Running On Fumes: A Journey To The End Of Empire
Running On Fumes: A Journey To The End Of Empire
August 20, 2005
By Phil Rockstroh
The rising price of gasoline troubles Americans, because it threatens our sustaining, cultural illusion of our freedom of mobility -- a commercial con job that, over time, has served to transform us from the citizens of a sprawling republic into de facto slaves of the corporate classes. Our masters have the mobility -- we have a long commute.
How, in any way, shape, or form, are American freeways free?
A commuter has as much liberty languishing in a traffic jam, as does a cow in a cattle drive. Incongruously, large numbers of Americans continue to see themselves as cowboys -- as, all the while, they allow themselves to be prodded along like cattle. Though they may see themselves as rugged individualists, riding over the expanse of the open prairie, their corporate cattle masters see them as mere commodities on the hoof whose hides and hinds only exist for their value on the so-called open market.
Interstate travel is emblematic of the manner by which an oil dependent existence has dehumanized us all. For example, any situation, as is the case with interstate highway travel, in which, to momentarily stop, or even to slow down is to risk death, should be regarded as an affront (if not absolute anathema) to the mind, heart and soul. When the landscape, through which we pass, is reduced to a meaningless blur, our lives grow indistinct as well. We are incessantly told, and, sadly, far too many of us have been convinced, that the same disastrous fate will overtake us if the engines of global capitalism were to slow down even a bit.
When stopped at an anonymous interstate service island or some off-the-exit-ramp retail strip -- those inhospitable, soulless nether regions that evince a paradoxical mix of sterility and toxicity -- the permeating odor of exhaust fumes and indigestible processed food makes us woozy. These places, only distinct for their ugliness, reek of how soul-numbing and joyless travel has become ... a task now nearly devoid of any sense of the mystery, the option of exploration, nor the possibility of serendipity that travel once offered. Travel has been reduced to a tedious ordeal, whereby our inchoate longings to escape the quotidian prison of our economically circumscribed existence are mangled and suppressed -- only to rise as the hollow appetitive of reflexive consumerism and the ineffable sense of psychic unease, so evident in the troubled American psyche.
When visiting a service island, we remain as isolated from human warmth and contact as we are within our enclosed motor vehicles. Mindlessly, we hurdle from one sterile, impersonal location to the next sterile, impersonal location, and then on to the next. As massive, forbidding trucks, loaded with the cargo of extinction, bear down on us, we grip the steering wheel ... we know to stop is to risk death -- so we continue onward, believing we must drive and consume in order to live. Yet the knowledge nettles us, just below the surface of our harried minds, that to continue down this road of ceaseless consumption will, in turn, cause the world to die.
Riding American interstate highways one feels the confluence of so much contemporary madness and tragedy ... so much barely-submerged fear and aggression ... yet, through it all, the yearning to see what lies over the next horizon remains in our hearts. Even though, sadly, what lies over the next horizon has become as sterile, inhospitable, ugly, and inhuman as what was experienced at the last. Here: The realities of global capitalism are displayed, in stark relief: it's all based on oil -- sustained by brutal imperialism and the wholesale destruction of the natural world -- and, for all our self-impressed proclamations that these things are the progenitors of freedom and human advancement -- we Americans, the supposed beneficiaries of it all, have been left spoiled, stupefied, and alienated -- both from the banality and garishness of our nation's commercially tortured, community-devoid landscape as well as from our own inner-most longings.
We Americans should feel a sense of jubilation regarding the coming end of an era where oil and its attendant imperialist politics have come to define the lives of multiple generations. Maybe as our dependence on oil recedes, our human thirst for the water of life will return.
The negations of the human heart, begot by interstate travel, are manifold: Traveling upon interstate highways delivers emptiness and desperation, because the act conjures the seductive illusion of unfettered mobility, novelty, and freedom, rousing within us a yearning to throw off the soul-defying yoke of our mundane, commodified existence -- but, instead, it only serves to hurdle us from one meaningless, mundane, time-sucking, commodified sensation to next.
Ergo, what is more mundane than a commodified human being ... one whose spirit has been broken, heart caged, and instincts harnessed almost exclusively to labor and reward ... labor and reward? Thus, we corporatized animals are conditioned to fear life outside of our economic cages -- and, as is the case with many unfortunate animals, confined for many long, dismal years within a cage, we come to believe the confines of our cage comprise the whole of existence. And, in those rare moments when the caged animal's heart begins to awaken and its fighting instincts begin to arise -- its keepers, as is the case with our economic overlords, have a dire need to convince us pitiful, corporatist-whipped creatures -- generally by means of coercion and bribes -- that our release will come -- not from emancipation from our confinement -- but instead, in some inexplicable way, our freedom will arrive by way of our continued mindless surrendering to the dictates of our proto-fascistic, corporate keepers -- the very bastards who put us hapless beasts in the cage to begin with.
We commodified beasts should ask ourselves this question: How is it possible that our emancipation from our cages could arrive by ever more labor and consumption? Taking such a route to freedom is about as feasible as a masochist believing he can be tied to a bedpost and then whipped into a sense of self-worth.
Questioning such absurdities might free our minds from the counterfeit mystique of freeways ... an even closer look would reveal that our motor vehicles are not only a cage that moves at 70 miles an hour plus -- but it is a cage that connects a series of larger cages holding the whole menagerie of economic animals held captive in this joyless zoo known as global capitalism ... apropos, and the same applies to those faster moving cages that jet thousands of feet overhead. Never before have a people been more in a hurry to arrive at the same old shit.
The ethos, accoutrements, and detritus of the interstate has come to define American life: hideous off-the-exit-ramp types of food are now the stable foods of the empire; the smell of exhaust fumes are our pheromonal musks; and reptilian brain reactions such as road rage and our deference to over-sized pickup truck/SUV/Humvee bigness are the lingua franca of our political discourse and foreign policy.
Moreover, the single, isolated passenger-per-vehicle idiocy of the American commuter is mirrored in the everyday American cretin-on-the-street iPod-insulated obliviousness of the larger world ... the prevalent "personal style" of so many of the empire's children of empty entitlement.
Worse yet: The damage interstates have inflicted, both upon the landscape of our nation and upon the dreamscapes of our inner realities, we are now inflicting on a global scale ... creating dead zone after dead zone ... as, day by day, beneath it all, the strain, borne of suppressing the knowledge (and the concomitant sorrow, guilt, and shame) of how our careless, empty, self-absorbed deathsyles are engendering the rapidly accelerating rates of plant and animal extinction on our planet, grows within us.
Our lies (personal and collective) have grown so enormous in order to shield the increasingly obvious from our anxious minds. This self-deception is embodied by the afore-mentioned oversized pickup truck/SUV/Humvee mindset of American consumers ... those grotesquely ugly machines are looming emblems of our massive denial of the reality of the world's finite and rapidly dwindling oil resources. To admit the truth would not only be an admission of our powerlessness before larger orders of reality -- but would, as well, call into question the entire premise of our delusional sense of infinite entitlement. Because the fact is: The empire cannot sustain itself: it's running low not only on oil and loot -- but also on raison d'Ítre. As George W. Bush has said, "It's hard work": He's right on this account: brute force and bribery are enervating tasks; such activities leave the practitioner empty, stupefied and vulnerable, because, after a time, the predatory proxies created by an empire to do its brutal biding abroad will turn on it -- and, at home, the parasitic people to whom the system gave birth will devour it from within.
On our car radios, in the few seconds that our commercial overlords allow for even corporately sanctioned news, we might hear of the declining profits of GM, or rising oil prices, or the latest pronouncements from Alan Greenspan (all of which are about as of much consequence to the long-term order of the universe as a gnat fart in a windstorm) -- and we feel a sense of rising unease ... Perhaps, we should pull over at a Rest Area, as the storm gathers on the horizon before us, and we should contemplate the things that are of consequence to us -- here and now. And, if we are honest, our sorrow would swell, as the awareness arises within us of how the mindless demands of the corporate state suck the life and soul out those we love.
The hour is late; therefore, we can no longer afford the luxury of remaining in denial of the prevailing degradation of our lives and the approaching danger that our oil-sustained culture of obliviousness and entitlement has wrought -- and of our choosing to call our willful ignorance -- our freedom of choice ... Accordingly, It's time we lost our enchantment for being a society of preening phonies, who are oblivious to history and impervious to reason, but, who are as preternaturally aware of trend and fashion as Herman Melville was to the minutiae of whaling ship rigging and gear ... Personally, I cringe when I recall the hopelessness and dread I feel when entering a home that is devoid of books ... a house constructed in the popular, contemporary suburban/exurban style in which a massive garage has been constructed, in the spot of foremost prominence, at the front of the home. In such actions, we can see where our cultural priorities lie -- and to where those priorities have led us: to the creation of an ugly, vicious empire where our essential human aspirations have been usurped by the dreams of machines, and, as a consequence, our nation is dying from its unquenchable thirst for oil.
This brings to mind that militarily (and morally) indefensible six-mile stretch of roadway that runs between the fortified and bunkered Green Zone in the occupied city of Baghdad connecting it to the Baghdad Airport ... a stretch of highway that has been dubbed the Road of Death. This road is the defining emblem of our empire: for the Road of Death begins at our individual driveways and connects every American commuter on every road, street, and freeway spanning the length of the land, linking every American driver to the killing zones of Iraq.
All and all, our American "way of life" is a terrorist's suicide, car bomber attack, assembled, carried, and detonated by our greedy and arrogant sense of entitlement to the world's dwindling oil supply that reaps death and carnage, every moment of everyday, not only in Iraq -- but across the globe.
Phil Rockstroh, a self-described, auto-didactic, gasbag monologist, is a poet, lyricist, and philosopher bard, exiled to the island of Manhattan. He maybe contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org