In South Africa we can blame apartheid for at least some of the whacky stuff but in the good old United States it’s become a lot harder to attach blame. I’ve just returned from a month with relatives in California, where most people — too rich, too few and too distracted to see the bigger picture — overlooked the great divide in their country: the massive swath of disaffected, struggling states between the coasts.
Their miscalculation could cost the country its sanity for four long years. I listened to PBS radio in disbelief as a gay Hispanic man declared his ardent support for Donald Trump. “He is my guarantee of an economic future that will not rob hardworking taxpayers like me.” Does it bother him, probed the interviewer, that Trump is a nontaxpaying billionaire said to hate gay people, that his verbal diatribes are xenophobic, that he is a proven serial sex pest and allegedly suffering from narcissistic personality disorder?
“Bad press,” retorts the interviewee. “He’ll get the job done.”
Our brains, said somebody, are mansions with limitless rooms, of which we occupy about three. And they are crammed with technology, propaganda and other addictions.
Everywhere I went in San Francisco people were on their iPhones. The Apple store may not be a church but it is without question a place of worship. Towering tinted windows open up to the street and, where other retailers proudly display their names, not even the tiniest bitten apple is engraved anywhere on those vast panes. Yet the store is mobbed daily. As an Apple “genius” remarked: “Name one big-name retailer that could have windows like ours and still have everyone know who we are and kill to be on the inside.”
True. The hubbub within is a modern tower of Babel.
On the way to the Grand Canyon, we stayed overnight in Las Vegas. The city stinks of diesel, fast food, dollar bills and gamblers. Homeless people and desperation infiltrate the fragrances of fine dining and famous entertainers. Distraction blanks out any room for thought, emptying wallets at dazzling speed.
At the Grand Canyon my brain freed itself from the horrors of city excesses and surrendered to the breathtaking buttresses on all sides.
The iPhone, however, proved inescapable. We passed a hiker so absorbed in photographing his girlfriend that he came close to falling over a precipice behind him and didn’t even know it.
We were lucky to spot a rattlesnake, remarkably unrattled by our proximity. A hiker, phone bared like a weapon, asked what we were looking at. He began shooting.
Does anybody use their eyes to take in uncommon sights or is that also outdated? Wordsworth retained his field of golden daffodils in his mind’s eye; evidence suggests that ours have shrunk to a pea-sized button.
I eavesdropped conversational snippets (perhaps privacy too is a thing of the past). “We go to restaurants but we never talk. If it wasn’t for my phone, I’d have nobody to talk to.” “He introduces me to people as his girlfriend, but he has nothing to say to me, though he has plenty to say to his new phone.” “We’ve been married for 20 years, have two kids and I don’t even know what he does at work. We talk about nothing except ride shares to soccer games, piano and karate lessons.” “Everybody’s talking and nobody listens out there except Facebook.” “My therapist spends the hour being distracted. Even when she is staring into my eyes, pretending not to be bored, she can’t stop glancing at her phone.”
If you believe our obsessions are not forces for change, think again. Look what happens while we are otherwise occupied, keeping in touch via phones or mesmerised by multiple Facebook contacts.
An East Coast friend couldn’t bring himself to vote in the US election. “After a black president a woman never stood a chance and Hillary was wrong from the start anyway.”
After he heard the results he got drunk in a bar and was comatose for hours.
“The worst part was waking up to what had happened. My friends are leaving the state, going to Canada, taking antidepressants. The hardest part is accepting that we are responsible for Trump. Even the financial meltdown wasn’t enough. Why would we give a damn about millions of people in our country whose lives are so different from ours they might as well be living on another planet?”
A guy in finance tells me that “America needs a real war”.
“Trump will be good for business. Propaganda is today’s warfare, fought by journalists claiming to be defending democracy, which, in the words of an ex-president, is just two wolves planning their next lunch.”
His friend laughs. “We’re on a ship of fools, no matter where you look in the world. And you know what comes next.”
I glance at the iPhone clutched in his fist. “I don’t. But there may not be wi-fi en route.”
Rosemund Handler has written four novels.