Hello friends and family!
I was listening to the book Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen the other day, which is about the history of the American penchant for the fantastical and untrue, beginning with the very first pilgrims and fortune-seekers who settled Virginia and New England in the 1600s. Most of these settlers were wide-eyed naïfs being suckered by dishonest pamphleteers. They thought they’d find a New Eden or a gold rush when they landed, rather than the brutal winters and starvation that awaited them (not to mention the existing residents of their “virgin land”). Andersen makes the point that America has grown out of those first settlers, those people who were so willing to put their belief in advertisements. The most gullible, credulous, starry-eyed of the teeming masses – these are the roots of modern America. This struck me as particularly true because I’ve spent the past few weeks feeling as though being an audience for advertising is an inescapable part of the American experience.
This American love of being advertised to really struck home when I attended Monster Jam at the local football arena. I’ve always wanted to go to a Monster Jam because it’s extremely cool that monster trucks do what I can only describe as skateboard tricks despite being huge vehicles with human-sized tires. A monster truck rally is a “competition” in the same way Medieval Times is a jousting “tournament”. Each truck put on a skills demonstration (e.g. flying off dirt jumps, doing backflips, and flipping over and getting stuck, which happened with alarming frequency) and then someone in a booth somewhere made up the scores. The victory was given to a truck that looked like a hearse even though the truck that looked like a puppy had a way better freestyle (not to mention the dinosaur truck, the military truck, the dragon truck, and the shark truck, none of whom had to get pulled from the arena floor by bulldozers after getting stuck upside down). The lone female driver came out every so often to do cartwheels, her long blonde hair trailing through the dirt.
The winning driver, he of the hearse-styled truck, gave an interview plugging upcoming events and promotional items for sale in the arena gift shops. I looked around and noticed that every other attendee was a young family with a hysterical 6-year-old child in a Monster Jam t-shirt, clutching a Monster Jam truck in their hands. Oh, I realized, Monster Jam is a toy for children! Monster Jam the event was merely one big commercial for Monster Jam video games and Monster Jam toys. There were ads that played incessantly on the Jumbotron and ads that were delivered in the midst of colour commentary by the play-by-play announcers. Everything made sense: this was not a competition meant to entertain, though it certainly did entertain me after I chugged a beer in the parking lot – this was an advertisement! And I paid for the privilege to sit in the stands and be pitched on plastic children’s toys!
There was no escape. The very next day was the Superbowl, and people watch the Superbowl for good football like they read Playboy for the articles: the real draw are the ads. The next day nobody was talking about the game, but they were recounting their favourite ads like sports fans normally talk about game highlights. Man, did you see that Larry David ad? That shit was hilarious! I suppose that participating in American rites like the Superbowl (and Monster Jam, and Medieval Times, and any sports broadcast at all) means you’re consenting to being pitched on new products, as well as new ideas like electrical vehicles and cryptocurrencies and green energy. Buy a new car, buy into crypto as the next big thing, buy Cheetohs, buy a stationary bicycle that makes you happy, or buy a conspiracy theory about a former First Lady sucking the blood out of babies to fuel her Satanic rituals. It’s all being sold, depending on what channels you’re flipping through.
During the Superbowl I kept seeing ads for cyptocurrency, which is in my opinion pretty much a pyramid scheme that will eventually collapse on the poor Americans who buy in too late, at high prices, and without any consumer protection. I remembered those ads two weeks later when I chatted to a rangy guy in a hot spring, so thin he looked malnourished, who told me that he was moving to El Salvador to join a “Bitcoin subdivision being built on the side of a volcano” (note: I don’t fact check guys that I meet in hot springs. It’s funnier to think everything they tell me is true). “I’ve got my Bitcoin passwords buried all over the US and Thailand,” he told me, “for when the US dollar collapses.” Wide-eyed and dead serious, he recounted a series of conspiracies that ranged from the gold standard and hyperinflation to microchips and vaccines. The cops were injecting people with Covid. Aliens were mating in the skies over southern Arizona. Even living overseas in Southeast Asia for the past decade hadn’t kept him from being sold a load of crap, thanks to the global reach of the internet. His earnest nature and simple credulity made me think of that X-Files motto, which perhaps can be applied writ large to all Americans: I want to believe.
See, you can’t escape it. Americans are easy marks, no matter how far from America they stray. I went down to Rocky Point, a Mexican beach town just a few hours south of Arizona. Tourists can hop across the border and stay in oceanside resorts with beach bars that sell fried chicken and syrupy-sweet margaritas, paying US dollars for everything. In Rocky Point being an American marks you as a consumer. As I walked down the streets, each shopkeeper would hiss an offer of drugs, of weed, of cocaine. Since Americans tend to travel into Mexico for cheap pharmaceuticals, every block had three or four pharmacias desperate to sell Viagra, Cialis, diet pills and testosterone to tourists. I was constantly heckled to buy cheap jewelry and rent ATVs and give a few pesos to a woman dragging her embarrassed child around to beg at car windows. Men in overlarge suit jackets held out laminated menus in front of restaurants, calling across the street for me to come inside and try their specials, which I knew would be overpriced garbage. The special is invariably a $15 shrimp cocktail. It’s a shrimp town. There are multiple statues of shrimp throughout the city, and the rank shrimping fleet harboured every night just a few minutes from my hotel, ringed by a halo of seagulls.
The only place I got some peace was the beach. Because I went midwinter and midweek, nobody was on the beach and none of the bars were open. It was just me and the tideline and the trash that swirled in the surf. I could browse the shells like a window-shopping beachcomber without being heckled or accosted. Nothing was for sale. I could just pick up a shell and pocket it. I have a renewed appreciation for the peace I found there on the beach and here in the desert outside Death Valley where I’m currently camping. There’s nothing but me and the road and the creosote bushes and a million stars at night. There’s nothing to buy, and nobody to sell it. I don’t even have enough cell service for the ads to load on my Instagram feed. Despite the American obsession with consumption and advertising, this country is still full of magical places where you can drive off the road, go off the grid, and bask in the remarkable beauty of the natural world – a pleasure that cannot be purchased at any price.