Since anyone who’s wandered this far into Dogtown already knows that I’m less than optimistic about the future of the United States, and knows how I came to be that way, I don’t suppose it would do my arguments any harm to admit that I’m not as confident in them as it might seem — certainly not as confident as, say, William Kristol is in his. I know very well that there are optimists on the left who look at the same evidence I do and come to very different conclusions. Even though I disagree with them, I don’t ignore them. I read Krugman as well as Chomsky, and I listen to enthusiastic Organizing for America volunteers when they attempt to make a plausible case for their enthusiasm. Yes, I still think that the country is headed in the wrong direction, but I try not to demand that others share my misgivings, or foreclose the possibility, however remote it may seem to me at this point, that we may yet find a way to set things right.
Ours is a country of 300-odd million, after all, with immense, if not limitless resources, and a history of re-inventing itself as the need arises, even when the terrible cost of that reinvention is obvious at the outset to almost everyone likely to be involved in bringing it to pass. Why bet against all of that?
I don’t. What I do bet against is the idea that the superiority of our own age will allow us, unlike our less fortunate ancestors, to avoid breaking any crockery in the process. One of the advantages of being old at this moment in history is that being old makes it easier to see that the stability of the United States and the global Pax Americana in which I and my contemporaries grew up has for the most part been an illusion. Even the parts of it which were demonstrably real, such as our unprecedented domestic prosperity, were also indisputably the consequence of a unique set of political and economic circumstances which were — and are — fundamentally unsustainable.
Hardly anyone in the governing or managerial classes of the United States believes this. They argue, as people in power always argue, that their own success is evidence of a certain permanence in the world that they govern. Malthus believed that we would all starve to death, they argue, and he was wrong. The atomic scientists who put that famous clock on the cover of their Bulletin believed us to be facing a nuclear Armageddon, and they were wrong. Perhaps the peak oil, global warming, and species extinction doomsayers are also wrong.
Perhaps. I don’t consider myself a Nostradamus or a Cassandra, but you don’t have to be either to be aware that our rulers are by definition the custodians of the status quo. Whatever their virtues or vices, even the most rational of them have steadfastly opposed any substantive changes in the institutions which they currently control, and have refused under any circumstances to concede their own impermanence as a class. They seem to have forgotten that the more brittle a thing is, the more easily it can be broken. They wouldn’t think of asking themselves why the Roman Church still has popes, but France no longer has a king. Mind you, I don’t expect them to be anything other than they are, but I see no reason not to point out that, as a class, they’ve never, ever been the ones to ask what the future will bring.
150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln spoke clearly to anyone who would listen about what was coming, and what it was likely to cost, long before anyone else accepted it as inevitable. When it did finally come, his foresight had helped him to acquire the power to do something about it. We have yet to find our Lincoln. He may very well be waiting in the wings somewhere, however unlikely it may seem at the moment. I certainly don’t know, and if anyone else does, he’s been keeping the knowledge to himself. The one thing I do know is that we ought not to look for our deliverance to any of our current elected officials, nor to any of our judges, generals, envoys, think-tank pundits, or malefactors of great wealth. To all intents and purposes, we are — and most likely will remain — on our own.
Still, the optimists are right about one thing. Whether our own Lincoln is on his way or not, Jeremiahs are a dime a dozen these days, at least on the Internet. Having had my say, and added my own sour note to the chorus, I have to admit that it can’t do much harm to look at ideas and enterprises which work against the current darkness, and attempt to assess what, if anything, we might expect from them. Hoping these days may seem a far drearier, and far less audacious task than prophecy, but when all is said and done, the future has its own devices. While none of them is likely to match the elegance of our rhetoric, neither do they have anything to fear from our prophecy. If that thought doesn’t always inspire hope, it ought at least to counsel a little humility.
When I was seven or eight, my grandmother would often take me shopping with her on Saturday mornings. No matter where we went, or what she bought, she always made sure that at the end of the outing we found ourselves at Woolworths. It was just about my favorite place on earth at the time, not only for the sights and the smells — the candy and popcorn mixed in with perfume and soap — but also because of the way its treasures were displayed. The slanted display cases, open at the top, with glass partitions between each item, and prices and descriptions on little metal-rimmed paper flags sticking up above them were at just the right height for me. I could not only look, but touch — I could pick things up and examine them, look at the prices, count my money, and make my choices without attracting any attention from adults, unless I dropped something, or needed them to answer my questions.
And what treasures were there to be examined — wax mustaches and lips, glossy black and red, tiny little wax bottles filled with sweet syrup you could bite the top off and drain in a single sip, paper packets of sour, fruit-flavored powder, row upon row of lithographed tin toys from Japan, which either shot sparks or rolled around in circles when wound with a key, or both. Choosing among them was always difficult, even when I had enough nickels, dimes and quarters to make sure that I’d go home happy no matter what choices I made.
There was also the lunch counter, invariably our final stop of the day. I’d perch myself on the stool next to my grandmother’s, and the paper shopping bags gathered in a circle on the floor under her, and order what I always ordered, a pimento-cheese sandwich on white bread, with a handful of potato chips — not a bag, a handful — accompanied by a soda in one of those classic flared glasses with the Coca-Cola logo around the middle, and two straws. I’d savor the tangy cheese, blow bubbles in the glass with one of the straws (the other was always kept for later) and watch the orange juice fountain, or try to figure out what kinds of pies were in the glass case at the end of the counter. It was a simple paradise, this — a dime store, and an indulgent grandmother — but I’ve never found another to equal it.
Twenty-five years later, when it came time to take a child of my own on weekend excursions, the dime-store paradise of my childhood had vanished. Woolworths was still in business, but only just, so my daughter and I found ourselves playing Pac-Man in noisy video-game parlors, visiting the toy store at the shopping mall, and eating lunch in a local hamburger palace already threatened by a McDonalds and a Taco Bell less than a block away. Raising children doesn’t ordinarily leave you much time for nostalgia, but these dismal replacements for the remembered happiness of long-ago Saturdays with my grandmother often depressed me, and made me wonder if my eight year-old daughter might one day come to blame me for the poverty of her childhood experiences.
Ah, earnest parenthood. Earnestness in general. A recent conversation with my now grown daughter revealed that her memories of our Saturdays together aren’t so different from my own memories of those Saturdays many years before with my grandmother. As it turns out, the dime-store apocalypse of my parental fears was part of a set of cultural references which, for all of my reliance on them, have simply been replaced by others, just as my daughter and her generation will inevitably replace me.
It would be nice to think that every apocalyptic scenario is as inconsequential as the disappearance of Woolworths. Whether it is or not, contemplating such a thing in the abstract can be as misleading as reflecting on a vanished paradise. The future belongs to those who’ll inhabit it, and whatever else you believe, it would be foolish to believe that they aren’t at least as well-equipped to confront what they’ll face as those of us who’ve already had our wrestle with things now past and gone. As Bob Dylan once said: …he not busy being born is busy dying. What he didn’t say is that it’s often difficult to tell which is which, something that everyone who writes about weighty matters like End Times ought to keep in mind. In my own future, brief as it may turn out to be, I intend to do exactly that.