May 16, 2016
This article was originally published in Garden Culture Magazine, Issue 2 under the same title.
The Looming Specter of 21st Century Fascism
“What’s with the sign?” I asked. The old guy sighed without looking up. I waited for a few seconds but he appeared to be totally absorbed in the perusal of a thick product catalogue.
“Which part of it don’t you understand, kid?” he grunted with a well-practised, jaded sarcasm, still refusing to even look at me, his stubby fingers pinning down a pair of the directory’s biblically thin pages with an unkind precision. I glanced about the store. There was nobody else around.
“All of it.”
The old guy finally looked up at me bringing his white, wiser-than-thou beard into full view. Well into his sixties, his long, receding hair was scraped back into a rat’s tail while his tired, beady eyes conveyed a longing to be retired somewhere up in the Old Oregonian hills, presumably tending to his own plantation of edibles. Somehow though, he’d ended up being stuck serving noobs like me at a franchise of OrnaMental™—the region’s premiere vendor of ornamental growing equipment. He looked at me as if I personified everything and everyone he’d ever hated.
“You’re not from round here are you?”
“No—I just moved to the area,” I lied, affecting my accent a little more in the hope of softening his contempt for me. His eyes narrowed further as if discerning whether I was for real.
“You see that potting mix?” he pointed to a pile of bags slumped on a wooden shipping palette dumped precariously in the middle of the floor.
“That’s available—but only if you’re growing 93 percent of plants.”
He sighed again. “The non-edibles. Roughly 93 percent of the plant world. If you want to grow premium quality, non-nutritive plants, then this potting mix is ideal.”
“But what about….?” I began.
“Uh-uh,” he interrupted, pointing up at the sign, “Don’t forget—93 percent of botany is open for discussion here today. The other seven percent is out of bounds. That ain’t so bad now is it?”
There was a strange desperation in his laugh. I looked at him blankly not really wanting to play along.
“Let’s say you wanted to grow Argemone mexicana, the Mexican Poppy,” he began what seemed to be a well rehearsed set piece, “I’ve got growing systems, nutrients, lights and seeds—yellow or white. You can use them in certain herbal applications if you have a license. But you can’t eat them, y’hear?” The old man’s catalogue flopped itself shut on the counter. He looked mildly irritated at losing his place.
“What if I don’t want to grow Mexican poppies?” I asked.
The old guy just stared at me. “You know … is it really so bad? I just want to grow some of my own tomah-toes!” That did it. Conversation over. He stood up all of a sudden then he asked … no he ordered me to leave, right there and then, cussing loudly, but strangely gleeful with it too, like he was glad of the drama to brighten his day.
“Stupid friggin’ idiot!” he yelled. I got straight out of there of course—I even felt a mild push through the door. It was the same in every store I’d visited. I walked hurriedly back to my car, then navigated my way home via intersections, strip malls, and burger joints. Distinct landmarks were hard to find.
On my drive home I reflected on another wasted day. Technically, I hadn’t asked about growing tomatoes—I’d only stated my intention to grow them—entirely different to that which was prohibited by his stupid sign. What the hell was going on in this crazy place they used to call America anyway? I looked up and noticed the video billboard: “CHILL TIME!” it declared with a bunch of young, guffawing jocks sprawled on a couch, swilling on beers, eating potato chips, and playing total-immersion video games. It was an advertisement for the latest, voguish lifestyle package aimed at young men called “CHILLAX™.”
Americans—if you could even call them that anymore— were living a different kind of life to the rest of us on the planet. Admittedly, they were historically early adopters. Things always seemed to happen there first and, whether the rest of us liked it or not, we would all end up taking our lead from them sooner or later. But this latest stuff? The “lifestyle packages,” the “governmental corporations?” It was just unthinkable.
You have to understand. It was a really, really big deal when America was sold—at least for those with access to alternative news sources. No mainstream media outlet dared use words like “sold” or “purchased.” And nobody, and I mean nobody, mentioned the “C-word”—China. To the average American it was all about “international debt consolidation,” “book balancing,” “modernizing paradigms of civic administration” and “making good on our collective fiscal commitments.”
The changes were subtle, especially at the beginning. Nobody really cared that, over the course of five years or so, the official name of the State of Oregon had become New Oregon™ and the whole state became privately owned corporate premises. Life felt the same for most regular people. The fact that everything from schools, healthcare and transport to military, police, family planning, and food production was now operated by a wholly owned subsidiary of a Chinese banking mega corporation, Zhìzào Jong, called “New Oregonian Incorporated” was largely academic, and irrelevant. What really mattered on the ground was that life got better for everyday Americans.
Genetically modified food three times a day? It sure tastes good when it’s subsidized though! Sodium fluoride in the water? Hey, you can drink all the soda you want!
The Chinese hired some awesome American PR of course. Huge American flags seemed to be flapping on every street corner as if to counteract any notion of its devolved status. Some evil genius had come up with the strap line, “Life—All Inclusive™” and the idea really caught fire. It wasn’t so much luxury but the idea of “choice” and a life of “ease.” Now you could choose where you lived and what you did with your days, without having to worry about money, insurance, food, healthcare and all the other distracting details. You didn’t need to save for retirement or budget for vacations. Everything was available on a new form of credit and, unbelievably, the majority of young folks I spoke to actually believed they were born with a microchip in their right arm. I kid you not. Some didn’t even know it was there. Very quickly, it seemed, the all-inclusive lifestyle had become all-pervasive and totally normalized in post-American society.
The billboard cycled through another loop of lifestyle propaganda, the young jocks started slapping their thighs again accompanied by big bold letters. “Screw 9-5! It’s time to CHILLAX™!” You got a free apartment with up to four other like-minded males. Internet—free. (Some restrictions applied.) Video games—yes, you got to play them all day, every day if you wanted to. Work—optional! Yes, optional! Meals—delivered hot, three times a day, right to your front door with sachets of your favorite condiments. The video finished, and the lights finally turned green.
Millions of young men had subscribed. They couldn’t build the apartments quick enough. There was a six-month waiting list but still, they advertised it incessantly. None of the young men, it seemed, had read the small print or, at least, they paid no mind to their contractual
obligations to provide monthly semen and urine samples to authorized representatives of New Oregonian Medical Research Cooperative LLC. After all, it was just part of the obligatory “healthcare program” included in the CHILLAX™ package—and in no way had any substantial clinical evidence ever been produced that linked statistically significant differences in fertility rates among men who chose the CHILLAX™ lifestyle package compared with those who had not.
Got two or more kids and vocational qualifications at level 3 or higher? Choose FamilyGuy™. You could drive a Class 2 luxury saloon or people carrier, and change it for a new model every year—and arrive home each night at your Suburban ENVY™ class C dwelling in a triple-star rated urban residential zone. 150 LeisureCredits™ every month. Subsidized daycare was available when you took advantage of the free contraception offer.
I spent five fruitless weeks searching for folks who opted not to live according to some predetermined “lifestyle package.” I’d been certain that I’d find some hippies up in the hills stoically defending their “old way” of life, growing their own open-pollinated crops either independently or communally—but they were nowhere to be found. Some places were eerily quiet like everybody had left town at once. The only people I met were blithely happy, overweight consumers, wandering around cities that resembled theme parks, insistent on telling me how happy they were now that they didn’t have a care in the world.
I took my flight back to Europe, a little disheartened. At the airport, they showed ads for HighFlyer Aspire™—the lifestyle package for the “Type A, city-slicking go-getter.” Work hard. Play harder. The screen showed slick-haired executives sealing deals in “elevated goal-orientated business environments” then drinking cocktails with doe-eyed supermodels in exclusive bars and nightclubs, eating in the city’s best fine dining restaurants, and working it all off in prestige gyms below their SkyView™ apartments. My flight was finally called.
As I sat on the plane wondering what story I could concoct for the obscure independent gardening media outlet I’d convinced to fund the trip, I could just make out the huge robots tending the “nutritionally optimized” biotech crops in the heavily fortified “megafarms” below. I wouldn’t get any closer than 40,000 meters—those places were locked down tighter than Old Fort Knox.
How had “The Land of the Free” changed so much in just a few decades? Or had it, really? Maybe I was just having a delayed realization of the way things had always been heading? It didn’t seem right though—all that power, all that production, concentrated and monopolized. I sure hoped that there were still folks out there growing more than just “ornamental” plants, saving seeds, sharing genetics, educating their kids, and living free.
~ Everest Fernandez