The Deeply Strange American Night

This is a deeply strange country.  Sometimes it too closely resembles the movie Blue Velvet, where a seemingly normal veneer masks a darker underbelly.  The other night on tour I found myself with the rare solo hotel room.  It was late, but since I don’t have cable, I decided to see if there was anything interesting on that I would normally not get to watch.  I was in Oklahoma.  What I found was perverse mixture of religion and crime.

The first thing that I stumbled upon was the televangelist Mike Murdock.  He looked like he should have been hosting a Vegas magic show with a black sequined shirt on, hair that was so black it was almost blue, and a black goatee.  He was giving a strange mixture of religious and finical advice.  He wanted viewers to “sow” the “seeds” of their future for just $83 a month.  He was hoping that 120 souls would send him a thousand dollars a piece.  He was shamefully asking for money like a late-night infomercial host while holding a Bible.  Televangelists have been around a long time, but the sheer look of this guy was creepy, like if he tried to sell you a used car you would be suspicious.  However, he clearly has enough money to appear on not one, but two channels at the same time.  Someone out there in the American night was buying into his insane schtick, long after Jimmy Swaggart’s deal went south.

The strange thing was, he wasn’t even the only televangelist on.  In flipping the channel I again not only found him again, but another one on at the same time in the same state.  Between these I saw the equally strange infomercials that so dominate late night television.  Bad ideas for those that just might be in a state to believe anything.  Some guy that looked like an albino was trying to sell personal generators incase U.S. power grid going down.  I understand that in someplace like Oklahoma, where tornados are a reality, there may occasionally be a need for such a thing, but this was beyond that.  This was trying to strike fear into the average person to make them think that Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was right around the corner.

Even weirder still, every channel that I turned on that did not feature religious or business hucksters of some kind, featured crime and punishment.  These were, for the most part, true crime shows, that let one know what kind of savagery was waiting outside their door.  i finally settled on a show that was about Arizona’s famous tent city prison, where inmates sleep under tents in the stifling Arizona heat and do hard labor by day.  The part of the show that I watched was about someone that was a new inmate serving six months for meth.  Apparently if he did his time in tent city he could avoid a lengthier sentence in a “real” prison.  If he broke the rules in tent city his sentence would be extended and he would again be sent to that “real” prison.  However, like prison in general, the inmates formed gangs by race.  If they broker the rules of the gangs, which often were the opposite of the rules of the prison, they would get the living fuck beaten out of them.  This didn’t have to put the fear into people.  This actually resembled Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

So here in Oklahoma, people were being preyed upon by religious hucksters and slimy sale men.  Meanwhile they are constantly receiving messages of fear:  Fear that they are going to go broke, fear that hell awaits, fear that criminals await, and fear that if they break any rules they will go to a prison that animals aren’t fit to live in.  No wonder so many people in this country are crazy!

Strangely enough, I have been trying to finish Dante’s Inferno the last couple of days.  In Dante’s version of hell, those that use God to commit fraud are worse than those that actually steal.  However, in our country we give those people TV programs and tax breaks while those that commit non-violent crimes are put in a living version of hell.  Someone might go to jail for theft that, while still wrong, pales in comparison to what these religious con-artists are doing.  Someone that robs people of thousands of dollars by prettying upon their fears and religious beliefs becomes a rich celebrity in America.  Now there is a lot of absurdity in The Divine Comedy, but I can’t help but feel that our own moral code is often absurd as well.

I went to sleep deeply troubled that night.  I try not to be under any illusions as to what is out there.  I’ve been well aware of all of the above for quite some time.  However, it was jarring seeing it all back to back, channel after channel.  Images of unrelenting insanity are being pumped into millions of homes on a daily basis.  I’ve read enough to know that over the long game of history that progress is real.  I know that change is possible.  But for a brief moment I couldn’t help but feel that we were just monkeys with machine guns, gathered around televisions instead of campfires, telling superstitious stories, under the influence of a skull white moon.

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