Tower of Babble
Hello. If you’re just joining us, this is End of the Road—a weekly column in which I detail my nine-month cross-country promotional tour for my new novels Pressure and The Complex. I write about what I’ve learned out here on the road, and how the horror genre, and our industry, and our country, and myself have changed over the last twenty years. We now rejoin the column, already in progress.
The drive from San Diego, California to Tucson, Arizona is a lonely haul through a bleak and desolate stretch of sunbaked wasteland that resembles the set of a Mad Max movie. Or, at least, that’s how it felt to me. So far on this Farewell Tour, I’d had partners to ride with, but Jamie LaChance and Kasey Lansdale had now returned home, and I was alone in the rental car with only my thoughts for company. This wasn’t a good thing. Anyone who truly knows me will tell you that my thoughts do not, in fact, make for excellent company.
The desert flashed by at eighty miles per hour, featureless and bare, and yet simultaneously beautiful. It was a stark difference from the greenery and hills and trees of central Pennsylvania, and I couldn’t help but be awestruck. Still, no matter how marvelous the scenery was, you can only see so many cactuses and boulders before you begin to grow bored. Usually on such a drive, I’d listen to my favorite podcasts—Tell ‘Em Steve Dave, Ground Zero with Clyde Lewis, Kelli Owen’s Buttercup of Doom, and Scott Edelman’s Eating the Fantastic. Unfortunately, I had zero cell phone coverage, so I had to rely on terrestrial radio.
I used to work in radio, both as an on-air personality and in advertising sales. I haven’t listened to terrestrial radio in over a decade, opting instead for satellite radio (at first) and ultimately, podcasts via streaming. When I left radio, back in the late Nineties, it was an industry full of uncertainty and gloom, similar to how publishing used to be, and how the comic book industry is right now. Back then, many were predicting the death of terrestrial radio, and while that hasn’t happened yet, there’s no denying that the medium in a thin shade of its former self.
What I found as I scanned the dial were country and pop music songs that sounded virtually identical, and lots of advertisements trying to convince listeners that terrestrial radio was still valid. But even more than these, I heard lots of people talking. And by talking, I mean babbling. And by babbling, I mean doing nothing more than scoring points for their particular political team by vomiting nonsense onto the listening audience.
I heard right-wing pundits insisting that young black men who don’t immediately comply with a police officer’s orders deserve to get shot. “He ran from the police,” one talk show host shouted. “He ran from the police. They had no choice but to shoot him.” This was news to me. When I first left on my tour, we still had something in this country called due process. Apparently, it had been done away with now. We had learned to save money on pesky things like courts and juries and judges and fair trials, opting instead for just shooting people. In the process, we had also apparently changed the list of crimes for which capital punishment—the death penalty—was valid. The death sentence used to be for the really heinous crimes—slaughtering a family of five in their sleep or raping fifty people. Now, it was a valid and legal solution for innocuous transgressions like being black or running from the police or occupying a Federal wildlife reserve as a form of protest. These right-wing pundits went on to insist that the cause of all these troubles were, in fact, people on the left.
I heard left-wing pundits insisting that the only way to fix things in the country and make it safe for everyone—black or white—was to further erode our freedoms. We should re-write the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, they said. If we did that, we’d be safer, and no one would ever hurt us again. This was also news to me. The Bush administration (a subsidiary of The Halliburton Corporation) had already rewritten the Constitution and the Bill of Rights with something called the Patriot Act. The Obama administration, whom the left had put into power twice, had further eradicated those freedoms by renewing and expanding the Patriot Act, and terrorizing patriots who had risked everything to blow the whistle on how the NSA was using that expansion to spy on our Pokemon GO games, and using armed drones to target and kill American citizens without a trial (because remember, we no longer need trials or due process in this country; it’s much easier just to shoot people). Despite all of this, it seemed to me that we were no safer. Indeed, the further our freedoms slipped away, the more dangerous things were becoming. I was confused as to how voluntarily giving up the rest of our freedom would make things better or safer, but the left-wing radio pundits insisted it would, and further insisted that that the cause of all these troubles were, in fact, people on the right.
As I drove on through the desert, listening to the bullshit coming from both sides, I wondered if perhaps I was still asleep back in my hotel room in San Diego, or maybe still in Los Angeles, stoned off my ass on John Skipp’s balcony, and all of this was just some crazed dream in which I wasn’t driving through America, but instead traversing Judge Dredd’s Mega-City and Cursed Earth landscapes. After all, in the Judge Dredd comic books, the police can summarily execute you for crimes like jaywalking and having a missing headlight, and the only people who have guns are the executioners themselves.
But no…no, I wasn’t dreaming or hallucinating. This was the real world. I knew that because of the name I kept hearing repeated on my radio from both the Left and the Right. It was a name that I had never seen in a Judge Dredd comic book.
That name was Donald Trump.
Donald Trump scares a lot of my liberal friends—and about half of my conservative friends, too. I’m not going to list the man’s faults here, because you can and should investigate those things yourself. People are scared of him because deep down inside, they suspect he’s going to win. I suspect he’s going to win, too—or at the very least, win the popular vote and land us in an Electoral College mess that will put the Bush-Gore fiasco to shame. But here’s the thing. People are scared of Donald Trump for the wrong reason. Or, at the very least, a reason they can’t articulate. A reason that lurks in the subconscious.
And that reason is anger. There is anger on both the Left and the Right, and even from the dwindling few like myself who walk firmly down the middle of America’s political highway. Anger between the Left and the Right. Anger between Black and White. Anger between the poor and the Elite. Anger between Christians and Muslims. Anger over sexual orientation and gun rights and land rights and taxes and globalization and a host of other things. It used to be the Elite could keep the American public pacified on a steady diet of reality television and Kanye West records, but people are beginning to wake up, and regardless of their race, creed, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, they are angry. The problem is they’re channeling that anger at each other, rather than at the source of all their problems. It’s not Black or White. It’s the people versus might. It’s not Red or Blue. It’s the State versus You. But when I try to explain that to my friends they accuse me of being a Left-wing nut or a Right-wing nut.
Which is exactly what the people in charge want you to do. They want you to stay angry at each other, so you won’t turn your anger on them.
That unfocused anger is what has led to the rise of Donald Trump, and that same unfocused anger is what might propel this populist demagogue into the White House this November. Which is frustrating to someone like myself, because Donald Trump is nothing more than one of those Elite. Yes, Hillary Clinton is certainly one of the Elite, but Donald Trump doesn’t represent an alternative to her. Voting for either of those candidates is simply voting for business as usual in this country. Neither Clinton nor Trump will do anything about the increasing militarization of our local police departments. Neither will expand the national dialogue on economic disparity, globalism, gun control, LGBT rights, terrorism, or any other hot button political issue. Instead, all they will do is feed the anger people already feel regarding the issues, the same as Obama and Bush before them. Because that’s all any Republican or Democratic candidate does.
Anger fills our airwaves. Angry people clamor for “change” via Trump the same way the clamored for “change” under Obama and “change” under Bush before him. The only thing that changes is they trick you into voting for one of them again.
Well, I walked out into the desert and found you some.
Out there between San Diego and Tucson, shortly after passing a border checkpoint, I parked the car along the side of the road and walked out into the desert. I made sure to stay in a straight line and not diverge from my path, because it gets well over a hundred degrees out there and shade is nonexistent. The car vanished from sight. The sounds of trucks rushing by on the highway faded. It was just me and the desert. I kept walking, found a few interesting rocks to take home for my son, snapped a few pictures, and kept going. I came to a small barbed-wire fence, the kind we use back in Pennsylvania to keep sheep and goats from wandering out of the field. I couldn’t figure out who had put the fence out here in the middle of the desert, or what purpose it might serve. I stepped over the fence and kept going, taking more pictures and collecting more rocks. Eventually, I pulled out my phone to check the temperature. I saw that it was 112 degrees.
And then I saw that, according to my phone, I had inadvertently crossed over the border into Mexico. I wasn’t sure how that was possible, but it seemed to me that if, in fact, that was what I had done, Border Patrol might have been better served having a checkpoint out here rather than the ones I’d repeatedly driven through miles back. Not a wall, mind you, but some type of border crossing station. Not a wall, because it’s fucking silly to think a wall could be built out here.
Take a look.
That’s where Donald Trump wants to build a wall.
Half our country is so filled with anger over the anger from the other half of the country, that they are willing to believe a construction magnate whose key proposal is to build a wall in this spot is better suited to run our nation than the parade of pinheads who have done so before.
It’s easy to sit at home in Kansas or Nebraska or Maine and say, “That sounds good! We should build a giant wall.” But let me tell you something—regardless of which side of the immigration debate you reside, take a trip to the border and see it for yourself and realize just what an undertaking such a proposal would be. It’s not something that could be achieved in a year or even four years. It’s a job that would last at least a decade.
It’s something else to keep you distracted, and while you are focused on building that wall, poorly trained police officers will continue to kill young black men and old white farmers without trial, and Presidents will continue to kill American citizens with drone strikes without trial, and politicians will continue to flaunt the laws, and corporations will continue to spy inside your bedrooms via your latest videogame app, and people will continue to slaughter innocents in the honor of whichever version God they think is better, and half our citizenry will continue to be denied basic human rights simply because of whom they love, but hey, at least we’ll have a wall, and the construction magnates will be getting rich from building it, and if those other things anger you? Well, then, you can turn on the radio or the television and bask in similar anger from the side of your choice.
And the Tower of Babble will continue to grow, until it blots out the sun, and crushes us all beneath its massive shadow when it collapses under its own weight. And five-hundred thousand years from now, after we’ve slaughtered each other to extinction, some alien scientists will detect our signals, floating in the ether, and decode those ghostly remnants, and decide that Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow must have been our supreme deities, and that it was probably a good thing that such an angry race of beings came to an end, because really, no other intelligent species is going to want that shit polluting the rest of the universe.
I got back in the car and headed for Tucson, and kept the car in the middle of the road—the most dangerous place to drive, but in my opinion, the only alternative route.
Brian Keene writes novels, comic books, short fiction, and occasional journalism for money. He is the author of over forty books, including the recently released Pressure and The Complex. The father of two sons, Keene lives in rural Pennsylvania.