It's 6:30pm in the most densely populated neighborhood in San Juan and it's pitch dark. For the 104th day in a row. pic.twitter.com/9CQTw6YUsg— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) January 2, 2018
Now I don’t know if that black rectangle is, as my Junior Senator implies, a photograph of downtown San Juan at half-past-six in the evening, or whether he simply attached a black box to his tweet to make the point. Whether the image is real or not, the point is: most people in the US territory of Puerto Rico have no electric power or no running water or no transportation or no place of business or no government services, three months and more after the storm hit. We haven’t rebuilt, and what plans there are to rebuild seem to be haphazard and lack urgency. There’s a national shortage of IV bags, which are a main product of Puerto Rico; there doesn’t seem to be any likelihood that production will return to former levels any time soon. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be much likelihood that anything on the island will return to former levels any time soon. We have, nationally, pretty much just written it off—not the entire territory and its entire populace, but the notion that we could and will rebuild. Even Senator Murphy’s longer piece about his visit is infused with a kind of defeatism, in my reading.
Five years ago, we had a massive storm in my affluent suburb that knocked out power to more than half the town for a week. A week! It was awful. We made a few changes, trimmed a few trees that were hanging over the power lines. We didn’t make structural changes, didn’t do anything, as far as I know, that would make it less likely for the power to be disrupted or would make it quicker to reconnect houses that were cut off. We haven’t had unseasonable storms like that recently, which has been nice.
Thirteen years ago, Bruce Babbitt talked about the possibility of rebuilding New Orleans as an American Venice. We didn’t do that. We knew we wouldn’t do that. We didn’t do that. New Orleans has been kinda-sorta rebuilt. More than San Juan! Less than West Hartford.
I used to write on this Tohu Bohu, now and then, about the American can-do spirit. The sense that I grew up with that we, as Americans, and I mean specifically as Americans, could do any damn’ thing we wanted to do. Put a man on the moon, build a railroad from coast to coast, irrigate the desert. Defeat Fascism and Communism. Cure cancer. Build the Tower of fucking Babel. Whatever. We could do it.
What is happening in Puerto Rico, more than what happened in New Orleans, more than the millions of votes for Our Only President, has led me to fear that the American Project is over. I’m not saying that we’ll all be eating our own children by dawn, but my usual optimism that America’s greatest days are still ahead is… shaken.
Listen—after we lost power for a week, and we got back to normal, having lost all the tomato sauce in the freezer from the incredible crop of tomatoes my Best Reader had grown that summer, I thought to myself what if things just get a little worse every year? Power outages last a few days instead of a few hours, and happen two or three times a year. The old school buildings get older (as buildings tend to do) and maybe they close off a classroom or two where the ceiling is falling in or the heaters don’t work. The water mains break a little more often, and take a little longer to fix, but still we get running water back in the buildings in a day or two, or maybe three. A bridge collapses, and then another one, and we are putting up new ones, but it takes time—no-one has the money to put up a bridge quickly. After a few years, it’s not possible to drive a truck across the country in less than five days. Then six, or seven. A small rural airport shuts down, fine, we can do without it. A runway or two at a larger airport. You can still take a passenger jet! Just maybe you need to book a little more in advance. And if your flight is canceled, you can’t just take another plane later that day. And flights get cancelled a little more. Railroads are still running, though. Almost as good as they used to in the nineties.
Supermarkets still have lots of stuff! Not, maybe, as much as they used to, but that isn’t something you really notice, because there aren’t any shortages, either. Well, it’s not really a shortage, but if you want to eat strawberries in the winter, they are twice the price they used to be, maybe more. Some things you used to buy regularly are now special-occasion treats. Restaurants are still pretty much the exact same as they were, though. And you can still get plenty of cheap, quality produce in-season. It doesn’t really affect your life, properly speaking. At least, not most years. A bad, dry summer or an early, wet winter hit your bank balance more than they used to.
Not so terribly bad. Not a Young Adult novel. Our luxuries would still be outstanding, nearly unimaginable to our grandparent’s generation. There would still be Star Wars movies streaming (most of the time) to our 72-inch screens. We will be able to feed our pets the brand they seem to prefer, and use voice commands to check for traffic on several possible routes, and stay informed on the political implications of the big international football matches. This is not a dystopia I’m talking about. No zombies, no children murdering each other in arenas, no tumbling skyscrapers. Well, the occasional tumbling skyscraper, probably, but not all the time, rare enough that it’s a big news story when it happens, and we’d still get our news through our various devices and tsk a bit about infrastructure and then, most of us, go to work and not think about it again.
I’m not predicting this future, mind you. I’m saying that I’m afraid of that future for America, in a way that I’m not really afraid of nuclear war or zombie attacks or civil war, or even plague. That’s because, I think, it’s a future that most of us could put up with, and we seem to now be a nation that puts up with stuff.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,