From 1994: The Future of Our Discontents

This essay appeared here and there on the Web in the mid-Nineties in slightly different versions — at one point it was even published in translation by an Italian Blade Runner fan site. There are things in it that I’d change if I were writing it today, but since the only point in re-jiggering the parts that seem embarrassing twenty years later would be to fake a prescience I didn’t have then, and don’t now, who would I be fooling?


The Future of Our Discontents

The Contributions of Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner
to the Landscapes of the Twenty-First Century

Four towering gas flares roar up in the foreground and drift away over the landscape like the exhaust from some monstrous calliope. In the valley below them, a vast, corroded jewel of a city glitters in the smog-tinted autumn twilight. The year is 2019, and the city is Los Angeles—capital of the Pax Americana and setting for Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s thirty million dollar meditation on the future of post-industrial capitalism.

Scott’s City of Angels isn’t for optimists. His images of things to come are as melancholy and as architectural as Dore’s engravings of Hell, as intensely detailed as a flatworlder’s logic. Yet the darkly eloquent nightmare at the center of his vision is also strangely apolitical—no one is explicitly blamed for the horrors it offers us. I doubt it ever occurred to Scott that anyone would object—not on ideological grounds, at any rate.

So in the summer of 1982, when Blade Runner was first released to theaters, the reaction against it may well have come as something of a surprise. Reviewers pointed inevitably to flaws in the film’s execution, but I suspect that the real difficulty lay in its tone.

Rightly or wrongly, we Americans have always considered our immunity to the historical accidents which plague other people an essential part of our birthright. The decade of Vietnam, Watergate, and the Arab oil embargo had been a depressing ten years for us, and few of us were eager to be reminded of it, especially when we were expected to pay for the privilege. Scott’s problem was this: just when Ronald Reagan was promising to restore American bragging rights, Blade Runner appeared to conjure openly with the demon of false pride. To many moviegoers, the result may have seemed less a prophecy than an exercise in cultural defeatism.

It would be hard to blame them. Blade Runner was—and is—a disturbing film, but it is also an emotionally accurate one. For anyone who continues to harbor doubts about the future of American empire, there is something deeply unsettling about the rain-soaked Los Angeles in which Blade Runner is set, something eerily familiar in its crumbling architecture and punked-out Third World inhabitants. I wonder how many people, picking their way through theater parking lots on a warm June evening in 1982, imagined for a moment that they heard thunder in the air behind them, or looked apprehensively for oriental characters on the exit signs as they started their cars and drove away. I suspect that there were more than a few.

It may have come as unwelcome news to Scott’s investors, but these disoriented moviegoers, and their reactions to Blade Runner—irritation on the one hand, and deja vu on the other—may have been a better guide to its long-term impact than the box office receipts. However much—or little—it grosses, Blade Runner will remain a compelling reminder of just how nasty life in the twenty-first century may eventually become. It shouldn’t be surprising that audiences find it haunting even as they reject it.

The source of their ambivalence is clear enough, after all. We Americans are the inventors of the twentieth century, but we still haven’t found a home in it. Despite our history, and our pretensions to technological superiority over the rest of the world, we are a lot like the victims of the Chinese curse—fated, no matter what our individual desires, to live in times which are a lot more interesting than we would prefer.

Perhaps that is why, in philosophical terms, the second half of the twentieth century has been so devastatingly quiet. The testimony of Heisenberg and Freud is on record in every library, and incidents like Chernobyl or urban gridlock are reported daily in the media, yet the ruling orthodoxy of the post-war era remains unswervingly Newtonian. It understands only cause and effect, problem and solution, and it recognizes only one heresy: anyone who dallies, even for a moment, with the notion that uncertainty might be a permanent feature of human enterprise is automatically persona non grata. Like Socrates, he may be tolerated, but he is never left alone with the children.

The price of this attitude, especially among the orthodox themselves, is a profound and chronic restlessness. The hope that we can find solutions is tempered always by the fear, largely unexpressed, that we may ourselves be part of the problem. We sense that we are facing not one, but two futures: the future of our public allegiances, and that darker future of moral decay, terrorism and nuclear holocaust which occasionally decorates our private nightmares.

Unfortunately, both are based on the same evidence. Whether we like it or not, the choice between them is always an act of faith—which may be why the use of the future as a metaphor for the misgivings of the present has become such a commonplace. It serves the same function in our time as Hell did in Dante’s: it provides us with the excuse—and occasionally the means—to confront what we have all too carefully hidden from ourselves.

And what illuminations does Blade Runner offer? In the story itself, very few. Whether Scott was forced in the end to capitulate to the demands of big-budget Hollywood marketing, or simply held himself aloof from the political implications of his vision, plot and character development in Blade Runner never rise much above the sad conventions of the comic strip and television cop show. It is only in the incidentals that Blade Runner is interesting—the details of set design and lighting, the tight integration of sound track and music; the tantalizing view, in minor characters and in actions taking place at the edges of the frame, of a city in which much more serious business is being transacted than the pursuit and destruction of some assembly-line Prometheus.

If this business is familiar, it should be. In embryonic form, its essential features surround us already. The political and social dominance of so- called “corporate cultures” is a fact; so also is the increasingly neurotic synergy of computers and real-time video which so gleefully confuses our dreams and our waking experiences. If androids seem farfetched, we have only to remember that it has taken less than thirty years for the first tentative experiments in genetic engineering to develop into the industrial technology which makes worldwide headlines today. Whatever the level of our individual understanding, we must all be aware that a sudden environmental or political apocalypse is not the only threat we face.

It is in the light of this awareness, which he clearly shares, that Scott has rebuilt and illuminated the city of Los Angeles for us. We see it as it might look on a late autumn afternoon nineteen years into the coming century: corrupt and essentially ungovernable, the decaying but still powerful queen of a technological civilization which steadfastly refuses to look at either the compass or the clock.

In the foreground, Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer argue whether androids have souls, and whether, having been denied the right to self-determination by no less a figure than their creator himself, they are justified in resorting to mayhem. We scarcely notice Scott in the background, quietly aiming his camera down a narrow alley at the approaching Götterdämmerung.

Scott imagines the end coming, as Eliot did, “not with a bang, but a whimper.” His camera conducts us through the overpopulated ruin of Hollywood and into the downtown fortress headquarters of the Tyrell Corporation, where Eldon Tyrell, its founder and CEO, has embarked on a mission which would impress even Lee Iacocca. With the natural ecology in terminal disarray, the Third World noisily hawking its noodles in the glass-walled canyons below him, and little hope for continued profit in his dominion over either one, Tyrell—one of those superbly educated and superbly callous white men who, for lack of a better word, we agree to call technocrats—has hit upon a radical solution to his dilemma: he will replace every living thing, human beings included, with more tractable models of his own design.

If his solution seems far-fetched, consider what the present century has already accustomed us to: purge trials and personality cults, Mutual Assured Destruction; the technologies of mass production applied to genocide…. Attempts to selectively re-engineer all of Creation are still comfortably beyond the limits of technology, but should a more capable technology someday become available, it isn’t difficult to imagine a future General Motors or Pentagon willing to experiment with it.

The likelihood of such a future, and the moral fatigue which accompanies it, are among the true horrors of modern life. Against that day, the day when Tyrell’s particular gladness comes to pass, the twin ideologies of politics and religion have little to offer us. The future isn’t an ideological problem.

Sadly, it isn’t an aesthetic problem either. Artists often see evil more clearly than the rest of us, but they rarely have any greater power to correct it. In the realm of the senses, they are not so much politicians as historians. What makes their history more interesting than the kind we are taught in school is that sometimes, as in Blade Runner, it has yet to be confirmed by events.

In painting and in literature this is a familiar concept; in film it is still relatively new, and still poorly understood. Film is a powerful medium, but the experiments with form which, for more than a century, have marked the best of the other arts, have yet to excite much interest among professional filmmakers.

There are two reasons for this, I think. The first arises from the economics of film. Unlike painting or writing, filmmaking is not a handicraft. Film is a collaborative, high technology medium, and feature- length works cost far too much to be sold profitably to the individual collector. Such works must be mass-marketed if they are to be marketed at all, which effectively restricts any experiments in form to those which are likely to be tolerated by mass audiences.

The second reason is more subtle. The illusion of control over reality is one of the most seductive attractions of film, not just for audiences, but also for filmmakers themselves. These days, a director with Hollywood financing at his disposal can do just about anything God can do—provided, of course, that his ambition (and imagination) are up to the task. It is only natural that his acolytes—the cameramen, grips and electricians; the make-up and wardrobe and continuity people—should harbor illusions of their own. Sending an antique Rolls Royce over a cliff just to capture a second or two of film is heady stuff, especially when someone is paying you a fabulous amount of money to do it.

Unfortunately, the grandeur and the exhilaration are available only when the film retains some connection, however tenuous, with its theatrical antecedents. Animation, computer-generated imagery, and other seemingly avant-garde graphic forms may be interesting, but they lack the appeal of film as wish-fulfillment theater.

Audiences in particular have very sensitive antennae for this quality—the quality of their own dreams (or nightmares) given palpable form. The reason that a film like Blade Runner can successfully attach itself to an audience’s subconscious has less to do with its technology—the computer-controlled cameras, digital sound sampling, traveling mats, etc.—than with its psychology, a quality relied upon as much in Shakespeare’s plays as it is in any film.

Of course the tools of traditional theater and of film are vastly different. In Shakespeare’s plays, natural language is the only artifice required—it conjures so powerfully by itself that any staging beyond the absolute essentials seems almost a distraction.

The situation in Blade Runner—as in films generally—is reversed: it is the visual environment of the film which carries the weight of the narrative. In Blade Runner this environment is so strongly present, and so richly suggestive, that at times the relatively little dialog which is required to advance the plot seems more a threat to the dramatic illusion than a support for it.

In large part, this is due to the subtlety of Scott’s visual vocabulary. He gives us brief, but detailed glimpses of a world which is a plausible, if not precisely logical, extension of our own, then openly invites us to interpret them.

To take just one example: almost everyone in Blade Runner smokes—the impenetrable tobacco haze is an important visual element in many of the interior scenes. It isn’t clear, in an age when smoking has become anathema, an almost universal symbol of dissipation and self-contempt, what Scott intends by giving it such pride of place in his version of the twenty-first century.

The answer, I think, is that the smoking in Blade Runner is intended as an echo, a reminder that all the poisonous exhalations of a capitalist society are voluntary. The fatal eroticism embodied in the fumes from Rachael’s smoldering cigarette is repeated in the orange skies above Los Angeles, in the continual dark rain which beats along its decaying rooftops and licks at the trash fires in its streets. Consumption pursued as an end in itself, Scott seems to be saying, will lead to the same, slow catastrophe whether it is an individual or an entire society which does the pursuing. The American Dream is, in fact, a nightmare, and it has always been one.

The psychological acuteness in such metaphors is evident, but for those of us who are roughly Scott’s contemporaries, there is a particular irony in the way he applies them.

We are the children of plenty—our own age of innocence began in the national celebration which accompanied the end of World War II. We grew up surrounded and sheltered by the post-war fantasies of the Fifties. According to the folklore of our childhood, it was American know-how, American technology which had brought us our final victory over war and poverty.

I remember articles in the Weekly Reader of my childhood about the industrial benefits of atomic power and the increased farm yields made possible by the invention of DDT and 2-4-D. I also remember the stories my parents let slip about their own lives; the indignities they had suffered during the Depression, their separation from one another during the war years.

For those of us who had the good fortune to be born white, the future held no particular terrors. What scared us was the past which our parents had so narrowly escaped. Until the Vietnam War arrived to provide us with horrors of our own, we were only too happy to join them in fleeing theirs.

For our generation, then, the more the future threatens, the more it resembles the past—and Scott seems to understand this instinctively. In Blade Runner, he presses the Thirties into service again, like the Bogeyman, to cast its long shadow over our hopes. The Mayan Revival is once again the dominant architectural style; the women of all men’s dreams are once again encased in Joan Crawford’s stiff-shouldered exoskeleton. The horrors of Scott’s landscapes turn on a delicate and beautifully original application of McLuhan’s principle of historical simultaneity—the visual artifacts of another era detached from their original context and pressed into service as emotional shorthand in our own. As the founding generation of the Information Age, we are perhaps the first to be conscious of these signals; we are certainly not the last to be vulnerable to the distortions which they can sometimes introduce into our collective memory. In any event, we respond to the language, and Scott speaks it to perfection.

Yet inventive as it is, this psycho-historical sleight-of-hand isn’t the only trick Scott has in his bag. His camera may imagine the future, but it also echoes the present with an accuracy that is often unsettling.

Consider the immigration patterns of the past twenty-five years. Most of us are aware of the Hmong and the Marielitos, of the continual flood across our southern borders. We’ve seen the changed population mix in our cities, especially along the southern rim of the country. Scott takes the trend a step further, imagining a time when all of our imperial chickens have finally come home to roost.

At street level, his Los Angeles is part Ginza and part Decline of the West—home not only to the rubber-clad, German-speaking dwarves who clamber over Deckard’s car looking for parts to pry loose and sell, but also to Gaff, the extraordinary Latino with white eyes who practices Origami and speaks an argot which sounds like an amalgam of Japanese and Indonesian. (Gaff is especially interesting. As I read him, he is the embodiment of that elegant nihilism which hereditary second-class citizenship sometimes produces among the more talented members of minority groups. If James Baldwin had been stripped of the last of his illusions and armed with a license to kill, he might have behaved a lot like Gaff.)

Although we may not yet be able to find exactly these creatures walking the streets of our cities (even in Los Angeles) there is a definite possibility that we may someday have to make a place for them. And if their numbers happen to include a few clones and cyborgs, who will complain? The same people who complain now, probably—”the kind of cop who used to call black men ‘Niggers.’” For the rest of us, what people are made of—then as now—will have little to do with the physical composition of their bodies.

After all, we are Americans, and Scott’s twenty-first century, despite its stylistic kinship with fascist public works, is an American century. He recognizes that Americans—Californians, at any rate—have always made their own decisions, have always flirted with anarchy.

When Chew tells Batty “I just do eyes,” he is testifying to a form of social disintegration which Orwell could never have imagined. Not ideology run amuck, but the implosion of ideology has sent the people in the streets of Scott’s Los Angeles scurrying. They must re-invent themselves daily out of the unstable bits and pieces of a collapsing rationality. Every man in this New Jerusalem is an island, and a floating one at that. Such purpose as exists here isn’t totalitarian—it’s individual, and small. A subcontractor in human eyes fits the logic of such a society perfectly.

And whether we like it or not, we know that Chew speaks for all of us. If things sometimes go wrong, he believes, as we do, that it can’t be our fault—we are responsible only for a piece of the action, not for the whole. Politics is said to be the pride of free men, but in the twentieth century, the free man has learned to avoid all forms of responsibility, politics included. Politics has been reduced to a form of longing, an eloquence in the prayers of the oppressed. We may sympathize with their plight, but we ourselves are longer interested in acting on their behalf. Outside the Third World, the clear and present danger in our era isn’t totalitarianism, it’s chaos—the lack of necessary and sufficient reasons for doing anything at all.

We know this, all of us. We don’t often discuss it, but we know it. Should automobiles someday come equipped with self-contained oxygen systems, and large-scale mining operations be set up in our urban landfills, we’ll have another chance to reassess Scott’s powers of prediction.

In the meantime, we can say only that his contribution to the vocabulary of our future discontents has been taken up by other filmmakers. When we hear petty fences speaking what sounds like Korean in Trouble in Mind, or see petty Ministry of Information hacks in Brazil driving three-wheel Messerschmidt staff cars (ca. 1949) it wouldn’t hurt us to remember who was first to disembark on these shores. Ridley Scott may not be aware of it himself, but he understands our nightmares.

If you doubt it, make your way over Mulholland Drive, or coast down from Griffith Observatory some night when you have nothing better to do. Try to see la Ciudad de Nuestra Señora, Reina de los Angeles without the gas flares, without the winking lights of ground effects spinners above the Harbor Freeway. If you find, as I do, that the present is overlaid by something darker, something more ominous, then you may agree with me that Scott has, in Wim Wenders’ wonderful phrase, “colonized our subconscious.” When all is said and done, this is what has always been expected of artists. We should be grateful that someone still possesses the ancient power.

Defaming Youth

He (or she) is a teacher (or an employer.)

These kids today — I deal with a lot of them.

No. Not this. Not again.

They don’t like to work, and they don’t know anything. They can’t spell, they can’t add a column of figures. They can’t find France on a map, fer Chrissake.

I pull my iPhone 4S out of my pocket, hold it up to my ear.

Tell me about France, I say.

Five seconds later, the screen shows a zoomable map of France, with a virtual red push-pin sticking out of Paris. I hold out my hand, palm up.

Do you know the average age of Apple’s work force? I ask him (or her.)

The answer is 33. For Google, (which provided the map) it’s 31. Whatever is wrong with the country today, young people aren’t it.

Discomforting the South

From Ta-Nehisi Coates, this eloquent re-statement of fundamental American principles still being trampled on by a legion of racist Dixie apologists. It should be read aloud from every pulpit in the nation. Re-light Frederick Douglass’s torch — here’s someone more than worthy to carry it forward.

History is identity. When we erase the painful portions, we lose texture, color and we are reduced. Patriotism, in my eyes, has always been about the strength of seeing those rough spots, of considering your home at its worse, and remaining enthralled, nonetheless. That is how we love our daughters, our husbands, our mothers. That is how we make family.

I have come to a fairly recent regard for Lincoln. He rose from utter frontier poverty, through self-education and hard work, to the presidency and the upper reaches of American letters. His path was harsh. His wife was mentally ill. His son died in office. He was derided in newspapers as ugly, stupid, a gorilla and white trash. For his patience, endurance, temperance and industry in the face of so many troubles, Lincoln was awarded a shot to the head.

Now in some sectors of the country for which Lincoln died, patriotism means waving the flag of his murderer. The party he founded supports this odious flag-waving and now gives us a candidate who would stand before that same flag and peddle comfortable fictions. What hope is there when those who talk of patriotism brandish the talisman of bloody treason?

The matter falls to you. Don’t [be] conned. Don’t be a mark. Live uncomfortable.

Amen, brother Coates.

Eminently Good Sense

Listening to Noam Chomsky for the first time can be a little like discovering a new species of orchid sprouting in a Wal*Mart parking lot. We think we know where we are — everything looks and sounds the way it’s always looked and sounded — and then, suddenly, familiar perspectives seem to shift. It’s not that Chomsky’s take on things is entirely without precedent, but it’s a genuine shock to encounter anything like it in the familiar American here and now. If you’ve ever thought about looking for an antidote to all those hours of mindless pontification from Washington Week in Review, or Charlie Rose, this Noam Chomsky interview isn’t a bad place to begin:

Saved from the American Conflagration

To be placed in a shrine impervious to Russell Pearce and his bilious followers….

The Declaration of Independence

Except for the abused people referred to as …inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages…, and the people transported here against their will from their homes in Africa, and kept in cruel and abject bondage for generations, a promising beginning.

The Constitution of the United States

An intelligent and remarkably valiant attempt to mix oil and water, which managed to endure for 220 years, more or less. In its later amendments, particularly the 13th, 14th, 15th, 19th and 24th, some evidence that the promise of the founders might one day be fulfilled.

Abraham Lincoln’s Cooper Union Address

The clearest warning we ever got.

Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address


Emma Lazarus’ The Colossus

The promise renewed.

ACORN and the Roman Church: A Sermon on Hypocrisy

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on the 42nd anniversary of his assassination

This is a tough subject for an Easter morning, even if you aren’t religious. It isn’t that people haven’t done a lot of thinking about our unfortunate double standards, they have. It’s just that — to me at least — almost all of it seems incomplete. I suppose I ought to read more post-modernists, since they seem to be the current experts in the morphology of meanings unmoored from their original foundations.

My difficulty with post-modernism up to now has been its confidence, bordering on arrogance, that it’s found a sure way through the veil. (It doesn’t help, either, that some of the conclusions of individual pomos seem to me to be true but irrelevant — and that’s putting it as kindly as I can.) In any event, when I look at two parallel stories like the sad vilification and destruction of ACORN, and the Church’s even sadder defense of priestly pedophilia, where the noun in each case is portrayed as being so much more important than the verb, I find myself scratching my head. Why isn’t it obvious to many more people that there’s a double standard lurking in the difference between the conclusions drawn about ACORN, and those about the Roman Church hierarchy?

The simplest answer, I suppose, is that a cultural institution often defines its own limits, and its own distinctiveness, by what it chooses to lie about. Unless the concept of a single God is defended, if necessary at the point of a sword, the Church is just one more merchant of abstractions. If His rules aren’t held to be inviolable, no matter how often they’re violated, the Church is just another costume drama. Likewise, if a society doesn’t defend its own cultural institutions, no matter how iffy their original provenance, it ceases to be what it is. (The Church, The South, The Senate.) People are well aware of this, which is why attacks even on corrupt institutions make them extremely nervous, and rightly so. Why should they be expected to welcome the threat of chaos into their beliefs, let alone into their lives?

If there was anything unique about the United States early on, it was the promise that here our government wouldn’t invest in propping up institutions simply because its people were familiar with them, but would instead invest in the stewardship of change, would do its best to create and defend a space in which institutions which developed nasty habits — such as using our children as unpaid prostitutes — could be done away with more or less quietly and replaced with something more suitable.

Needless to say, that project never came to complete fruition, and probably never could have, given human nature, but we did have a pretty good run at it. Even today, many of our simplest souls still consider themselves the masters of their own destiny to an extent which would be inconceivable anywhere else in the world.

ACORN got the axe because it was new, and because it exposed the founding lie of a more established institution — our government. And what lie was that? I hear someone asking. The one about democracy, the one about the truths we hold to be self-evident. That lie. The Church didn’t get the axe because anyone who actually had an axe had been welcomed into the fold long ago.

I suspect that this time, if we’re patient and humble, we may finally get to see the Holy Contradictions implode. The Church has been around a long time, longer than any of us, which may make it as hard as ever for anyone to declaw its predators, but that unhappy fact shouldn’t stop us from trying. Whether the Church has finally worn out its welcome or not, there’s no reason for any of us outside its doors to be polite. On the contrary.

I’d put it this way. If Jesus died for our sins, so did Martin Luther King. On this Easter Sunday, I think that a reverence for the truth should compel us to admit that of the two institutions in question, ACORN in recent days has done a far better job of honoring their sacrifice than the Roman Church has done.

(An earlier, and somewhat more typo-ridden version of this post was first published as a comment on this OpenLeft Diary by Paul Rosenberg.)

A Dime-Store Apocalypse

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.

Obama’s Speech in Cairo

It felt very strange, reading President Obama’s speech just two days after finishing my last post. Very strange, and — I don’t know how to put this without sounding like a sycophant — very inspiring.

What he said desperately needed saying, and I have no doubt now that he means it. How could I, when it resonates with so much of my own thinking? My doubts lie elsewhere. His deeds so far, with the possible exception of his hardheadedness on the issue of expanding Israeli settlements, seem to belie his words.

If he does what he said he’ll do, I’ll support him in every way I can, no matter the cost. If he doesn’t, I’ll oppose him with as much energy I can muster, knowing full well that what comes after him might be even worse. Time is short, and the issues confronting us are grave. This necessarily narrows the ground on which we can base genuine compromises, and threatens us with conflicts which all of us would prefer to avoid. For that reason, if for no other, I hope that the President was telling the truth about what he intends. If he was, I’ll happily pray for his success.

Ninety-nine Cents Worth

Compared to the gaseous diffusions of our political discourse these days, the offerings of our songwriters are often a marvel of directness.

If you want to know what I mean, do yourself a favor and go listen to John Mayer’s gem Gravity, from his album Continuum. I won’t quote the lyrics here — fair use and all that — but if you’re in need of a blues hymn to shelter you for a couple of minutes from the storms of bloviation whipped up by our on-all-the-time media, you can’t do any better.

Trust me.