"Nice shirt," he said.
"You really think so?" I said.
"No," he said. "I think you're an asshole."
He walked past me. So I did what any intelligent person would do after being insulted by a drunken, belligerent University of Texas football fan. I squirted him with water. He turned around, ready to kill.
"You just do that?" he said.
"Not me," I said.
I squirted him in the face.
He charged. His friend grabbed him.
"You and me!" said the guy. "Outside! Now!"
"Nah," I said, and turned away.
An hour later, he came back, even more drunk. I was sitting next to my wife, who was eight months pregnant at the time. He leaned into me.
"I think we should take this into the parking lot," he said.
"Look," I said. "You know you'd kick my ass. So why prove it? And besides, do you really want my pregnant wife to watch that?"
"Don't hide behind your pregnant wife," mumbled my pregnant wife.
"Fuck you, man!" said the guy. "You shouldn't wear that shirt."
"It's a free country," I said. "I can wear whatever shirt I want."
He thought about this for a moment.
"Okay," he said. "But you shouldn't spill a drink on someone if he says something to you about it."
"Point taken," I said.
He left. My wife called me an idiot. True enough. Then again, he was an even bigger idiot. But the real lesson was pretty obvious then, and even more obvious now. Everyone in America, including me, has been driven completely insane by this war.
Let's run down a list of incidents that I've heard about in the last month alone: A French woman in Houston, who's lived in her neighborhood for 20 years, wakes up on a Saturday morning to find graffiti on her garage door telling her to go back to France. A guy from Seattle arrives in San Diego and finds a threatening note from airport security because he's packed two "No Iraq War" signs in his bag. In Austin, the French owner of an antique shop hears on a radio call-in show that people want to blow up the miniature Eiffel Tower in front of his store. Radio stations in Kansas City and Louisiana stage Dixie Chicks bonfires and monster-truck CD stomps. At a rodeo in Houston, a guy starts a brawl because a kid and his friends don't want to stand while Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A." plays over the loudspeaker. The guy tells the kid, who's half Mexican and half Italian, to "go back to Iraq."
Meanwhile, the FBI has warned that a full-blown war, now underway, will lead to an increase in "hate crimes." Arab Americans were already cowering before the war started. An 18-year-old Lebanese kid in Yorba Linda, California, had his jaw broken on February 22 by a mob of 20 teenagers who shouted "white power" as they beat him with baseball bats. A few days later, a Muslim woman in Santa Clara, California, was attacked in the laundry room of her apartment building. The FBI also reported that a Muslim father of six was assaulted February 21 in Irvington, New Jersey, by two men who accused him of being a terrorist.
Of course, we can always dismiss these random acts of dumbness as the work of lone dipshits or large groups of dipshits. But they're indicative of the currently insane cultural climate, which is being encouraged and fostered by the government and certain corners of the media. Fox News taunted anti-war protesters last week on its large-screen Midtown Manhattan news ticker. The anti-Dixie Chicks rallies were sponsored by evil radio megalith Clear Channel, which is owned by a personal friend of George W. Bush. President Bush himself called the repulsive anti-French backlash "an interesting phenomena taking place here in America," right before saying that "there will be a certain sense of discipline" imposed if other countries, such as Mexico, dare oppose the United States.
Well, Mexicans should consider themselves duly disciplined. Even as the FBI warns about an increase in hate crimes, backhandedly endorsed by the president of the United States, the FBI does things like detain 80 people the week before the Super Bowl as "security risks," half of them Mexican. Congress takes the time to rename French fries "freedom fries." The Department of Homeland Security announces, as part of "Operation Liberty Shield," that asylum seekers from 33 countries will be detained indefinitely during wartime. I'm sorry. The last time I checked, we were only at war with one country.
Is it any surprise, given our government's appalling behavior toward foreigners both diplomatically and domestically, given the hypocritical and bellicose rhetoric that poisons our minds every day, that dumb guys in Houston are getting all jingoistic about a swarthy kid disrespecting a bad country song at a rodeo, that ordinary French people are the target of scorn, or even that anti-war protesters are hurling rocks at rush-hour commuter trains in Oakland?
Welcome to insanity. The insanity of war. When President Bush referred to the Americans as a "peaceful people" in his 48-hour-showdown speech, I had to wonder: What "people" was he talking about?
So I was in a packed bar at the South by Southwest festival in Austin a couple of weeks ago. There were lots of bands playing, everyone was blitzed. An old friend from Chicago came through the door. I was really glad to see him. He looked at me with scorn.
"SHUT UP!" he said.
Uh-oh. He was referring to a piece I'd published entitled "SHUT UP!" where I'd equally slagged right-wing pundits and left-wing poets as pompous assholes who didn't know what they were talking about. That article had upset some people, but none so much as this guy.
"That article was lame!" he shouted. "I like Noam Chomsky! I like Michael Moore!"
"That's fine for you," I said. "How's it going?"
But he wouldn't relent, and the shouting match got personal. Within a few minutes, I was shoving him. Beer was spilled. My bottle hit him in the chin. A bouncer grabbed me. I recall screaming something like, "You son of a bitch! You'll never see me again!" And then I was in the alley.
Well, since then, the guy and I have made nice. But there we were, two people against the war, having a bar fight about whether or not Michael Moore is a bad writer. How stupid. How very sad, particularly because Michael Moore is, inarguably, a bad writer--a bad writer who really knows how to give a lousy, self-promotional Oscar speech.
This goddamn war looks like it will go on forever, in one form or another. We're all angry and afraid, and it's coming out in some very strange ways. In the days since I wrote the first draft of this piece, a guy in Cincinnati drove his semi onto a sidewalk, stopping just in front of 40 people who were holding a peace rally. Someone blew up a Muslim family's van in suburban Chicago. The White House continues to talk about our right to protest even as protesters are being arrested near the White House. The FBI says it will continue to investigate hate crimes against Muslims even as it enters the homes of Muslims, without warrants, to conduct "voluntary" interviews.
And in my tiny corner of the world, I've gotten into two fights in the last six months, and I previously hadn't been in a fight since 1980, when I was 10 years old.
America has gone insane.
Neal Pollock is a frequent contributor to Dave Eggers' McSweeney's website. If you liked this story, there's a fair to middling chance you will also like his new book Beneath the Axis of Evil: One Man's Journey into the Horrors of War (So New Media).