The Awful Truth

"Eat this shit and you'll become Americanized."

Published January 27, 1997 12:07PM (EST)

when I was around 10, I went on vacation with my parents to Paris. I'll always remember one graffito I saw on the Metro. It was a big photo of a pornographically shiny Big Mac, with the usual ad copy, on which somebody had scrawled in big black letters reading, to the best of my mother's bilingual memory, "Mangez cette merde et vous diviendrez Americaniséz" — "Eat this shit and you'll be Americanized."

"Americanization" is being blamed for a lot of things these days, not the least of them histrionic ice teen Oksana Baiul's drunken totalling of her Mercedes. Her friends have defended Oksana, attributing her crash to the bi-polar emotionality of her love for the music of Madonna.
I remember Oksana at the Olympics. She'd turn purple and start screaming as if her legs were being twisted off, arching her back and not breathing and tearing the hair out of the arms of her coach/surrogate mother every time she got off the ice, and that was after listening to music she probably didn't even like.

"She got too much too fast," clucked her handlers, referring to her million-plus-dollar professional contract and the fact that she has forsaken practicing skating like a forlorn orphan for 14 hours a day for nightclubbing and boyfriends and getting drunk. But it was a given that someone with Oksana's miserable history would become Shannen Doherty. She skated her whole life to be a beautiful, rich drunk American girl with a Mercedes. She's one of US now.

I believe it was Henry Miller, or maybe one of the Lawrences, who said "America is the most surreal country — it just doesn't know it." This became clear to me after the inaugural weekend, from which I have just returned. So much of the whole experience was too thickly American to understand — like Clinton's Delphic "nothing big ever came from being small" speech. The ceremony's only lucid moment came when the Pledge of Allegiance being recited by Eagle Scout David Morales was drowned out by the whining of the police sirens going about their barbaric duties in the ghettos of nearby SE Washington.

It wasn't until I got home that I fully realized how dreadful and strange the inauguration, and the many unwholesome little American details attached to it, really was. Washington was lousy with America last week — lousy with the cheap PTA-like flavoring of the gala events, the implicit violence of the military straining on its thin leash like an abused pit bull, the nervous bulemic giggling Good Time Being Had By All story put slavishly forth by the muzzled media.

The balls were loveless assemblages, like Christmas parties arranged by the state for incarcerated felons. We were sold an array of tickets made of colorful contruction paper: $5.50 for a "MEAL," which turned out to be a luncheon-ham sandwich on a small roll, $1.50 for the "SNACK," which was a bag of Cheetos, $4.50 for a can of beer or a squirt from the box of wine, $6.00 for a Gilbey's gin or other lowbrow liquor product. We were led to understand that the event had been catered by ValuJet. Everyone at the ball, who had paid $150 per ticket to attend, was clearly hurt by this.

I made conversation with one bartender, a sad-looking young man in a rented tuxedo. "How much are you making for this event?" "$15 an hour. I just did it so I could see the Doobie Brothers. But nobody told us we wouldn't be getting any tips." At that point, another bartender, an older Uzbekistanian, cut through and grabbed me sharply by the arm. "These is the chippest event I ever been a part of my whole life!" he screamed, his eyes spinning in fury, beginning to tear. "Nobody can dreenk the hwine!" he bawled, pointing a shaking hand at one of the boxes of Fine Chablis. "They pay for these garbage, spit out, so deezgahsting. Hwomen in dress so fancy carrying the bag of Cheeto. Ees terribol." This was a man whose lifelong dream was to escape to this country and wear a small American flag pin on his lapel and be in the same room with the president, the embodiment of Democracy. For him, the cheapness of the inaugural ball exposed our country in a horrible, heartbreaking way, like seeing Santa Claus being hauled away for a violation of Megan's Law.

The military was everywhere last weekend. They were all over the Washington Mall, countless clumps of thick young men with light blonde stubble all over their heads and thick metal-rimmed glasses, flexing menacingly in camouflage fatigues. They hovered near the festival's technology tents with their youth auxiliary corps counterparts —tiny, serious boys with dead eyes and straight backs in parade dress. The presence of these boys sent out a poisonous message to America's youth: "See, Timmy? Jeffy here is in the Air Force. He's only 12 years old, but he gets his own dress uniform, and he's learning how to fly a plane. When he grows up, he'll have skills that can tackle any threat to this great nation. Hell, he could kill you with his bare hands now, and he hasn't even got his eighth grade diploma! Why aren't you in the auxiliary corps, Timmy? Is your father a homosexual?"

I saw one of the 80,000 photographers covering the Event manipulating a dim-looking fat boy covered with acne who was standing on a corner near Pennsylvania Avenue, selling Buttons of the President in the Arctic wind. The gray-stubbled, Oliver Stone-ish photographer, who was wearing multi-pocketed canvas combat fatigues and 38 cameras, was working the child into a moronic lather in hopes of taking a pitiable Avedon-style portrait. Every time the boy posed, he would obediently slouch into a Mickey Rooney with Down's Syndrome posture, pulling his neck down between his shoulders and staring emptily forward with the glassy guilelessness of a depressed cow, dumbly holding his cardboard wall of pins. Click. "You got it?" asked the kid helpfully, standing upright again. "Gimme another one," said the photographer. The boy obediently devolved another 15,000 years, this time opening his mouth ever so slightly, for a classic Walker Evans Dumb White Trash Making A Pathetic Living appearance. "Great," said the photog, with his camera zipping expensively. He did not buy a pin.

The Native American presence was especially confusing. Nobody could understand why any of them would lend any support to such a weird event — they were like hostages who had suddenly fallen in love with their insanely sadistic captors. Their presence was at best tolerated by the festivalgoers, who all had big thought balloons over their heads reading, "Hey! Indians are Americans too, sort of. So let 'em join the party and toss in some of that voodoo spiritual junk! Hey-Ah Ho-Yah! Sock it to me, Pocahontas!"

I saw an austere, dignified Indian singing a mournful native song before a writhing tent of inattentive honkies waiting for Something Else to happen. "Give that guy a bottle of Wild Turkey and a Mercedes! He's one of Us now!" I thought I heard some guy in a windbreaker say. But maybe I was just American Dreaming.

By Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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