Sunday, October 11, 2009

Prescient Penmen

Are we doomed to repeat the past because we've forgotten it? It is highly possible if not probable that we are en route. Was it forecasted by long-dead clairvoyants from decades ago? Perhaps.

Much has been made of late about the parallels between the current devolution of the American system as the same were acutely drawn in the brilliant Ayn Rand novel Atlas Shrugged. Ms. Rand began the lengthy tome in the early 1950's and it took nearly a decade to finish. I read it while in my '20's and picked it up again a few years ago. It startled me when I re-read it though at the time I was blissfully ignorant of our out-of-control economic bobsled run. As the economy cascaded into a canyon even grander than the Grand, commentators of all stripes dissected Rand's message as a metaphor of America today and how we fell so far to this still-precarious perch. Sales of Atlas Shrugged have skyrocketed and many are echoing the 'doomsayer' denouement as set out therein. It is obvious from the conclusion penned by Ms. Rand, at least to me, that she was being somewhat allegorical. But only somewhat.

Are there others from the roots of American literature that could be touted as predicters of the future? I suggest a reading of You Can't Go Home Again, the tour de force by Thomas Wolfe, published in 1934, partially as a chronicle of American excess leading to the Great Depression. He described the populace in the far reaches of this land who read and heard about the Stock Market crash who wondered if they would be affected or if life would proceed apace. Much like the pap that an olio of economists peddle to us every day, in the early 1930's the same nonsense was being ballyhooed early on. Bromides like "the fundamentals of the economy are sound" were then touted as gospel by serious looking men with furrowed brows. Sound familiar? The only difference is that today the creased brows are commonly found on women as well. Either way, can we swallow 'fundamentally sound'? Even after the timeline for the 'recovery' keeps getting pushed further into the future? Hell, I'm not even sure any more what the 'fundamentals' are. Moreover, the definition of 'sound' seems to change daily.

Wolfe was right when he wrote his book and if alive today he would be making the rounds of all the Sunday morning political mosh pits as well as pilgrimages to Oprah and David Letterman. He would be lampooned on Saturday Night Live. But he was right: We can't go home again. 'Home' doesn't look the same, isn't quite so, well, homey as it was in 2007. We know that it feels different, but we can't quite put our fingers on it yet. There is a chill in the air and it's not from October.

We are not starving (yet) as we're being spoon fed 'change' spiced with a sweet 'optimism' so it's yummy. By the time we are billeted at the 'home' that sits in the subdivision of this new reality, it will look like a mansion, but will be more akin to a small pied-a-terre. Many won't even remember 'before'. And we never saw it coming. It came in fits and starts, in bits and pieces, stealthily, cunningly as we kept gorging ourselves in this land of plenty. Had we bothered to look into a mirror, really look, we might have done something to stop the madness. The primary blame lies at our feet. Not in Washington or with the big banks or 'big business' (though they certainly share), but with us. We were happy to take all that was 'given' as a birthright, to use a huge wad of our cash to engage in riotous living, then we wasted the rest. It was a mirage, a chimerical vision like being in Las Vegas. We bought in, doubled our bets because we wanted to believe it, wanted the bacchanalia to go on and on.

In a chillingly accurate description of the climate in the 1930's, Wolfe wrote, "America had come to the end of something, and to the beginning of something else. But no one knew what that something else would be, and out of the change and the uncertainty and the wrongness of the leaders grew fear and desperation, and before long hunger stalked the streets."

Compelling wouldn't you say? While lately there have been only droplets of civil unrest, I sense a growing alarm even among the illuminati and clearly we see daily images reflecting the desperation of the jobless millions. And more bad news is coming. A commercial real estate meltdown. Hundreds of bank failures. An unemployment rate going ever higher and still not reflective of the real statistics. I acknowledge that other economic signals are mixed, at least as far as we're told, and I fervently hope I am 180 degrees wrong about Wolfe and Rand being ahead of their respective times. It is difficult to be optimistic, however, when one sees and hears the despair of so many. And all of this comes on the heels of promises from Washington that the 'stimulus' would create (or save, however that's calculated) 3.5 million jobs? What are these people to do during a 'jobless recovery', during this beginning of 'something else'?

Despite his depiction of American life in his time, Thomas Wolfe appeared optimistic even in 1934. He wrote further, "Through it all there was only one certainty, though no one saw it yet. America was still America, and whatever new thing came of it would be American." He was right, of course, and after the machinations of FDR and his merry band of Robin Hoodians followed by WWII, American once again became the land of plenty, building bigger, better and more. Lessons along the way were taught, but not learned. So now we have landed here. But where is 'here'?

We've come to the end of something and the beginnig of what? We are on the threshold of where exactly? We have parachuted into someplace. Oz? At least it had a real wizard.

I don't know Toto, but I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.

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