All Gas No Brakes - whynow

All Gas No Brakes

Lockdown has led to some people’s unhealthy habits and vices getting a little out of hand. For me, a problem I thought I’d vanquished many years ago found its way back into my daily routine with uncomfortable ease.

Americophilia (a fascination with the USA) blights many an Englishman’s (and it does usually seem to be the men, probably because we’re the more foolish) life from a young age.

It doesn’t manifest itself necessarily in a desire to be one of them, though this can happen to, but instead an urge to try and understand the country—its vastness and its vast contradictions.  

During the summer, while America burned, as it so often does at this time of year, I slipped backward into the ocean of its vast cultural output: I reread Bellow, rewatched Coppola and reexamined Thoreau.

But none helped me to get a grip on the country in 2020: Trump, the killing of George Floyd, the modern Democratic Party. Then I stumbled across a YouTube channel called All Gas No Brakes and found what I was looking for.

It features shortish videos of presenter Andrew Callaghan travelling around the United States interviewing some of his very unhinged fellow citizens at conferences, protests and rocket launches. 

Like his gawky progenitor Louis Theroux, Callaghan has realised that given the floor, many Americans will use it to do or say something obscene or funny, often both.

It helps, of course, that he’s chosen to visit some of the more eccentric and inebriated sites in the land: Area 51, Mardi Gras, Hempfest, Burning Man, Fourth of July etc. One of the best, and most disturbing, takes place at a Flat Earth conference in Dallas, Texas.

Attendees rabidly spew their pseudo-scientific conspiracy babble, much of it unashamedly anti-Semitic, into the mic. Even more depressingly, a lot of them choose to rap it. When one troubled soul offers the slurred confession, “sometimes I want to go back to Britney Spears concerts, you know, to turn it all off,” you cannot help but sympathise with him.

But you can’t turn it off, the ‘it’ being the internet, whose malign influence lurks in the background of every video. Of course, there were millions of tweaky walleyed neurotics in America before the world wide web, but it has allowed the craziest ones the means to congregate.

It has also fanned the flames of ignorance and bigotry, subliminally nudging people towards the extremes of the political spectrum. At an anti-lockdown protest outside the California State Capitol, a guy in a red baseball cap avers, “we don’t have a civil right to be immortal,” before completely losing his train of thought and mumbling incomprehensibly. 

He’s an anomaly, since most of the people interviewed are frighteningly lucid—I guess that’s what anger does to you. Listening to the flat-earthers talk about “closed-system territorial energy cosmic egg models” or the UFO people warn of a “technocratic peace matrix system,” you think what a shame it is they have turned their eloquence to such retrograde opinions, while still marvelling at what the euphonic American tongue can do with the English language. It even makes utter nonsense sound lyrical. At Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama an interviewee greets Callaghan by simply exclaiming “bout it!” The guy’s surrounded by grunting and baying goons but all I was thinking was how I could integrate ‘bout it’ into my portfolio of greetings. 

All Gas No Brakes’s videos begin in early 2019 but watching them for the first time a month or so ago, I felt a giddy sense of foreboding about what was to come.

This summer, with its police killings, mass protests and hundreds of thousands of coronavirus deaths, has been dramatic even by America’s high standards. Callaghan visits Black Lives Matter protests in Portland and talks to softly spoken anarchists, heart-wrenchingly insightful young African-American women and drunken berks intent on wanton destruction.

It’s probably the most editorialised of his videos, very intentionally pushing the viewer towards one side of the argument. In a strange way, this makes it less persuasive. The power of Callaghan’s approach lies in its low-intervention. Apart from the odd quizzical look, he allows misguided people to put forward their arguments without response, starving their anger of fuel and revealing the source of their naked beliefs as fear. They often sound as though they’re reading them straight off the screen. 

The biggest obstacle to understanding America is generalisation. In the introduction to his collection of journalism, The Moronic Inferno and other visits to America, Martin Amis intones, “America is more like a world than a country: you could as well write a book about people, or about life.”

Everyone’s guilty of stereotyping nations: the French are unhygienic, the Italians are hot-headed, the Germans are prurient etc… Of course there are sex-obsessed Germans but there are many more who are not. The problem with stereotyping Americans is that there are 320 million of them, that’s only 80 million less than there are in the whole of South America. That’s a continent’s worth of people to generalise. But still we do it. 

Aged nine, I couldn’t believe that a country whose culture I so revered could elect someone as intellectually challenged as George W. Bush to be its leader. When I asked my dad why Americans were so dumb, he replied that yes there were many unintelligent Americans but there were also many who were the complete opposite. That America was a land of extremes and a land of many more inbetweens.

Like Amis and countless others before him, Andrew Callaghan has chosen to focus on the extremes. This is, of course, the most entertaining way of doing it. As an election of unrivalled significance in recent US history approaches, the natural urge is to read and watch all one can in the hope of working out what will happen. All Gas No Brakes won’t tell you definitively whether Biden will beat Trump, but I’ve found no better means for trying to get a grip on the contemporary American hellscape. 

Rampa  They Will Be