Monday, September 4, 2017

The Good American

Picture a paunchy middle-aged man in a baseball cap, tossing and turning in fitful sleep on his Barcalounger. Call him Jake. He is a good American. He waves the flag on the Fourth of July, supports the troops, always roots for Team USA in the Olympics and never reads books. He hasn’t traveled outside of the United States because, as he often tells his kids, “there’s plenty to see right here.” He believes in God because everyone he knows believes in God; besides, being an atheist in America is still faintly disreputable, even mildly subversive, like being a socialist, and it can be personally and professionally damaging in large parts of the country. But he isn’t religious. He may go to church once or twice a year, but he usually just watches football on Sundays.

He thinks evolution, like climate change, is “just a theory.” He thinks this because credible sounding people on TV often say it. This is, in fact, how he gets all of his opinions: He hears credible sounding people on TV making assertions over and over and over again until gradually, subtly, they morph into his own beliefs. His friends, family members, neighbors and co-workers acquire their beliefs the exact same way.

This is how he came to believe that tax cuts are good but big government is bad; that free markets are natural and efficient, but socialism, whatever it is, is inefficient and potentially evil, although some social programs are okay for people who’ve lost work “through no fault of their own.” This is also how he came to accept the fact that America, despite its inherent goodness, is surrounded by enemies who seek to harm it, and so he never questions the military budget or the latest bombing campaign, even though he often thinks wars in the Middle East are pointless because “those people have been fighting for centuries and war is all they know.”

This is why he thinks America is soft on crime, in spite of the fact that it has more prisoners than any other country in the world. After all, didn’t he just see a story on the news about a pedophile who was released on parole and immediately went out and molested another child? This is also why he thinks Black Lives Matter is the exact equivalent of the KKK and that political correctness is responsible for provoking violence on the right. This is why he’s recently concluded that the country is moving too far to the left.

He falls asleep in his recliner every night with the TV on. Is he watching ESPN or FOX NEWS? Does it matter?

In his dream, he is approached by a tall, benign looking man in a light gray suit. At first Jake is startled by this stranger entering his living room, but then he recognizes the man and settles comfortably back in his chair. It is only Mr. Smiley, who often visits him in his dreams. As always, he wears a pale pink tie and has an American flag pin in his lapel.

“Hi, Jake. I’m sorry to bother you.”

“No worries, Mr. Smiley.” Jake replies. “It’s all good.”

“But, you see, we need your cooperation again.”

“Why’s that?”

“I know you care about America.”

“I do.”

“You were there for us when we needed to defend against against Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.”

“Better to fight the terrorists over there than over here.”

“Our thoughts exactly,” Mr. Smiley says. “And you were very understanding when we didn’t find any of those weapons. You were grown-up about it.”

“Stuff happens,” Jake says.

“Yes,” Mr. Smiley replies. “Stuff happens.” He steps closer until he is standing over Jake like a teacher hovering over his pupil. “And you understood when we had to take, uh, extra legal measures against terrorists and other people of interest?”

“After 9/11 the gloves had to come off.”

“Precisely! In the fight against terror, we can’t allow our hands to be tied by outdated legal concepts that, let’s face it, aren’t suitable for the modern world.”

“Well, I suppose.”

“Jake, the Constitution was written in horse and buggy days. This is the twenty-first century. Things are more … complicated now.”

Jake fidgets uncomfortably. Mr. Smiley is prepared for this reaction. It happens often. “Thomas Jefferson believed the Constitution should be re-written every generation. I believe he said, ‘You can’t expect a grown man to wear a boy’s coat.’”

“No kidding?”

“No kidding, Jake. In fact, I think Jefferson would strongly approve of the reforms we’ve made. We’re changing coats.”

“Well, I guess when you put it that way …”

“And you were also there for us when we needed Americans to pitch in and help out the banks.”

“Well, I didn’t really understand all that.”

“Of course not. That’s why we let the experts handle all of the details. You did your part, we did ours. That’s the essence of teamwork. Doesn’t it feel good to be part of a team, Jake?”

“Yeah, sure, I guess.”

“I know many of you were concerned about giving the banks all that money to use as they saw fit, but let me ask you this, would you feel comfortable telling a brain surgeon how to do his job?”

“Well, no, I guess not.”

“Of course not, because you’re not qualified to judge. They’re doing amazing things on Wall Street, Jake, complicated, fantastic things that laypeople like us can’t begin to understand. It would be highly inappropriate, maybe even rude, to presume to tell them how to do their jobs, don’t you think?

“You always have a way of putting things, Mr. Smiley. ”

“Do you believe in the free market?”

“I do.”

“Do you believe in helping our job creators so they can help us?”

“Yes, absolutely.”

“Right now, our corporations are struggling under one of the highest tax rates in the western world, thirty-five percent. It’s almost as bad as communism, Jake. They provide us with everything we need, and society repays them by looting their profits. It’s shameful and un-American.” Mr. Smiley shudders as if he’s just touched a wet doorknob or stepped in a pile of poo. “And the abuse our CEOs have to take. The world hasn’t seen anything like it since Nazi Germany!  But they put up with it, even though they only make five-hundred times what their lowest employees make. I daresay they should make a thousand, two thousand times more, given the abuse they take. Don’t you agree, Jake?”

Once again, Jake is confused. Something about Mr. Smiley’s words discomfits him, but he can’t figure out what it is, and he is powerless to resist Mr. Smiley’s logic.

“We’d like to lower that rate to fifteen percent. Are you with us, Jake? Will you join the team and be part of the big win?”

“Yes, of course.”

“I knew we could count on you. Americans always do the right thing.”

Mr. Smiley turns to go. As he nears the door his image begins to fade like a dissolving cloud. His voice cuts in and out and slowly becomes inaudible, but Jake clearly discerns the words “higher insurance premiums” and “unforeseen exigencies in the market,” “unfortunate” and “can’t be helped.” There are some final garbled words about the “moral responsibility of paying one’s debts” before Mr. Smiley vanishes completely, but by that point Jake has slipped into a happier dream: Tomorrow is Sunday, and Sunday means fantasy football …