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I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts

Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams

Mark Dery

Publication Year: 2012

From the cultural critic Wired called “provocative and cuttingly humorous” comes a viciously funny, joltingly insightful collection of drive-by critiques of contemporary America where chaos is the new normal. Exploring the darkest corners of the national psyche and the nethermost regions of the self—the gothic, the grotesque, and the carnivalesque—Mark Dery makes sense of the cultural dynamics of the American madhouse early in the twenty-first century.

Here are essays on the pornographic fantasies of Star Trek fans, Facebook as Limbo of the Lost, George W. Bush’s fear of his inner queer, the theme-parking of the Holocaust, the homoerotic subtext of the Super Bowl, the hidden agendas of IQ tests, Santa’s secret kinship with Satan, the sadism of dentists, Hitler’s afterlife on YouTube, the sexual identity of 2001’s HAL, the suicide note considered as a literary genre, the surrealist poetry of robot spam, the zombie apocalypse, Lady Gaga, the Church of Euthanasia, toy guns in the dream lives of American boys, and the polymorphous perversity of Madonna’s big toe.

Dery casts a critical eye on the accepted order of things, boldly crossing into the intellectual no-fly zones demarcated by cultural warriors on both sides of America’s ideological divide: controversy-phobic corporate media, blinkered academic elites, and middlebrow tastemakers. Intellectually omnivorous and promiscuously interdisciplinary, Dery’s writing is a generalist’s guilty pleasure in an age of nanospecialization and niche marketing. From Menckenesque polemics on American society and deft deconstructions of pop culture to unflinching personal essays in which Dery turns his scalpel-sharp wit on himself, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts is a head-spinning intellectual ride through American dreams and American nightmares.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press


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pp. 1-9


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pp. ix-xi

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Foreword: I Must Not Read Bad Thoughts

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pp. xiii-xvii

Since I’m a novelist, and an entertainer by nature, I rather enjoy some good fantastic flimflam. I’ve got a soft spot for sense-of-wonder razzle-dazzle. However, there are some fetid marshes of contemporary life that can’t repay an investment of creative effort. They are...

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pp. 1-8

At some point during my long march through The Dream of the Rood, The Faerie Queene, and the metaphysical poets—a protracted agony relieved, for English majors in the early ’80s, by such thrillingly up-to-the-minute fare as The Great Gatsby and, still crackling...


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pp. 9-29

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Dead Man Walking: What Do Zombies Mean?

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pp. 11-17

In Our Day of the (Living) Dead, the reanimated are everywhere, from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Seth Grahame- Smith’s inspired mash-up of the zombie myth and Jane Austen’s Regency novel of manners, to The Walking Dead, a graphic novel...

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Gun Play: An American Tragedy in Three Acts

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pp. 18-26

a week after Jared Lee Loughner—accused multiple murderer and, in the words of the New York Times, “curious teenager and talented saxophonist”—went on one of those shooting sprees that Americans seem to regard as the price we pay for our god-given...

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Mysterious Stranger: Grandpa Twain’s Dark Side

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pp. 27-34

Still, with luck, the publication of the three-volume, 500,000-word, unexpurgated edition of Twain’s autobiography will revise the Twain enshrined in the popular imagination—the twinkly-eyed rapscallion with a gently pricking wit—along more accurate, which is to...

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Aladdin Sane Called. He Wants His Lightning Bolt Back. On Lady Gaga

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pp. 35-47

“How not dumb is Gaga?” asked the New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones in the first flush of Gagamania in 2009.1 Years later, well into the Gaga Belle Époque, his question still furrows the American brow. Okay, I’ll bite: Not? As in: Not in the least not dumb?...

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Jocko Homo: How Gay Is the Super Bowl?

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pp. 48-56

Every Super Bowl season, that great event in the history of Our Times is preceded by an interminably drawn-out drumroll of breathless speculation, ESPN stat porn, and news-anchor joshing about who’s going to be whose daddy. For what seems an eternity...

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Wimps, Wussies, and W. Masculinity, American Style

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pp. 57-63

In April 2007, NBC announced that the shock jock Don Imus, whom the network had hired to provide “irreverent” and “controversial” drive-time comedy, was getting the bum’s rush because of his irreverent and controversial characterization of the Rutgers University...

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Stardust Memories: How David Bowie Killed the ’60s, Ushered in the ’70s, and, for One Brief Shining Moment, Made the Mullet Hip

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pp. 64-70

Weirdly, there may be thousands like me—living fossils from the Class of ’73, the year Bowie retired his Ziggy Stardust persona before a traumatically shocked audience, not to mention his thunderstruck band, all but one of whom (guitarist Mick Ronson) had...

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When Animals Attack!: An Aesop’s Fable about Anthropomorphism

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pp. 71-80

Do you, like me, rejoice in the knowledge that you could eat an adult mouse whole, if you wanted to? As Gordon Grice helpfully notes, in his endlessly entertaining Deadly Kingdom: The Book of Dangerous Animals, the rodent’s bones are “no more troublesome...

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Toe Fou: Subliminally Seduced by Madonna’s Big Toe

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pp. 81-86

Maybe so, but toe cleavage is at least subliminally erotic, alluding (if you squint hard enough) to butt crack, crotch, and décolletage, all at once. The phallic big toe only adds to the polymorphous perversity. Of course, foot fetishism is as old as the Golden Lotus...

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Shoah Business

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pp. 87-93

There’s no business like shoah business, to borrow the Jewish historian Yaffa Eliach’s mordant one-liner.1 In Selling the Holocaust, Tim Cole’s critique of the branding and blockbustering of the unspeakable, the historian argues that “at the end of the Twentieth...

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The Triumph of the Shill: Fascist Branding

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pp. 94-100

On January 13, 2005, the world learned that England’s irrepressible Prince Harry had pulled another madcap stunt: attending a costume party for A-listers dressed in Desert Fox drag (the Afrika Korps uniform worn by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, topped...

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Endtime for Hitler: On the Downfall Parodies and the Inglorious Return of Der Führer

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pp. 101-111

“He was on again last night,” eleven-year-old Denise tells her dad, Jack Gladney, in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise. “He” is Hitler; Gladney is a professor of Hitler studies, the academic discipline he founded, at the proverbially named College-on-the-Hill,...

MYTHS OF THE NEAR FUTURE: Making Sense of the Digital Age

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pp. 113-133

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World Wide Wonder Closet: On Blogging

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pp. 115-121

Why blog? First problem: the word, second only to “org” in its mortifying dorkiness. (Speaking of which, isn’t an “org” the seafaring enclave formerly headed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, who according to the cult’s official website hightailed it...

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(Face)Book of the Dead

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pp. 122-134

Just when you thought the past was happily entombed, the curse of social networking is conjuring it up. More often than not, that knock on your Inbox door is the risen dead from your high school yearbook, classmates you thought you had safely buried in the boneyard...

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Straight, Gay, or Binary?: HAL Comes Out of the Cybernetic Closet

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pp. 135-145

Not Alan Turing’s classic blindfold test for artificial intelligence, which the ultraintelligent machine could pass “with ease,” as Arthur C. Clarke notes in the novel on which Stanley Kubrick based his movie, but the test that Turing himself failed (albeit deliberately):...

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Word Salad Surgery: Spam, Deconstructed

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pp. 146-150

As Bruce Sterling—futurist, sci-fi novelist, and Shaolin Master of Texas slacker cynicism—noted in a post on his blog Beyond the Beyond, spambots are “evolv[ing] into . . . Surrealist poet[s]” in order to fool spam-zapping programs. “Spam is now forced to mutter eerie...

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Slashing the Borg: Resistance Is Fertile

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pp. 151-158

In science friction, mechanical reproduction is strictly X-rated. The Toronto-based queer fanzine is devoted to campy, technoporn burlesques of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Borg” episodes. (For non-Trekkers, the Borg are the implacable man-machines who...

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Things to Come: Xtreme Kink and the Future of Porn

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pp. 159-166

Recently, while websurfing in search of xtreme kink (a carnival-midway activity that the sexpert Susie Bright calls “pornographic rubbernecking”), I stumbled on the Neck Brace Appreciation Klub, a “small but dedicated group of regular folks” who just...

TRIPE SOUP FOR THE SOUL: Religion and All Its Works and Ways

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pp. 167-187

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Tripe Soup for the Soul: The Daily Affirmation

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pp. 169-174

“Every day, in every way, i’m getting better and better.” That gem of greeting-card wisdom, worth its weight in cubic zirconium, was unearthed by the French pharmacist turned psychotherapist Émile Coué (1857–1926). Coué’s gospel of better living through...

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Pontification: On the Death of the Pope

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pp. 175-181

Swiss Guards in Renaissance finery; solemn monks holding candles; a male choir chanting in the occult tongue of Latin; the anguished faithful, wracked with grief, clasping their hands in prayer or seeming to clutch at the passing bier; and, at the center of this...

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The Prophet Margin: Jack Chick’s Comic-Book Apocalypse

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pp. 182-187

Chick tracts are ammonium nitrate for the soul, an incendiary mix of blood ’n’ guts Bible-thumping, paleoconservatism, millenarian visions in the Late Great Planet Earth mold, and what conspiracy scholars call “fusion paranoia”—that altered state in...

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2012: Carnival of Bunkum

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pp. 188-192

I like a good apocalypse as much as the next american, which is why I’ll be braving the Stepfordian horrors of the local mall for the opening of 2012, Roland Emmerich’s latest exercise in disaster porn. The trailer is awesome. It’s got John Cusack in a puddlejumper...

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The Vast Santanic Conspiracy

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pp. 193-201

Christian soldiers, marching as to war in the pitched battle for the meaning of Christmas, worry that Santa is a tool of the vast Satanic conspiracy. To be sure, the similarity of their names, identical but for one transposed letter, is provocative. Didn’t Mia Farrow...

ANATOMY LESSON: The Grotesque, the Gothic, and Other Dark Matters

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pp. 203-223

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Open Wide: Dental Horror

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pp. 205-211

Recently, while submit ting to the fond at tentions of a dental surgeon, I found myself musing idly, in an opiated haze, about the symbolic weight of teeth—musings disturbed only by the surgeon’s resolute yanking on the offending tooth, a yanking that...

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Gray Matter: The Obscure Pleasures of Medical Libraries

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pp. 212-218

Remember that scene in citizen kane where the reporter visits the imposing Walter Parks Thatcher Memorial Library to examine Thatcher’s unpublished memoir? The scene is a study in secular ritual, from the stern mother superior of a librarian who admonishes...

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Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Severed Head

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pp. 219-233

Although (or maybe because) i grew up in sunny southern California in the ’60s and ’70s, I was a morbid child, much given to Poe, Hammer horror films, and lovingly embroidered visions of a premature death—revenge fantasies in which my grief-crazed parents...

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Been There, Pierced That: Apocalypse Culture and the Escalation of Subcultural Hostilities

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pp. 234-239

The way he tells it, Adam Parfrey—the Ron Popeil of fusion paranoia, pop Satanism, bad art, cannibal killers, Jews for Hitler, and fecal black magic (okay, make that brown magic)—had to become America’s most mondo publisher. It’s an ugly job, but somebody...

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Death to All Humans!: The Church of Euthanasia’s Modest Proposal

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pp. 240-244

What the world needs now is suicide, abortion, cannibalism, and sodomy. That, at least, is the Church of Euthanasia’s modest proposal. A tax-exempt “educational foundation” dedicated to the proposition that all men (and women) are created superfluous, the...

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Great Caesar’s Ghost: On the Crypt of the Capuchins

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pp. 245-251

The first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764) —a spookhouse ride whose oubliettes, subterranean passageways, and doors that slam shut by themselves still stock the Gothic prop room—is set in medieval Italy. In fact, the first edition purported...

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Aphrodites of the Operating Theater: On La Specola’s Anatomical Venuses

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pp. 252-259

“Why have we not developed an aesthetic of the inside of the body?” wonders one of the twin gynecologists in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. He speaks for Cronenberg, who took up the thread in an interview with me. “We have contests in which we...

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Goodbye, Cruel Words: On the Suicide Note as a Literary Genre

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pp. 260-264

And my book is The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath’s jagged little pill for girls who dream of sticking their heads in the Easy-Bake Oven. As every undergrad knows, Plath’s autobiographical tale of a bright young overachiever’s dizzy plunge into suicidal depression when her whitepicket...

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Cortex Envy: Bringing Up Baby Einstein

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pp. 265-276

Cortex envy—the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be smarter than you are—was my birthright. When I was little, my mother (last seen protesting her high IQ to a gerontologist, just before Alzheimer’s hit the delete key on her mind) liked...

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pp. 279-280

I owe a debt of gratitude to my editor at the University of Minnesota Press, Jason Weidemann, for his zeal for this project. His editorial attentions improved it tenfold. At Jason’s right hand was editorial assistant and worker of last-minute miracles Danielle Kasprzak, who...


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pp. 281-313

Publication History

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pp. 315-317

E-ISBN-13: 9780816681419
E-ISBN-10: 0816681414
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816677733

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2012