John Colson: Aspen Times Weekly
July 22, 2011
I got to thinking the other day about a game we all know about, popular among boys and young men of a certain insane sensibility, called “chicken.”
In popular mythology, the game involves cars hurtling at each other down a predetermined line, with friends of each driver cheering from the sides, and the first driver to swerve off the line to avoid a crash is the chicken.
Now, I should say first off that to my view, the guy (and it’s almost always guys, as far as I know) who swerves first is the smartest of the pair, because he stands the best chance of achieving a long, fulfilling life.
The other guy, the one who doesn’t swerve and rockets down the line to victory in the game, is a moron, in the sense of being almost too stupid to deserve the blessing of life. Victorious in the short run, his long-term odds are not good.
They say that being stupid is not a crime, but in the case of the winners of this game I think that general idea may be due for a change.
I’ve never witnessed a game of chicken using cars, not for real, anyway. I’ve seen it in movies, but those choreographed versions never really thrilled me.
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I did, however, play the game with my buddies on bicycles, growing up in semi-rural splendor next to an expansive lake in Madison, Wisconsin. And while I often was the one who swerved, preferring my bones unbroken and my face and teeth intact, there were times when both of us would veer off at the last second and in the same direction, with cataclysmic results.
In those rare moments, it was always the biggest guy, with the heaviest bike, that came out on top. The shrimpiest guy with the smaller bike (that usually was me) was deemed the chicken of the hour, or day, or weeks, depending on the duration of the recuperative process.
I point this out in the interest of full disclosure – even as a youngster, I understood that the chicken might live to see another day, even if the winner gets bragging rights for a while.
American history, culturally and politically, has been characterized by one long game of chicken, starting with our encounter with the native inhabitants of this continent.
The Indians, as we liked to call them, refused to swerve when they saw us coming. And we, the invaders, clearly had no idea of backing off, so we slammed into each other. But we had the weight of greater numbers and superior murderous technology, and the result was a shameful episode of genocidal frenzy that we charmingly named our “manifest destiny.”
Well, our cultural game of chicken has now come home to roost.
As long as we had vast and rich frontier lands to occupy and exploit, we rolled like thunderstorms across the plains and mountains, gobbling up everything in our path.
The frontier, however, is gone. We plowed it under and built upon it and thrashed the chickens that got in the way. Hemmed in by two oceans and our sovereign neighboring nations, we suddenly find ourselves with nowhere to go but inward, upward, downward or underwater.
And since we can’t live on air, and haven’t figured out how to breath dirt or water, we sit here and simmer in our manifest destiny, chewing on each other in a desperate urge to overcome something, anything – just so long as we feel as if we were moving and plundering and achieving.
Our main trouble here in the U.S. is that we haven’t figured out yet that the old game is over. Sure, we won the game against the native cultures, but without new frontiers to conquer we either have to pick up a new game or rumble amongst ourselves.
Obviously, switching to a new game is beyond us, so we rumble in the confines of our own devising. And since the rules of our ongoing game are rigged to reward the greedy, the ruthless, the most agile and the least compassionate among us, that’s what we’ve ended up with as our ruling elite.
That’s also why we have this endless wrangling in Congress about, say, the debt crisis, the need for welfare and social security, the idiotic dominance of the automobile culture, you name the issue.
Both sides of our inflexible political spectrum, hell bent on preserving their grasp on the levers of power, are refusing to swerve as they lumber toward each other, while it becomes increasingly clear that whichever side wins, the nation loses.
We need a new game.