The collapse of the World Trade Center in the fall of September 2001 destroyed the last trace elements of the American future conceived as a nostalgic rerun of the way things were in the good old days when John Wayne was securing the nation’s frontiers and Franklin D. Roosevelt was watching over its soul. The loss of the utopian romance that had once supported both the ambition of the state and the strength of the economy was terrible to behold. So terrible that it has been replaced by an apparition—Gorgon-headed and dragon-winged—that reduces its beholders to paralyzed stone. Much of the effect I attribute to the Bush administration’s war on terror, which was lost on the day it was declared. Lost because, to wage the war, the Bush administration was obliged to manufacture, distribute, and magnify the reflection of its own ignorance and fear. Nobody’s cell phone to be left untapped, a jihadist in every rose garden.That knowledge that the future is ours to create has been as carefully bred out of us by our politicians and media as viciousness has been bred out of cattle by husbandmen of centuries past. Maybe the real reason behind the #OWS revolt is that there is still a spark of that old innate wisdom left in us.
In the years since the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the palsied dysfunction has become more pronounced. The foreign wars haven’t been going according to plan; the domestic financial markets have suffered calamitous reversals of fortune; the sum of the national debt goes nowhere but up. The public parks bloom with the installations of surveillance cameras; the inspections at the airports maintain the national quota of patriotic dread, introduce the frequent flyer to the game of playing dead.
Among the country’s stupefied elites, the bad news induces the wish to make time stand still, to punish the presumption of a future that presents itself as a bill collector. As self-pitying as Shakespeare’s melancholy king, they sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of money. Without it the future doesn’t bear contemplating, doesn’t include their presence in it and therefore doesn’t exist. How then can the banks be expected to lend money, the government to build hospitals and schools, the rich to pay taxes for comforts not their own? The suggestion is outrageous, an intolerable effrontery, out of line with the all-American revelation that the name of the game is selfishness. The surplus of resentment affords the excuses to do nothing and bids up the market in transcendence. Politicians in Congress stand around like trees in a petrified forest, or, if allied with the zeal of the Tea Party, console themselves with notions of biblical vengeance, the wrecking of any such thing as a common good a consummation devoutly to be wished. Secure in the knowledge that only the wicked shall perish, they press forward to the Day of Judgment when the host of the damned—variously identified over the course of the centuries as false priests, proud barons, profiteering capitalists, vile communists, and godless democrats—shall fall into the hands of an angry god and gnaw their tongues in anguish.
The last-named beneficiary accounts for the media’s preoccupation with what some of our less well-informed critics still insist on deploring as “the bad news.” They miss the point. The bad news is the carnival-barking spiel that sells the good news, which are the advertisements. First, at the top of the network hour, the admonitory row of corpses being loaded into ambulances in Brooklyn or cleared from the streets of Islamabad; second, an inferno of fires burning in California, of bombs exploding in Libya; third, a muster of criminals, political, financial, and sexual, shuffling offstage in chains. The fear of a deadly tomorrow having thus been firmly established, the camera makes its happy return to the always-smiling anchorwoman, and so, with a gracious waving of her snow-white hand, to the previews of salvation sponsored by Jet Blue, Pfizer, and Mercedes-Benz. The lesson is as plain as a medieval morality play. Obey the law, pay your taxes, speak politely to the police officer, and you go to the Virgin Islands on the American Express card. Disobey the law, neglect your mortgage payments, speak rudely to the police, and you go to Kings County Hospital in a body bag...
Always careless about keeping appointments, the barbarians at the gate tend to show up fifty years sooner than anybody expects or six months after the emperor has fled. They depend for their victories on the fear and trembling enthroned within the walls of the city, and it doesn’t make much difference whether they come armed with slingshots and spears or with subprime loans and credit-default swaps. The waiting around for their arrival is the bait and switch alluded to both by the poet C. P. Cavafy and by the Stoic philosopher Seneca, who asks “whether anything can be more idiotic” than the directing of one’s purposes “with an eye to a distant future.” The doing so suspends the will to think, saps the courage to act...
The future is a work in progress, something made instead of something lost or bought or found. We have little else with which to make it except time-past revised and reconstituted in the present—as close at hand as the next sentence on a new page, no further away than around the corner or across the street.
Friday, October 21, 2011
Even Cattle Can Have A Change of Heart on the Ramp to the Killing Floor
Lewis Lapham on America's cultivated fear of the future: