In that order. The scary people have already started coming out of the woodwork. The times lately have been mostly uncertain, but soon they’ll turn scary, too, as it becomes clearer that the people running things in the USA have no idea what’s going on or what they’re going to do about it — and what’s going on is an involuntary permanent re-set of the terms of everyday life, from a wet-dream robotic “consumer” techtopia to something more like the first chapter of Tobacco Road, with a family of half-wits reduced by hard times to fighting over a sack of turnips in a roadside ditch. That’s the story-arc anyway, and lots of people won’t like it. But the theme of dwindling resources is not a pretty one.
The most striking feature of the current scene is the absence of a coherent vision of our multiple related predicaments and how they add up to a valid picture of reality. To be precise, I mean our predicaments of 1.) energy resources, 2.) vanishing capital, and 3.) ecocide. This inability to decode the clear and present dangers to civilized life is a failure of leadership and authority without precedent in the American story.
On the eve of the only other comparable national convulsion — the lead-up to the Civil War – a strenuous public debate was able to focus on the salient question of the day, namely whether human slavery would continue in this country. Lincoln and Douglas parried for hours in the hot sun, arguing unscripted in complete sentences without the aid of teleprompters or offstage spin doctors. Yet no one above age of nine failed to understand what was at issue.
Note the diminishing returns of technology at work in our time, making it impossible for us to think straight, despite the proliferation of snazzy devices, programs, networks, blog-clouds, and the pervasive, non-stop spewage of so-called information all intended to enhance communication. What did Lincoln have to work with? A pencil.
Today, no one present in the political arena appears to have a clue and, lacking clues, any ability to articulate the terms of what we face. Both major parties are hostage to a peculiar nostalgia, a wish to return to the time when America could dream up any kind of machine or breakfast cereal or techtronic brassiere, and sell the manufactured surplus from our own happily oversold markets to the rest of the clamoring world – even lending them the cash (at interest) to buy the stuff. America makes and the world takes, was the theme song then. That earnest, upward-striving society of Eisenhower simplicity, of well-paid factory workers dreaming of a little summer place at the lake, and the Main Streets bustling in the cheerful early twilight of Christmas Eve, and the Beach Boys crooning about “fun, fun, fun,” and purloined German physicists stashed in comfortably aire-kooled rooms, turning a few tossed-off equations into moon-shots, and Bob Hope cracking wise before a nationwide audience of car-dealers and self-satisfied Rotarians – well that America has imploded like a weevil-infested hubbard squash in a back pantry. And all the prayers to Moloch by the Jesus boomers in and out of congress won’t make it whole again.
There is no theme song for contraction – at least not one with a hummable tune. The current background music sounds like Stockhausen run through scrap-metal shredder. No wonder everybody’s so nervous.
A few hours ago I drove up the immaculately conceived highways north out of Detroit to the drear industrial outlands of Happy Motoring history, north past Flint and Saginaw where an exhausted American Dream is being hunted down by the angry ghosts of the Wyandots. The heartland these days looks like it’s preparing for a return trip to the 9th century A.D. Nobody knows what’s ailing it, but they’re whispering of “last stands” out here around the all-you-can-eat buffet at the year ’round Christmas Shoppe.
And the Tea Party aims to fix all this, to make things right again. I listen to their blather about “freedom” and all I can imagine is the sound of boots outside the door, and men in badly-fitted camo uniforms and buzzcut hair commanding me to accept John Boehner as my personal savior. Pardon me, but I don’t see how this will really improve anybody’s lot in life.
You can just feel the heat of emotion rising, even as the northern hemisphere cools down. We can’t speak clearly anymore; we can only beat drums. All across the land self-appointed saviors are stepping up to heroically rescue the squandered entitlements of the bygone day: Rand Paul, the Kentucky physician who (like his dad) subscribes to the idea that the earth is only about 4000 years old; Dan Maes, the Colorado Tea Party candidate for governor who believes that bicycling is a “gateway drug” to communism; Sharron Angle, the Nevada polymoron running John Birch Society scripts to the psychologically-spavined blackjack dealers crowding the unemployment lines. (“The Trilateral Commission and the Bilderburgers did this to you!”); and lonely Joe Miller, the hermit-attorney of Fairbanks, stalking out of his survivalist cave to drive a silver lance through the flaming heart of the ravening liberal windigo.
They can flap their gums with this nonsense as much as they like, bit it’s not likely to clarify things. Maybe this is what death is like: a descent into the dark maw of simply unknowing. No wonder people fear it.
The sequel to my 2008 novel of post-oil America, World Made By Hand, is shipping to booksellers now. Order via AMAZON.