(this post originally appeared on Huffington Post on September 6, 2013)
One summer afternoon in the late ’70s, I recall visiting a friend who had just received Pong as a gift. The excitement we shared that afternoon was profound, unprecedented and extremely brief. Watching the square of light move back and forth across his family’s television screen as we virtually volleyed was unlike anything I’d ever seen. It did not, however, provide anything like the entertainment empowerment or the dopamine rush that would hold future generations rapt. Within 15 minutes, we were outdoors playing basketball.
A couple of decades later, video games had become a far more sophisticated phenomenon, replete with a vast array of virtual environments, storylines and characters. By this time, I had more or less decisively committed to smoking pot as a bi-hourly activity, and though I lacked the commitment to better myself as a video game player, I spent hours sitting on the couch watching people play who had a knack for negotiating the nuances of the PlayStation controller. Games were now elaborate escapes that were rife with dopamine producing opportunities: Crash Bandicoot smashing a cargo crate full of jewels, jet skis performing 360 backward flips in Jet Modo, Panda devastating Gun Jack in Tekken III with a single double-fisted blow.
For years now, video games have been entertainment staples that typically extrapolate from reality, or simply disengage from reality. Only in the last decade, however, has reality begun to take cues from video games. Take for instance the statement of a Predator drone operator in Omer Fast’s film 5000 Feet Is Best: “It is a lot like playing a video game. But playing the same video game four years straight on the same level.” Entertainment empowerment taken to a truly violent extreme.
Driving through the arid scrub of southern California earlier this year, not far from Gray Butte Field Airport, one of the 64 bases in the US from which drones are flown (lethal Predator and Reaper drones are flown from Gray Butte), it struck me that we had finally arrived at a place in the trajectory of the American experiment where the unrelenting fleeing toward freedom and happiness had finally, perversely, folded in upon itself: We have perfected a means of killing Others in the context of a thrilling game — we are completely safe in the process, Others are completely hunted and terrorized. Batteries not included. Ages eight and up. What fun!
I am reminded of a quote regularly attributed to James Madison, “If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.” He might have added “fighting that phantom war will be achievable in an electronic gaming environment, and it will not figure prominently in the massively profitable 24 hour news and entertainment cycle.” What Madison actually said was “The means of defence agst. foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home,” making this one instance where the distortion of history has obscured the language but not the substance of a thought. What would Madison make of the 21st century United States? Without jumping to the plausible conclusion that he would be appalled, it’s worth also asking what John Watts, or any other Cherokee signatory to the Treaty of Holston, might have made of Madison’s thought.
For as true as “if tyranny and oppression…” may have been for Madison and the European Americans of the late 18th century, it is equally true that the nascent American empire of that moment was an actual lethal foreign danger to the unfortunate cultures who called??? (Cherokee word for United States of America) home prior to the arrival of Europeans.
Oppression and tyranny, freedom and happiness, empowerment and enslavement, are all matters of perspective.
Throughout history, powers rise and fall, oppress and become oppressed, yet rather than use this as a rationalization to engage in moral relativism, what particularly fascinates me today is how the majority of the population of arguably the most affluent and militarily powerful country in human history, a country pursuing its notions of freedom and happiness to the rapidly heating ends of the earth, is chronically disengaged from the process of wielding or critically assessing this power. Likely this is the result of the not so closely held secret that it’s not the freedom and happiness of most Americans that’s being pursued. The consensus is that those with a substantial accumulation of capital, particularly the masters of the the Wall Street and Pentagon systems, with fangs gum deep in the neck of the body politic, can essentially shape legislation and the general direction of the country to whatever ends they choose, a phenomenon that is no doubt noticed by the 49.7 million Americans — 16 percent of the population — living below the poverty line. Meanwhile, those that purport to govern them in the U.S. Congress have a median net worth of $966,000 per legislator.
Voting in national elections in the 21st century United States does seem to be a lot like hopefully pissing up a rope. With the majority, I too would support massive campaign finance reform. Having not smoked pot in years, however, I’m not holding my breath (har-dee-har). But I’m also not going to spend hours supine on a couch, resplendent in the prowess of my best gaming friends. Personally, I remain optimistic that channels outside the conventional narrative, such as the Occupy variants and 350.org, will prove compelling and transformative on a large scale here in the U.S. Imagine that: substantive change driven by the many, not mandated by the few. It happens sometimes, but only when people are awake, when they are animated by something more compelling than greed, when they recognize that their own power is vastly increased by virtue of their association with others of like mind, when their backs are against the wall, and when the odds of success would not attract a betting man.
In the meantime, I’m going to unplug my eyes from the latest electronic enfeeblement and meditate like my hair is on fire.
Khalid’s new single Power is available wherever music is sold or streamed.