Culture Wars/Current Controversies

God Bless America: The Anger of the Enfranchised

By John Morgan

If I had to put my finger on the defining feature of contemporary American life, it would be anger. Everyone is angry about something, and in many cases, it is often an individual’s most defining characteristic. Mainstream conservatives are convinced that they have somehow been cheated out of their birthright, because liberals just won’t get with the program, and mainstream liberals are convinced that America would transform into utopia overnight, were it not for those other people with their nasty (and admittedly superficial, for the most part) hang-ups about tradition and morality and so forth. An entire cottage industry has sprung up around tapping into – and of course, making money off of – this anger, on both the “left” and the “right” (I put those terms in quotes since there is no genuine left/right dichotomy in the United States today, but only two branches of liberalism with slightly different priorities). The latest product to roll off the assembly line of anger is the film, God Bless America.

The film’s story, such as it is, is extremely basic: Frank, a middle-aged, divorced White office worker in Syracuse, New York, is hit with a double-dose of disaster, first being fired, and then being told by his doctor that he has a fatal brain tumor. Fed up with the state of America, Frank decides to use his remaining time on this Earth to rid the country of people whom he thinks are having a bad effect on it. He begins by tracking down the starlet of a popular reality TV show, a girl who got upset on-screen with her parents over the choice of car they gave to her for her birthday. Frank finds her at her high school and guns her down, in the process meeting up with a 16-year-old girl named Roxy, who is inspired by Frank’s actions and insists on coming with him. Together, the two begin crisscrossing the country, killing various media figures who they don’t like, and, predictably, becoming martyrs to their “cause” on the set of another reality TV show (obviously an imitation of American Idol).

The film starts out with some potential, resembling what might happen if Office Spacewere to meet Falling Down, following the formula of an entirely average office drone living a life of quiet desperation until, one day, he snaps. It’s not original in any way, but potentially interesting. The film quickly goes off the rails, however, when Roxy is introduced, and never makes it back on. The story and characters meander without any real point or apparent forethought by the film’s writers, basically being about a middle-aged man fed up with the fact that Americans aren’t “nice” enough to suit him anymore (he has no stated political motivation), trying to get along with a teen who seems to have little reason to be homicidally angry other than because America doesn’t live up to her NPR-liberal’s idea about what it should be (she continually harps on about “people who won’t let gay people get married,” surely the root of all America’s evils).

The finger is pointed at the usual bogeymen: reality TV, Fox News, and even George W. Bush (apparently, three years on, he’s still responsible for America’s entire cultural situation). But there are no real insights into any of it, and nothing ever gets resolved – we’re just supposed to cheer as the duo gun people down, since surely, we are just as frustrated and lacking in real solutions as they are.  Certainly, there are lots of problems in America today, and this film briefly touches on a few of them, but by the end of the film, the two characters, and presumably the film’s writers as well, are just as clueless about their real causes or what to do about them as they are at the beginning. Apparently, they think it’s enough to just blow off a little steam with some mindless violence, and then go on about our empty lives, supporting the American Moloch.

This raises an interesting question: why are Americans incapable of imagining a solution to our social and cultural ills that rises beyond going on a shooting spree (something we already have more than enough of in real life, thank you)? Have our collective imaginations been so dulled, and our attention spans been so shortened, that we can’t imagine solving a problem in any other way? Films like this certainly seem to indicate that. In earlier times, it was understood that bringing about social change meant a lot of contemplation, study, time, dedication and hard work, not to mention an ability for self-criticism (something these characters, like most Americans today, are too self-righteous to be capable of). But that’s too much trouble – it’s much more satisfying to just indulge in random acts of violence against our perceived enemies.

The other thing that irked me about the film is that television is the story’s primary demon, and yet the protagonists, in spite of their professed hatred for what’s on it, can’t stop watching it, and often express themselves in terms of references to popular TV shows and movies. This seems indicative of a strange paradox present throughout American life today. People complain about reality TV, or Fox News, or whatever, and yet they clearly possess detailed and up-to-the-minute knowledge about what they profess to hate, which they use to make themselves even angrier about “the state of America.”

Here’s a novel idea: TURN THE DAMN THING OFF! The last I checked, TV viewing isn’t yet compulsory in America. But the “off” button seems beyond the capacity of the average American’s imagination, these days. Everyone wants to be jacked in to something 24 hours a day. Apparently, it beats living.

It’s easy enough to make short shrift of this film, but I still find myself wondering about all this anger, which seems endemic throughout America today. I first began to notice this coming to prominence of anger in American life during the Clinton years. Conservatives hated Clinton with a passion I had not yet seen up to that point in my life. They hated him with a fervor typically reserved for a high school nerd’s jealousy of the prom king.

Although the real spark was the contentious 2000 election. This resulted in liberals feeling cheated and victimized for the next eight years, and conservatives becoming convinced that their opponents were out to sabotage the country by any means necessary. And throwing 9/11 into the equation was like adding lighter fluid. American political “discourse,” such as it is, has been white-hot ever since.

With Obama’s election, the paradigm simply reversed itself, but to me, it seems that the nation has been in an apocalyptic rage continuously since 2000. And I imagine this is now the norm, and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future.

This anger is simply a distraction from the genuine issues, which most Americans are too stupid, timid and/or lazy to face – mainly because the average American hasn’t yet begun to feel the deep pain that is coming our way from the real, and much more disturbing, problems on the horizon. And few people are willing to wake up to the fact that both mainstream liberals and mainstream conservatives are equally clueless about, not to mention culpable in, driving America toward the yawning gorge into which it Is soon to plunge, irrevocably so.

And the media industry is more than happy to help out, offering distraction after distraction while lining their pockets with the fruits of the people’s frustration. Besides, Americans are constantly on the edge of boredom and demand continual amusement – and politics is still the best show in town. Fox News and MSNBC are just modern forms of the Romans’ infamous bread and circuses (and, ironically, this is a point that is also made in God Bless America, in one of its few cogent moments).

I’m sure there is a great film waiting to be made about the American cultural predicament, but this isn’t it. I was reminded of the 1976 classic Network, which thematically overlaps with God Bless America in many ways, and how insightful and prophetic it was about the role that television was beginning to take in American cultural, economic and social life. I imagine there aren’t many filmmakers today who are capable of making a film of such depth.

God Bless America is just pornography for White middle-class liberals, essentially Bill Maher taken to a (more) ridiculous level.  I just hope that a real critique can get made before it’s too late – if it isn’t already. Time is running out.