Two Americas

Let me tell you about two Americas: popular life and official life.

In PopLife, people watch television shows, listen to rap, metal, rock, and country, and go to malls. They don’t have to wait until something’s been in the newspaper to know about. Most people live in PopLife. Some are rich and some are poor. PopLife people know that, sometimes, entertainment companies will try to encourage us to watch their shows through so-called “guerilla” tactics: flyers on construction sites, banners hanging from bridges, spray-painted messages on sidewalks. It doesn’t bother us, because we know it’s just advertising which, as members of PopLife, we know how to tune out when we wish.

OffLife doesn’t know about all this. The other day, someone noticed, in the otherwise fine town of Boston, that there was a flashing device that looked, well, improvised, stuck up on a support for a bridge where passing traffic could see it. Worried, this person made a call to the authorities, who investigated. The gendarmes saw the wires, noted the location, recalled that our homeland security threat level is “elevated” and realized they would have to spring into action and detonate the sucker. Couldn’t take any chances.

No one seemed to notice, during the examination, that the device was the screen of a child’s play-toy called a Lite Brite and that, marked out in colored-plastic pegs, was a character from a Cartoon Network show making a rude gesture.

A few hours later, another call. Another device. More bomb squad action. Again, no one seemed to have the presence of mind to say, “Um, boss? I am thinking maybe this isn’t what we need to be worried about. This little guy looks a bit like Sponge Bob, except he’s flipping the bird.”

Boston ground to a halt that day. Panic metastasized. Tunnels were closed, public transportation halted. Now, the mandarins of OffLife are livid. Those hooligans at the marketing company were irresponsible (look, one has dreadlocks down to his waist). At a time like this, in a world like this, to have done something like this — they must be punished. They planted a hoax device. So, they’ve been charged and already arraigned.

Fine. Punish away: they defaced public property. While you’re at it, go after all the other handbill plasterers. But, a “hoax device?” If you’ve seen the video of these objects being installed, you would see that they don’t look in any way dangerous.

Somehow, during these worried times, some genie got out of a bottle and there was a panic. As most people do after an embarrassing overreaction, OffLife leaders are looking around for someone to blame. Right now it’s the dreadlocked marketers. I hope that as their trial proceeds, someone will have a presence of mind that wasn’t demonstrated in Boston. Because the flashing Lite Brites were really pretty cool. Evidently nine other cities thought so, too, and were able to refrain from calling the SWAT team.

It would be really too bad if a sense of humor were among the notable casualties of the war on terror. More important, though, maybe some folks in OffLife will realize they might well want to pay attention to PopLife a bit more. After all, if someone in authority had actually watched TV, they would have saved the whole city some grief.

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