Beast of America: The Beast Revealed
(Welcome to the fourth and final entry in our series “Beast of America” analyzing the various social themes and messages found within Irrational Games’ latest masterpiece: BioShock Infinite.)
All week long we’ve been discussing America, and what Bioshock Infinite’s Columbia says about America. We’ve discussed religion, racism, and classism. But there’s something more lurking behind all of those ills, all of those warped mirrors we see reflected in our modern America. Religion, racism, classism exist outside America, sure, but there’s something about America that makes them so much worse, so much more prevalent, so much more insidious here.
It’s because we’re exceptional.
From the day you are born American you’re told that you, yes you, are exceptional. Why? Because you were born in America, that’s why! America, home of some of the greatest cities on the planet. America, home of the biggest corporations. America, home of more culture and art than we can keep track of. America, home to more mega churches than there are people in some European countries. We’re rich, we’re powerful, we’re massive, we’re smart, we’re unstoppable, we’re craftier, we have the best political system, the best economic system, the best roads and cars. We have the best people, because our people can be anything. Everything.
This is the lie we’re told from birth.
For all the wonderful things America has done, and for all the terror we have sown, for all the wealth we’ve accumulated and the greed we’ve instilled we’re just another country. Another country in a long line of countries who were rich, and smart, and powerful. And this is why playing Bioshock Infinite is so hard for so many of us Americans. It holds a light up to all that splendor we’re raised on, shows us that our amber waves of grain are fertilized by the rotting corpses of the innocents we slaughtered on our way to the top. It shows the millions of backs we had to break, continue to break, to be who we are. This is a reflection many of us can’t accept, that many of us reject vehemently. It’s hard to blame them.
More than showing us the horrors that our nation was built upon, Bioshock Infinite is trying to show us how American exceptionalism has changed over the years. It’s one thing to be uncomfortable with the truth of how America was built, it is another class of difficulty to accept that those institutions that allowed our exceptionalism to shine through are still running wild and rampant today. The Columbia of 1912 is not so dissimilar from our own world, today, this very second.
So many of us deny the ongoing realities of racism. We don’t casually search black people on the streets, simply for being black anymore, right? We don’t ignore all the people who aren’t white who are killed, abducted, raped, or shot in every single news broadcast? Of course not. We’re past that. We have a black President, after all! Except, well, no. He’s black. And he’s white. But, like always, if you have any black blood you’re all black. Kind of like being Jewish. Or Muslim. Or Hispanic. Oh, but it’s okay, right, because we don’t see color. Everyone is the same! So, now, instead of seeing the world as sub-par black people in Columbia’s 1912, othering them by highlighting their differences, we instead simply try and assimilate the cultures. We say we don’t see color, therefore they’re just like us so we can wear their tribal headdresses, do a rain dance, and give ourselves a ‘non-slave’ name.
And what of the poor, exploited working people? We don’t have company towns anymore. We have work place rights! Nothing nearly so bad as what Mr. Fink was doing to those poor people in Columbia, surely? Ah-ha! You see how exceptional we are at this? We’ve moved the company towns to different countries. We hide the violations behind bribery and greed. We tell our workers “it’s good for the economy” for them to work unpaid overtime. We refuse raises, and benefits, because we know that in “the bad economy” there’s a plethora of people who will work for pennies on the dollar. College? Sure! Go to college and become indebted for the rest of your life, but you’ve only got a bit of a better shot at finding qualified work. But remember, like Mr. Fink says, if you work hard enough and long enough, why even you can make it to the top!
Because this is America.
Because we’re exceptional.
And religion. My old friend religion. American religion is actually a breath of fresh air, compared to our friends racism and classism. Religion has it figured out. They haven’t changed since 1912, and why would they? This is the one thing America is truly exceptional at. Give to the church, pray for the church, never question the church, surrender your children to the church. Be sexually assaulted by the church. Let your pastor buy a new Humvee, because of the church. Ignore the truths of medical and scientific breakthroughs because of the church. Women stay in your place.
Because of the church.
This is why Bioshock Infinite makes so many of us Americans so uncomfortable. It scratches beyond the surface of what has made our country ‘exceptional’ and shows us that all the horrors of the 1912s hasn’t gone away. We haven’t eradicated intolerance, exploitation, or willful ignorance. We’ve moved them. Shifted them out of the way. Patted everyone on the head, given them a cookie, and said ‘It’s okay. We’re better now. We fixed the problems.’ But those platitudes don’t sit quite right with us. We’re feel wrong somehow. Cognitive dissonance takes over. We’re raised to accept that America is the best, the nicest, happiest, richest, and most powerful. That equality is the measure of the land.
But we exist in reality. And reality doesn’t sit right with what we’re raised to believe.
For all the things that Bioshock Infinite does, it does this one thing perfectly. It takes you by the hand and shoves your head into the water, it shows you the lies that Columbia was founded on, that America was founded on. And when it pulls you up, out of the water, back into the world that is our reality you see the truth.
You see, American exceptionalism isn’t how rich or powerful we are.
It’s how good we are at hiding the truth.