Blood in the Machine

I have spent the past hour typing and deleting, typing and deleting, struggling like mad to find the right words to begin this piece.

We are lost, people. We are so very, very lost. We go further adrift with each passing day, and the ways to mark how far we have strayed are countless.

Here is another:

I have spent the past hour typing and deleting, typing and deleting, struggling like mad to find the right words to begin this piece.

We are lost, people. We are so very, very lost. We go further adrift with each passing day, and the ways to mark how far we have strayed are countless.

Here is another:

In America, land of the free, home of the brave, a Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death by rabid Black Friday shoppers.

Jdimytai Damour, a 34-year-old temporary employee at the store, was crushed underfoot as thousands of shoppers, chanting "push in the doors," did just that -- ripping the doors right off their hinges, these desperate-for-a-deal maniacs stampeded into the store, massacring Damour under their heavy, relentless feet, which I guess were so caught up in marching to the capitalistic tune of consumerism that they just couldn't register the life they were squeezing out of the man beneath them.

There are no reports of any shopper attempting to help Damour. On the contrary, Damour's co-workers, as well as paramedics and police officers at the scene, all tell of hostile shoppers who impeded assistance to Damour and who became angry when the announcement came over the PA that the store would be closing because of Damour's death.

Since hearing about this horrific murder -- and this is a murder -- I have made myself nauseous imagining Damour terrified, gasping for air, the weight of all those shoppers grinding him into the floor. But, the truth is, I have also found myself unable to stop thinking about the connections between his murder, and capitalism, and consumerism. I cannot help but think that this horde's behavior really isn't all that far off from how consumers in a capitalistic society are programmed to behave. Think of this: if a corporation's purpose is to maximize profit, isn't a consumer's purpose to minimize price-paid? That is, in order to be the very best consumer you can be, don't you need to seek out the lowest-priced goods? Further, capitalism teaches us to celebrate those who achieve success and material wealth, even as we acknowledge that "getting to the top" often involves scrambling up over the backs of fellow human beings. Sure, driving your heel into the flesh of a man trapped beneath you is a bit more visceral than the sort of bloodless exploitation that corporate climbers employ, but the impulse -- the drive for personal success or satisfaction; the ambition to meet one's own needs at any cost -- springs from the same notions of individualism that lay at the heart of a capitalistic system.

In the movie Dirty Pretty Things, a character, Okwe, makes a statement about the sorts of people with whom we share our world yet often do not acknowledge -- he says:

"... we are the people you do not see. We are the ones who drive your cabs. We clean your [hotel] rooms. And suck your cocks."

I think about this whenever I think about one of this country's most enduring mythologies: the American Dream. As the story goes, everyone is born equal in America, into a country with a level playing field, where, with hard work and perseverance, anyone can achieve economic stability and financial success. Integral to the idea of this American Dream is the notion that those who do not "make it" fail because they choose to fail. This is an important part of our mythology, and it is convenient for explaining the existence of the people Okwe mentions. How do we reconcile the poverty and desperation we see all around us? Or the knowledge that we share our world with people whose lives are miserable and hopeless and grim? By believing that they are responsible for their own wretched existences. Otherwise, we have to admit that the system is flawed. And if we admit that the system is flawed, then we will have to change it. For many people, this is not only a terrifying notion, but it also seems impossible. Further tempering any impulse to demolish the capitalistic system is the fact that we are so seduced by the elusive promise of wealth and privilege that the falsehearted dogma of the American Dream is a stronger motivating force than is the reality that we see all around us.

We are complacent.

And gluttonous.

And divided.

And, in the words of poet Reetika Vazirani,

We say America you are
and we mean
We are heartbroken

-"It's a Young Country"

I will admit that this tragedy at Wal-Mart is an extreme occurrence and that my parallels are stretched. Still, I really do believe that within a capitalistic society, especially one that is teetering, seething, and grasping as desperately as ours is, this sort of brutal, every-man-for-himself mentality is likely to manifest in more and more everyday occurrences. Capitalism can behave in no other way -- it exists for only as long as there is a class of people to exploit. As Ezra, the prophet of Elle Flanders's brilliant documentary Zero Degrees of Separation, says: Without the cogs, there would be no machine.

We are all cogs in this plutocracy we call "America." And we chew each other up to bloody bits while we keep this brutal machine running.

Jdimytai Damour, I am sorry beyond words. Sorry for your brutal, inexcusable murder and sorry that I used your tragedy as a springboard to other issues.

Whenever a loved one dies, there are words I say, and I say them now, softly, for you:

May the stars welcome you home.

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