Twilight in America!

      6 Comments on Twilight in America!


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,

6 thoughts on “Twilight in America!

  1. Vardibidian

    I do know that I am talking quite specifically and deliberately about First World Problems, by the way—I’m talking about my own country and my own experience of my country. I am aware that not everyone here can stream movies to 72-inch screens, too.


  2. Chris Cobb

    I understand how you are feeling this way, but I think you are nostalgic for an American past that never existed. The can-do spirit is very much alive, but its enactment of its dreams is no more a universal or exceptional American entitlement than it ever was. There’s a direct line between the tragic neglect of Puerto Rico in 2017 and the white racism that burned down black business districts in the 1920s, red-lined neighborhoods in the 1950s, and engaged in discriminatory lending practices in the 2000’s, not to mention the plutocratic sociopathy that can’t be bothered to ensure that children have access to health care while it devotes its full attention to giving tax breaks to the super-rich. Back when all white American boys were getting the “can-do” message, people of color were getting the “know your place” message.

    Insofar as the plutocracy has now targeted the American middle class and the bulk of U.S. infrastructure for its wealth extraction projects, those of us in the middle class have lost some of the privileges that used to put us in the group raised on the “can-do” myth instead of the group that was supposed to “know their place.” Loss of privilege can be demoralizing. It is the goal of oppressors to demoralize; it’s best not to assist them by attributing the loss to some spiritual malaise for which “we” are responsible. The truth is, It is harder to get things done: that’s by the design of oppressors, not the inadequacy of the people, and the first “can-do” step is to recognize the political factors that are making things harder, and work to change them.

    To put it another way, the appearance that the “can-do” spirit has been lost is a mirage created by an oppressive, incompetent, racist government, and it will endure as an image only as long as a group of good-for-nothings holds power and directs it to the oppression of everybody except the rich. The can-do spirit is still broadly present among most everybody else, but its workings and the progress it brings are harder to see when it has to move against the headwinds of oppression and exploitation.

    (On a different note, once we look at the co-dependency in our country’s history of “doing any damn thing we wanted to do” and oppressing and exploiting racial minorities and the landscape, we might consider whether a way of life of “doing any damn thing we want to do” is a just and fulfilling way to live. Is irrigating a desert so that we can have cheap strawberries in the winter a good idea, really? Would living more lightly on the earth, with reduced consumption, make us lesser than we were when we consumed resources with unstinting rapacity, giving no thought to the impact of our desires on the health of the earth from which we live? Yes, we should re-build our bridges and update our electrical grid, but probably we should be taking down a lot of dams and using fewer industrial chemicals in our food and farms.)

  3. Vardibidian

    There is much truth in what you say, of course. But it’s also true that the American can-do spirit put streetcars into the Hill District in Pittsburgh and other African-American neighborhoods. San Francisco really was rebuilt after 1906, and it was a tremendous boon to people of color in the area, even while (of course) it benefited the rich and white more. It’s not a simple story, and things always are getting worse even while they are getting better. Galveston was only kinda-sorta rebuilt, much as New Orleans is. It’s interesting—in a variety of surveys, African-Americans say that they believe that things are, generally speaking, improving in this country in much larger numbers than white Americans do. And that’s perfectly reasonable, based on a variety of experiences, but I have often thought, and still think, that far too many people are in the grip of a nostalgia for a time that never existed. I am not an exception to that.

    And yet: I really do live in a time when any individual day or even six-hour period that I don’t have electricity, heat or running water in my workplace and my home is an extraordinary day, a rare catastrophe. If that changes, as I fear, that’s not nostalgia for a time that never happened. There really are affordable strawberries in the produce section of the supermarket right now. A household of four can afford to fly across the country for a week, maybe as often as every other year (depending on definitions of ‘afford’, of course) and while airline travel is awful, it’s still a surprise if we don’t actually get where we are going. I drove on the new Tappan Zee bridge this winter! They got the new one up before the old one fell down, even. My fear is that some of the comfortable aspects of my own life will not be available to me in a future I will live to experience. And yes, you are right that I wrote as if this was some sort of natural evolution or mystifying inevitability, rather than the result of deliberate malfeasance, greed, and a generations-long assault on the whole concept of communal action for communal goods, without which those goods cannot be spread widely enough to include, well, me.


    (Your post-script is also legit, of course; if some of my creature comforts must be sacrificed to achieve some positive end, then I will certainly grouse about it, but that’s fine. My fear is that they will be sacrificed through lassitude and demoralization to no envisioned end at all.)

  4. irilyth

    I don’t have any basis for this other than vague intuition, but my vague intuition is that black Americans in New Orleans and Houston are seen as much more legitimate recipients of government aid than anyone in Puerto Rico, and that the forces of institutional (and personal) racism that stymie aid to minorities are stronger against PR than LA or TX.

  5. Catherine

    I’m sorry, because this is not helping the conversation any (and part of Chris’s comment above was prompted by me ranting at him at length about the Precautionary Principle the other night, so I bear some responsibility for this) but:

    There’s a new Tappan Zee Bridge? Holy shit.

    *checks Wikipedia*

    Yep, a new Tappan Zee Bridge, right next to the old one. Holy shit.

    1. Vardibidian Post author

      Catherine—Yeah, it’s been going up for quite a while now, and I’ve been nervously driving the old one once every few months whilst looking at the new. A couple of weeks ago we crossed the new one for the first time. And I have to say, as I drove across, I looked at the old one and it looked really old. Like, relic of previous civilization in bad movie old.



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