Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Ashes to ashes? Future anxiety in America

It’s all over in 2012. So says the ancient Mayan prophecy and last weekend’s box office champion movie. Pretty soon we’ll be treated to the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s horrific Pulitzer Prize-winning post-apocalyptic novel “The Road.”

This is the kind of story we tell ourselves when we’re looking at the light at the end of the tunnel, convinced it’s an inbound train. Anxiety about the future seems to have the American consciousness in its grip — when we can tear ourselves away from John and Kate and Carrie Prejean’s sex tape(s) that is.

Only about a third of Americans think the country is on the right track. For a future-oriented, optimistic culture like ours, that equates to a bout of depression. People are surly and angry and there seems to be little faith that we can get anything done.

In his latest column (The Nugget, November 18, page 2), David Brooks addresses this anxiety as it relates to the growing power of China (aka, our banker):

“....moral materialism fomented a certain sort of manic energy. Americans became famous for their energy and workaholism: for moving around, switching jobs, marrying and divorcing, creating new products and going off on righteous crusades.

“This eschatological faith in the future has motivated generations of Americans, just as religious faith motivates a missionary. Pioneers and immigrants endured hardship in the present because of their confidence in future plenty. Entrepreneurs start up companies with an exaggerated sense of their chances of success. The faith is the molten core of the country’s dynamism.”

Right now, that faith is deeply shaken — and China seems to have taken it over.

Brooks again: “The anxiety in America is caused by the vague sense that they have what we’re supposed to have. It’s not the per capita income, which the Chinese may never have at our level. It’s the sense of living with baubles just out of reach. It’s the faith in the future, which is actually more important.”

I’ve personally never had that manic faith. I grew up knowing that things can go very wrong and that the outlook wasn’t going to improve. A lifelong immersion in history-geekdom reinforced an innate pessimism.

But it’s an optimistic kind of pessimism. Or maybe a pessimistic form of optimism. Acceptance.

In the words of Steve Earle:

Now, nobody lives forever
Nothin' stands the test of time
Oh, you heard 'em say "never say never"
But it's always best to keep it in mind
That every tower ever built tumbles
No matter how strong, no matter how tall
Someday even great walls will crumble
And every idol ever raised falls
And someday even man's best laid plans
Will lie twisted and covered in rust
When we've done all that we can but it slipped through our hands
And it's ashes to ashes and dust to dust

Yep. That’s pretty much how I see things. May seem weird, but it’s a cheerful, or at least comfortable, thought. We’re all part of gigantic long-term processes and the way things are is the way they must be.

I certainly don’t believe in being passive. Work and struggle are worthy — for their own sake. It doesn’t matter that it all turns to rust and ash in the end. The point is to fight the good fight. I get up and do my best every day. It doesn’t matter what the future may hold.

That outlook relieves a lot of anxiety. I do think that, in the grand sweep of things, America is in relative decline. It’ll be a long one, and hopefully not an abrupt, catastrophic crash. Every tower ever built tumbles/No matter how strong, no matter how tall.

A new world is rising right before our eyes. We’re in an age of profound change. There are too many contingencies to hazard predictions (unless that’s your racket) but it’s a safe bet that another century will see a profound realignment of power structures, ecology and life-ways.

“History is never coming back,” says my fifth-grader. She’s right. Cling to nothing temporary, say the stoics. And if it’s material, it’s all temporary.

Don’t sweat it. See you in 2012. Maybe.

Jim Cornelius, Editor


  1. Jim - probably my favorite Steve Earle song ever. Have a great live version of it. Any chance of getting hin to come play the Folk Festival sometime?

    Oh yeah, good post too.


  2. Steve is always on the wish list. It just depends on how the stars align.