Welcome Home To Slum Nation
It's sad to be a citizen of a nation that can't do anything right. While BP was fumbling its "kill shot" into the Deepwater Horizon hole, and the dying pelicans were flopping in the poisoned marshlands, and rumors seeped across the Internet that nothing short of an atom bomb would avail to stop the underwater oil gusher -- not to mention, meanwhile, all the other problems out there, such as the ongoing melt-away of of capital in every corner of the world -- I found myself in Berlin, Germany, touring the city on a rented bicycle (after a 4,500-mil airplane ride, it is true).
When last I was in Berlin in 1997, the town was still reeling from the shock of reunification. Only a few tentative businesses had started up on the former communist side, and most of the route of the infamous wall remained a yawning, weedy scrape-off zone. Now the repair of the city is well-advanced, though I give very mixed reviews to some of the premier projects.
Back in '97, my biggest surprise was, holy shit, the place is in color. After almost fifty years of watching Hitler documentaries I'd assumed the city only existed in black-and-white. By extension, of course, I realized that Hitler himself had been in living color, and that's where a really vivid sense of the horror set in. In '97, the scars of World War Two still showed all over the east side, where an acne of bullet holes and artillery craters defaced virtually every older building. They said the communists had been too poor for cosmetic renovation -- or else the Russian overlords took a certain sadistic pride in their wartime handiwork and wanted to keep the hostage denizens of the east cowed with never-ending reminders of their subjugation. A necrotic odor of defeat lingered in the streets there. The west side, meanwhile, was all jaunty with shopping and techno-pop teens and the normal hoopla of a money economy.
The the Battle of Berlin, fought mainly by the Russians, had left most of the important civic stuff inside the communist zone of the city -- major museums, the opera and symphony, Humboldt University, the Brandenburg gate and the grand avenue called the Unter Den Linden leading off it, the site of the old royal palace, most of the old government buildings (their shells at least), and, of course, the chief souvenirs of Hitlerdom, especially the dreadful bunker of the final days. It was all in pretty shabby shape when I was there in '97. Hitler's bunker, which had proved too sturdy to blow up even with controlled demolitions, was finally just filled with sand by the Russians, and looked like a mere weedy mound in a vacant lot. The spot was apparently deemed too spiritually toxic to do anything with it. The nearby Potsdamer Platz, once Berlin's Times Square, was a vast set of holes in the ground with a bizarre network of primary-colored pipes emanating from them to drain groundwater preceding foundation work. And finally there was Sir Norman Foster's rebuilding of the Reichstag, just then getting underway in a rubble-strewn plain.
All those projects are about finished. The area around the Brandenburg Gate, once a forlorn encampment of morose ragtag Russians hawking fake amber plastic necklaces, now swarms with tourists. Likewise the Reichstag and its landscaped front and rear courts. The Unter Den Linden is almost too crowded to walk down. And the whole region around the old communist Alexander Platz -- originally designed by the commies to look like a Jetson's shopping mall, minus the shopping of course -- seems to have become the consumer electronics mecca of Europe. Sad to say, those holes in the ground around the Potsdamer Platz grew up to be a set of inglorious glass box towers, each trying to out-do the next in sleek corporate narcissism, while the streets themselves look like something the state of Georgia DOT would come up with -- intersecting six-laners, a demolition derby in a suburban office park.
When I was there in '97, I was struck by how utterly all remnants of Hitler had been erased. I suppose it was a form of post traumatic stress syndrome. Quite a bit of memory has been recovered since then, and new monuments abound, from the Peter Eisenman-designed Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe -- very solemnly eloquent -- to a smaller memorial to Hitler's gay victims in the big park called the Tiergarten. Plaques explaining one Nazi horror after another are now liberally deployed around the old city center, and Herman Goering's Air Force Ministry was left standing as the last example of Third Reich art deco -- a form of extreme stripped down neo-classicism with all femininity removed, no curves, no ornaments. The site of Hitler's bunker is no longer a weed patch, but perhaps appropriately one of the city's rather rare surface parking lots, with a plaque telling the tale and tourist docents pointing out (I swear I heard this) that "...Hitler's bedroom lay about where that white Audi is parked...."
It seemed to me that, altogether, the German expression of regret appears deeply sincere now and absolutely straightforward, with no side-trips into the realm of excuses or attempted explanations. With the German social mentality now restored to normality -- laughter in the busy streets and all dark thoughts of race vengeance banished -- one was prompted to reflect on just how such a civilized folk could fall into a mass psychosis like Naziism. And by extension, it was hard to evade the question as to how the USA might not lurch into something worse. The Germans were punished pretty severely for losing (and starting!) the First World War. Depression and hyper-inflation drove them to their knees. I daresay, too, that something about industrialization meshed with their ethnic neuroses to very bad effect (though this is a subject that would take a book to lay out). Anyway, it drove them batshit. They followed a madman through the gates of hell and made a smoking ruin of their home place.
America today is arguably a far less civilized land, and even more neurotic, than the Germany of the 1930s. We live in places so extreme in ugliness, squalor, and dysfunction that just going to the store leaves a sentient American reeling in angst and anomie. Our popular culture would embarrass a race of hebephrenics. We think that neck tattoos are cool. A lot of our pop music is overtly homicidal. Our richest citizens have managed to define a new banality of evil. Our middle classes are subject to humiliations so baroque that sadomasochism even fails to encompass the finer points. And we don't even need help from other nations to run our own economic affairs into the ground -- we're digging our national grave with a kind of antic glee, complete with all the lurid stagecraft that Las Vegas, Hollywood, and Madison Avenue can muster.
Biking around Berlin -- especially the non-tourist neighborhoods, and the beautiful, shaded paths beside the little river Spree, where young people sat enjoying the simple tranquility of the waterside on a spring day -- I could only imagine the scene back home at the Indianapolis Speedway (or the dozens of Nascar ovals around Dixie) -- the frantic idiocy of America-on-wheels, the fat slobs in beer can hats grilling cheez dogs in the parking lots, letting loose their asinine rebel yells as though this made men of them, and above it all the deafening noise of a people literally driving themselves to death and madness.
Meanwhile, the evil plume of crude oil in the Gulf of Mexico grows ever-larger by the hour and every living thing in that quarter of the sea faces slow death. That's our memorial-in-the-making to ourselves. I feel sorry for Barack Obama in this situation. Dmitry Orlov is right: this is our Chernobyl. This is the cherry-on-top of all our feckless foolishness. Memorial Day this year is the welcome mat to our hard time. We'll be lucky if some honorable as-yet-unknown colonel in the wadis of Afghanistan comes home to overthrow president Glenn Beck, or whichever lethal moron ends up in power after 2012. We'll be a very different America then, with no going back.
Coming home to the USA was like re-entering a special kind of mega-slum where nothing that can be screwed up is left un-screwed up. My Delta flight was two hours late, of course. Amusingly, the explanation given was that new runways were under construction at JFK airport -- like, Delta just discovered it that morning, or somehow they've been unable to work that into their scheduling process after months and months. The things we tell ourselves are so absurd that even the late George Carlin couldn't make them up. We stopped on the tarmac at JFK because they didn't have a gate for us. We passengers were put onto some kind of people-mover contraption. The engine failed so we we sat in this steel box in 90-degree heat until they fetched another one. Then there was the journey through a set of dim tunnels to customs, and another journey up a steep ramp shared by motor vehicles and their exhalations to the terminal exit. Welcome home to Slum Nation.
A sequel to my 2008 novel of post-oil America, World Made By Hand, will be published in September 2010 by The Atlantic Monthly Press.
For a complete list of books by James Howard Kunstler and purchase links, click here.