Given all the things in this overwrought culture operating to divide a middle-aged mother from a 13-year-old boy, I’m relieved to be able to point to at least one interest that my son and I can still enjoy together: the old-fashioned silliness of Mad magazine. The April issue features an article titled “35 Reasons Why School Sucks.” Reason # 34 is military recruiters who try to entice you into enlisting in “the one place worse than high school.” The picture shows a recruiter coaxing a hapless young man with this line: “It’ll be like living in a video game–but cooler.”

Both my son and I laughed, but with somewhat different inflections. He thinks it would indeed be cool to live inside a video game, although not one run by the Army. He’d choose a basketball videoworld, to be precise, and he’d create a doppelgaenger with the kind of thoughtfulness not always present in his life on terra firma. He’d consider height, haircut, team affiliation, uniform number. His shirt would be tucked in lovingly, for once his shoelaces tied. He’d adorn his cyberself with a mustache and mutton-chop sideburns because he is hoping for signs of fuzz in real life. There wouldn’t be a mother in sight.

For me, on the other hand, the attraction to a fantasy of perfect control is completely incomprehensible. It’s a generational thing, I suppose, but I worry that the real world is more and more like a computer game. And I have no particular desire to enter a space where I can edit my flaws and those of my enemies with the brush of a keystroke. Already I have an ongoing nightmare that a whole generation of kids are being sucked into their computer screens, headfirst. At other times I worry that the computer itself is breeding, hatching, programming little cyberhumans who will wander among us, sucking the humanity out through our ears.

It is a thin metaphor for the politics of the day, I suppose. There’s just so much going awry in the world right now that it’s hard to express concern about any single issue before another crisis or scandal crashes down around us, as predictably as the next wave in a high wind. It’s hard to respond with anything like political coherence when you’re trying to sort among priorities such as: Do you approve of torture? Who’s the better lawyer for the defense, Carla Martin or Zacarias Moussaoui? Shall we make felons of economic refugees and anyone who harbors them? Do fifty beheadings a day constitute civil war in Iraq or does one wait for a hundred? Should whistleblowers and those who publish leaks be charged with espionage? Will firing Andrew Card as opposed to Donald Rumsfeld cause the President’s approval ratings to climb? Should Pittsburgh schools ditch the International Baccalaureate program because it’s “foreign”? If you indefinitely detain and force-feed prisoners at Guantanamo in violation of the Geneva Conventions, can you block investigation into such charges by invoking those same Geneva Conventions, asserting prisoners’ rights to be free from the glare of “public curiosity”? If Sandra Day O’Connor publicly worries about a trend toward dictatorship, does that mean that the apocalypse, if not Congressional censure, is nigh? Will Wal-Mart hire you once it’s data-wrapped you into neat packages defined by your credit history, religious practice, beard length, hat size, shopping patterns, porno sites visited, school performance, driving record and genetic predisposition to dropping dead before the post-Enron minimum retirement age of 96.5? If young black men in American cities have an unemployment rate of 50 to 72 percent, and the overall American unemployment rate is less than 5 percent–who else out there is unemployed? Is it really OK to write off that statistic as mere “self-destructive choice”? And speaking of self-destructive, is artist Daniel Edwards’s nude, life-size statue of Britney Spears crouched on all fours as she gives birth to her son truly an appropriate monument to the “pro-life” movement?

It weighs on a mind, all this. But it does make me want to back up and ask even bigger questions. Is the Constitution really constitutive if we have a shadow system of justice by which the President can designate anyone, including citizens, an enemy combatant and then they disappear? I wonder too: What becomes of liberalism at a moment when DNA can pinpoint not just how closely I am related to Tom DeLay, not just whether I am susceptible to a variety of diseases, but can also pinpoint and establish beyond the shadow of a doubt individual biological, medical and mental inequalities. This poses an interesting challenge to our presumptions of political equality, in that it is beginning to spur policies that will privilege certain groups of people over others, if not as a matter of state policy then as popular “privatized” eugenic “choice.” Coming soon, without doubt: pre-emptive quarantine or sterilization of those more prone to contracting certain diseases; pre-emptive detention of those thought prone to aggression; pre-emptive hiring; pre-emptive genetic alteration in favor of desired qualities, whether IQ or blond hair; pre-emptive intervention making all sorts of well-meaning mischief. This is occurring, moreover, in a market context–there’s a price on our heads. We are not “unalienable” if every last thought, deed and body part has a price tag hanging from it. From the surge in cosmetic surgery to the USA Patriot Act, one’s very right to the perquisites of civil society is negotiable rather than assumed. One’s appreciation or depreciation is linked to the unhappy coincidence of advertising, profit, speculation, rumor, suspicion, fear, relative supply and demand and “fashion” in the most fleeting and momentary sense.

But back to video games. Whether we abandon planet Earth to live in cyberspace or whether it takes over our lives in real time, my worry is not one of technology per se. It’s about the sense of unreality by which we seem seized; a sense that everything’s a game, as though we were watching our politics spin from afar, all wish fulfillment and instant gratification, all mechanical predestination till the machine crashes and then we start again. This assortative commercialization, combined with our general cynicism, tapers our notions of individualism, cheapens our inventiveness and injects a crudely aimless competitiveness that displaces rather than balances what’s left of our sense of community.