictions of middle-class life at the end of history. I was addicted to The Sims for its replication of that restricted world, and for the ways it stimulated and directed the same synapse-connections as had my daily life when I lived in the suburbs. But just as my real life in that real world had been insistently and caustically commented upon by my cultural historian’s observing ego, so also the gameplay with which I reclaimed that experience was one marked by an almost schizoid self-observation.
In my case, daily play followed a certain rhythm. In the morning, I’d start the game with anticipation, pleasure, hope. I’d be delighted by the sounds (my daughter Molly and I used to speak simlish to each other), by the things to manipulate; I’d look forward to earning a cache of simoleons to spend on something new. After a couple of hours, though, I’d get impatient, moving the gamespeed up to get to the next goal; fastforwarding my sims’ reading so they’d raise their cooking skill and learn a new recipe, or grunting with annoyance when a visitor came calling, interrupting the necessary task with another necessary task—sacrificing funbuilding tv watching for friendship-building interactions with the neighbors at the door. After another hour or so, I’d be in a state of tense frustration, yearning to turn off the game, to escape its demands, but unable to leave things as they were. Then, finally, frustration would win out and I would exit. I’d look up from the computer screen at a sunstruck writing space cluttered with open books, legal pads, outlines pinned to the wall, guitars in the corner, cats on the rug, and it would all look a bit grey, washed-out. I couldn’t easily move from the game’s colors, rhythms, and rules, to those outside of it, without feeling simultaneously like it was a diminishment of sorts, and a return to a messily unpredictable and complicated life, without clear goals. I yearned for the very thing I’d just left: a virtual world as orderly as a domestic sitcom from the ‘50s, in which, as here, all frustrations were small ones, unmarked by fear of global holocaust or individual injury, decline and death. My sims died; I didn’t.
But to return was also untenable; that world, that simland, was too frustratingly limited. Its rules were too rigid, its demands on my autonomy too great. It was disturbingly like a critique of everyday American life, without the satisfactions of protest or the possibility of transformation. But wait. Even the drug of virtual agency quickly wore off. This was a god-game: I should have omnipotence, and omniscience, but I had neither. I could look down at the scenario, but from only a small number of camera angles. I could observe action, but only within the narrow confines of this home, and this suburban lot. I couldn’t go next door or see the workplace, or escape into a wider world. I was trapped.
The Sims was released on January 31, 2000, at the end of a short era of American peace and prosperity, when it seemed the utopianism of the counterculture had found common cause with a technocracy liberated from militarism and now looking for new missions. But Americans do not abandon the old myths and symbols that easily. Where were the cowboys and wild ones, where was the frontier, where was the promise of personal mobility in this technocratically engineered program of steady, if slightly boring, material progress? Fukuyama said it well, when he confessed to “a powerful nostalgia” for a more outsized drama, with Americans its most interesting heroes.
In the same month that George W. Bush took the Republican nomination for President (declaring “In Midland, Texas, where I grew up, the town motto was, ''The sky's the limit,'' and we believed it; there was a restless energy, a basic conviction that with hard work, anybody could succeed and everybody deserved a chance…”) Wright’s Maxis Software released Livin’ Large, the first of a string of “expansion packs” that added more consumables and expanded the abilities of sims to act out in more extreme ways—notably, to remake themselves—sim-ing their simness. Its success might, in retrospect, be seen as a predictor of the way the election would go.
In January of 2001, George W. Bush gave his first inaugural address, articulating with eloquence the backward-looking, forward-driving America his campaign had come to exemplify:
We have a place, all of us, in a long story—a story we continue, but whose end we will not see. It is the story of a new world that became a friend and liberator of the old, a story of a slave-holding society that became a servant of freedom, the story of a power that went into the world to protect but not possess, to defend but not to conquer. It is the American story—a story of flawed and fallible people, united across the generations by grand and enduring ideals. The grandest of these ideals is an unfolding American promise that everyone belongs, that everyone deserves a chance, that no insignificant person was ever born. Americans are called to enact this promise in our lives and in our laws. And though our nation has sometimes halted, and sometimes delayed, we must follow no other course. Through much of the last century, America’s faith in freedom and democracy was a rock in a raging sea. Now it is a seed upon the wind, taking root in many nations. Our democratic faith is more than the creed of our country; it is the inborn hope of our humanity, an ideal we carry but do not own, a trust we bear and pass along.
Two months after the inauguration, a second Sims expansion pack appeared—House Party, which combined two emerging trends in the new American economy: ever-more-conspicuous public consumption and display, and a Bush-administration-fueled campaign to expand home ownership. As the ironic term McMansion came to be coined to describe outsized private homes with triple or quadruple stall garages and cavernous “family rooms,” bought with easy credit and the promise of infinitely rising property values and stuffed with ever-more-elaborate consumables, The Sims: House Party offered the opportunity to create outsize entertainment rooms with giant televisions and stereos, elaborate wet-bars, swimming pools, and all the accoutrements simultaneously being built in the physical landscape of the American exurb.
Then the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 turned the Bush-era swagger and its Cold-War-era rhetoric of American moral superiority and global mission in a darker and more paranoid direction. While the number of Americans killed, 2,819, was the largest military loss on American soil since the Civil War, it was a tiny fraction of the number of American soldiers killed in Vietnam. It was 1/16 the number of Vietnamese children estimated born deformed as a result of U.S. use of Agent Orange. Six years earlier, the Srebrenica massacres by Serbs of Bosnians had killed 8,000 civilians. Death statistics for 2001 in the U.S.: 42,000 highway deaths; 20,000 flu deaths; more than 15,000 murders. One violent coup in any other part of the globe, one natural disaster in an unprepared region reaped tenfold the number of innocents killed in 9/11.
The intensity of national response to the terrorist bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001 was far out of proportion, then, to the simple numbers. It is more easily understood as a complicated reaction to a larger sense of threat and injury that was triggered by the attacks, a sense of wounded virtue at the violation of the myth of national immunity. American exceptionalism-- its moral gift and its geographical isolation—were to have protected America from attacks both military and ideological. We had fought, and won, the Cold War not just with military technology and investment, but with the moral superiority of our political, social and economic systems, and we believed that our national behavior in the drama on the world’s stage had convinced the globe of our earnestness, our virtue, and our superiority as a cultural system and a historical entity. We were poised on the edge of a global revolution that would bring the combined powers of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism to every corner of the world. Our technologies had conquered the globe. Yet the fragility of our belief in ourselves and our mission manifested itself in the force and turbulence of our response to the terrorist attacks on that day. Over the following months and years, we would be drawn back to an older, more paranoid Americanism, and we would force the world to fit the mold of our older, more paranoid Manicheeism: for or against us, friend or foe, wounded but implacable force for good, or dark, demonic force for evil.
The frenzy of paranoid responses in the months after the attacks rekindled and replicated Cold War responses of decades before.[i] But there were differences. The Cold War’s sense of siege had been based upon a threat of genuine national and global immensity: atomic holocaust, whether willfully or accidentally ignited, that would eradicate the virtuous and the unvirtuous alike. After 9/11 no evidence surfaced of a similarly massive destructive force arrayed against us. The American rhetorical response to 2001’s attacks bore little or no relation to the scale of the threat. Yes, there were tepid and sporadic discussions of the potential for nuclear terrorism and “dirty bombs” on American soil, but the vast preponderance of political speeches, journalistic essays, and common talk, focused obsessively on further attacks on American symbols: hence the massive barriers around the White House and the US Capitol, the surveillance at the Statue of Liberty and the Liberty Bell. Most broadly, it was the American sense of safe invulnerability that came under attack, and it was that feature of the attack that succeeded beyond the wildest expectations of the perpetrators of 9/11.
Within a year of the 9/11 attacks, The Sims had become the best-selling video game in history. This might seem unlikely, given the increasingly frustrating and limiting nature of the gameplay, as the novelty of its features wore off. Of course the cure for that was quintessentially consumerist—buy an expansion pack that allowed you more ways to shop, different raw materials with which to design and build your house, or even (in the case of Apartment Life) to live in something resembling an urban environment. What the expansion packs amplified was the capacity of the game to serve as a huddling-place, a retreat from a hostile world threatened by—already punctured by—unexpected, terrifying forces, largely invisible but utterly venomous. This was a picture of the world and America’s place in it that was trumpeted by the voices of the Bush administration, particularly as the grotesque misstep of the Iraq invasion became clear. Even opponents of the Bush propaganda found themselves exhausted by the virulence of rhetoric and the shrill repetitive chant of the campaign.
Retreat to The Sims represented a significant trend in American cultural life. By 2008, the franchise had sold 100 million copies, almost exactly the number of actual American households that year. At least once a day, we can estimate, some member of every computer- or videoconsole-owning American household was returning to the quiet, restrictive, orderliness of a world modeled on the idealized postwar American utopia: the single-family home, presided over by adults who disappeared periodically into workplaces invisible and inconsequential to the real life except for the wages their work brought—wages that enabled purchase of consumer goods, and thereby drove the stream of their continuous production.
The Sims franchise replicated middle-class suburban life, with all its restrictions and anxieties, its sense of eternal yearning, desire, and discontent. But it also eliminated from that sphere the full-on darkness that lay at the edges of the real American middle-class household, first in the Cold War, and then in the so-called War on Terror: the threat of undeserved, random injury or death, the eradication of the world, or at least of your world, which, in the solipsism of the post-9/11 American mind, was the end that mattered. In the confines of its bright, stylized, virtual landscape, we could reclaim, again and again, the promise of American progress, American prosperity, American exceptionalism.
These days, I’m over The Sims. The many add-on packs, from Pets to World Adventures have sought to inveigle me, and those like me, who have played so passionately, seem obvious, cheap, diminished. Instead, I have moved to Fallout 3 and its quasi-successor, Fallout: New Vegas. Here the radical flatness and infinite or near-infinite geography of the gameplay mirror GTA IV, with a mordant satiric edge. There’s a certain satisfaction in seeing Washington, DC in ruins; even more satisfying is to hear the unctuous patriotism of the nation’s self-declared “President” on the virtual radio. The game is rife with post-apocalyptic jokes, references, and scenes. On every front, technology has failed—bioterrorism and genetic engineering, “survivability” initiatives, robotic nuclear-cleanup machines: all have turned out to render more harmful the already-toxic wasteland that is the consequence of technological utopianism combined with political grandiosity.
Fallout 3 takes on the caricatures of American political mission; New Vegas does the same for laissez-faire capitalism, which has set up shop in the ruins of Nevada’s gambling cities. In both cases, the pleasure lies in a strange slippage between the horrors that surround you as you play, and the sardonic intelligence that lies behind and weaves through the game itself. Bracing satires on the grandiosities of the era of American superiority, these games render politics in the real world all the more surreal, and they make it bearable, for a couple of hours, a long, intense weekend, till even this begins to seem snide, and you click the Quit key without saving, exhausted with moral exhaustion turned to play.