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Cliff Clavin and the Decline and Fall of the United States of America

The idea of Cliff Clavin as a metaphor for the decline and fall of the United States of America is interesting because at the time of the television show Cheers—early 80s to early 90s—we were at the end of the analog world. And the end of the analog world has actually lessened our choices and restricted our thinking—not the other way around. By the end of the 80s we had stopped making mix tapes for our lovers and our cars; we had CD players, and the form demanded that we listen to what was on the CD, and only what was on the CD. Less choice.

Now everything is streaming, and while we think we have choice, we don’t; what we have is a manipulation of our reality. In the old days, we could meet, go for a beer, talk about a book or an album, and the next day we could go to a bookstore, look for the book, not find it, ask the clerk to order it, wait for it, read it, think about it, see each other again sometime in the future, talk about it, and we would have it—really, truly have it. Not consume it. All those actions were our own choices. There were not real external forces. The end of the analog world changed that. And it changed Cliff Clavin, too.

Cliff Clavin represented the analog conspiracy theory world. Bigfoot. The Bermuda Triangle. The Warren Report. Area 51. Leonard Nimoy’s In Search Off… television show. This was all stuff that came out of the post-World War II world. America, specifically, because in the post-WWII world, as Baby Boomers came of age, something big happened: Americans began to abandon organized religion in droves.

This is important for two reasons: First, American identity is fused with religiosity like no other culture before it—it was the reason (a fusion of commerce and religion) people came here in the first place. Second, humans need and will always have religion. No man prays to no god. Everyone will bend a knee. Even atheists believe in something—atheism. (Maybe nihilists get a pass: “We believe in nothing, Lebowski!”) Before WWII, those knees were bent in what we think of as traditional churches. And while perhaps this persisted after WWII as the Greatest Generation continued to drag their petulant, irascible Baby Boomer children to church, those children soon drifted away to new religions, like television and big cars and casual sex, and, ultimately, money (Reaganomics). And conspiracy theories.

The advent of mass communication was the perfect vehicle for these new obsession/religions. But the limitations of that mass communication kept this thinking—which is uniquely American and is a direct descendent of American Judeo-Christianity—in check. It was one step removed from science fiction. So it may have been interesting to you and me as kids, but as we grew up and became jaded (like all good writers) we understood that Bigfoot was not going to ass-rape us, aliens weren’t going to fuck our ear-holes, and there was no magic bullet that kills JFK, despite what Oliver Stone, the X-Files, and the rest of the 90s BS machine said. All this shit could be explained by the only four forces we really need to believe in or give a shit about: gravity, electromagnetism, strong nuclear force and weak nuclear force. Everything else is marketing.

Or, as a wise rabbi once said, “The only thing that you need to remember from the Bible is this: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Everything else is commentary.”

So Cliff Clavin (the metaphor) was relegated to the end of the bar, the equivalent of a television sitcom amuse bouche. A little bit of creative punctuation used as counterpoint. But that’s not the way the Boomers saw it. They were in their 30s, and they sympathized with Cliff. They saw him as a victim of the elites who ran the world: Hollywood belittling the working man. (Cliff was a mailman, the ultimate blue collar/government fonctionnaire job.) They were the ones who listened to talk radio. And when Reagan was elected, and when the Fairness Doctrine was gutted, and when Clinton (who was—surprise!—a Baby Boomer that Reagan shat out) finished the gutting with the Communications Act of 1996, we found ourselves in the curious position of being a progressive country that was ruled by a minority of conservatives. Cliff Clavin was driving the bus, and the bus was called the Internet. And he was just as stupid as you thought he would be, chasing every shiny button that flashed before his eyes, whipping the bus into oncoming traffic.

And that is why Cliff Clavin is the story of the decline and fall of the United States of America—who, let’s face it, have never been united; we are more a super-regional tolerant alliance. And now we have what we deserve: angry government employees trying to strip themselves of their pensions, checking the rearview mirror to see if Bigfoot is hot on his heels.

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