Main Street at Midnight
May 25, 2020

Memorial

Today is Memorial Day, and my screen is more schizophrenic than usual. Remembrances of lost soldiers and advertisements for summer sales collide with visual shrapnel from America’s pandemic-themed culture war. I scroll through images of unmasked men with defiant grins, semiautomatic weapons, and don’t tread on me t-shirts. I read messages shaming the crowds flocking to beaches and boardwalks. I watch shaky video footage of masked shoppers hissing and cursing at an unmasked interloper in the frozen food section. Leave it to America to transform science and a modicum of courtesy into political theater.

Three years ago, I attended a Memorial Day service in a small-town cemetery where the sheriff bemoaned the “unpatriotic media that criticizes our president.” What should have been a compassionate speech honoring the sacrifice of our soldiers was instead laced with the venom of talk radio. I stood among the tombstones with my hand over my heart while he described a hallucinatory war against American values, “a war which may never be won.” I glanced at the nearby graves of my father and grandfather, both veterans, and wondered what they would think of this sheriff. America should always come first in our hearts, he said. We quietly dispersed for hot dogs.

“There are only volunteers in hell,” said the radio as I pointed the car south after the ceremony. Speeding from Michigan to New Orleans, I scrolled through the ecclesiastics and berserkers of talk radio, an opera of fear masquerading as fury. “This is a war for our souls, ladies and gentlemen, so join the conservative army—” static “—fight to remain a Christian nation—” static “—where the second amendment comes first.”

Conservative radio hums with the energy of cult indoctrination, nudging its members toward real-life violence in the name of George Washington and Jesus Christ. There is something very rotten in Christendom if it can be used to sanctify greed, bigotry, pollution, paranoia, and belt-fed weapons. What begins at the margins of the radio dial eventually circulates through our screens until it finds its way into the mouths of small-town sheriffs. And this pandemic has transformed the feedback loop of manufactured resentment into something immediately visible via the symbol of the mask.

After sixteen hours of talk radio, interstate winds, and screaming into metal boxes for food, my grip on the world grew slippery that night, an effect heightened by the voices that flickered through the static after midnight. Why can’t we escape the earth? they asked. Why is the universe so hostile to human life? And how can we be sure the earth is round?

One caller was convinced we’re living beneath a dome on a different planet. A man in Knoxville worried that humans might be a dark army for an alien force. Maybe the universe doesn’t exist, said a caller from Baton Rouge. Perhaps the sun is hanging from a tree somewhere. Compared to the talking points circulating through our screens nowadays, these people sounded positively open-minded.


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Each night in 2020 I'm writing a short post for a series called Notes From the End of a World because I want to etch these days into my memory before I forget them. Before the world changes completely.
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