The scene in the White House these days must be a sort of Opera Bouffe, in which an earnest and rather grave young man moves from one roomful of lesser officials to another in which all agree to pretend that they have prevented the nation from falling into something they call "the abyss." At the end of Act I, a young deputy FDIC commissioner in the Little Mary Sunshine mold gets down on one knee, belts out a show-stopper about the glories of a bright and shining "tomorrow," and the audience goes out for intermission to discover that the city has been burning down around the theater all night.
Out in America-the-Real, Halloween time in this year of 2009 has an interesting "Day of the Locust" flavor. There's more than a whiff of smoke in the air, along with an odor of dead carp wafting out of all the the offices and institutions we depend on to define reality. Like the Hollywood of Nathaniel West's dark 1939 novel, America today seems poised in the gate of some harsh judgment. When the historians look back at this era - especially at the time between January 20th and the holiday season of 2009 - won't they marvel at how well-understood our predicament actually was, by so many parties to it, and the gulf between that comprehension and the story we told ourselves: that we were "recovering."
Like a lot of other observer-interlocutors, I'd like to know what folks imagine we are recovering to. To a renewed orgy of credit-card spending? To yet another round of suburban expansion, with the boys in the yellow hard-hats driving stakes out in the sagebrush for another new thousand-unit pop-up "community?" For a next generation of super-cars built to look like medieval war wagons? That's the "hope" that our officials seem to pretend to offer. It's completely inconsistent with any reality-based trend-lines, by the way.
Perhaps it's time to redefine "hope" in the greater social sense of the word. To me, hope is not synonymous with "wishes fulfilled." In fact, hope should not be about wishing at all. Hope should be based on confidence that the individual or group is reliably competent enough to meet the challenges that circumstances present. Hope is justified when people demonstrate to themselves that they can behave ably and bravely. Hope is not really possible in the face of patent untruthfulness. It is derived from a clear-eyed and courageous view of what is really going on. I don't think that defines any of the behavior in the United States these days. We've become a self-jiving nation intent on playing shell games, running Ponzi schemes, and working Polish blanket tricks on ourselves.
It begins to look now as if the Obama team is determined to run this creaking vessel right over the falls. We could have bravely faced the structural perversities in banking the past year, but we decided not to. So far only a tiny minority of the public - unfortunately the "tea-bagging" race-baiters - have been the only ones to squawk. I look around at my fellow baby-boomer ex-hippie, ex-political radical age-cohorts and I see a sad-ass claque of passive, played-out, defeated dreamers too depressed to form a coherent thought about what's really going on... lost in sentimental fantasies about "world peace," or free heart-transplants-for-everybody as they, the boomers themselves, lurch toward the graveyard.
Obama was not a boomer, not one of "us," so I had expectations that he'd rise above the fog of wishful thinking. But he begins to look more like Millard Fillmore and less like an earlier president from Illinois who got elected on the eve of a terrible national political convulsion. I think about Lincoln a lot these days, about how circumstances shoved him to act when Southern secessionists fired on Fort Sumter barely a month after the new president took the oath of office (which was done in March back then). There was no spinning the news on it, no wiggling away from reality: an organized insurrection led by rogue U.S. military officers fired on their fellow officers... and that was that. The issue, as the saying goes, was joined.
If you think we have been in a crisis of finance and economy for the past year or so, consider that we have also been sunk in a comprehensive crisis of leadership. Nobody in authority is willing to face the truth, state the truth, and offer a reality-based idea about how to meet the truth, This is a leadership failure not just in politics and government, but also in business, in the university faculties, in the editorial and production offices of the news media, and even among a barely-breathing clergy.
Americans look around and see nobody standing up for their interests. Their greatest interest is a vision of a fruitful society that they can help build and be a part of beyond the current wreckage of revolving-debt consumerism. It will have to be a vision based on fewer resources and on new arrangements for daily living. It will have to recognize losses frankly, and enable us to let go of things whose time is over, whether that is Happy Motoring, college-for-everybody, vast industries devoted to vanished leisure, or procedures geared to getting something-for-nothing.
For now, I still see the inflection point as coming by the holiday season, when the masters-of-the-universe on Wall Street will have to publicly post their Christmas bonuses (and as publicly held corporations, they will have to). It is also well within the realm of possibility that a Black Swan the size of Rodan the Flying Reptile will swoop through the stock markets to breath fire on the computer terminals and melt the glorious rally of 09 away. In the meantime, I wonder about that man in the White House, and those ever more comical meetings he attends every day. He must emerge from them spinning like a nine dollar gyroscope. Nobody wants to imagine what happens to him when the spinning stops.
For a complete list of books by James Howard Kunstler and purchase links, click here.