Friday, January 9, 2009

mr. shabby, ken shabby

I had a dream last night, a traveling dream in which I am rushing through a station of some sort, one of those huge, old-fashioned train stations, all marble, towering vaulted ceilings and dark wood paneling. Like a prestigious, ancient bank, almost.

Compare that image to that of your bank: if it’s like mine, it’s got cheap, worn carpet, a couple of beat-up looking windows where tellers perch from time to time, acoustic ceiling tile, and a crappy little kiosk where they keep cheap, crappy pens chained up (for their own good, no doubt) and deposit slips and so forth.

With that in mind, I remembered a subject that has been clawing at the back of my brain for a while now, the idea that when America finally crumbles, I think it’s not going to be through some major cataclysm. Rather, I predict we will go slowly, that we will almost imperceptibly decline into simple shabbiness. Things will fall apart that will go longer and longer before they get repaired, things will be made of cheaper and cheaper materials, and so will appear shabbier even from the get-go -- we will descend into a cheap, threadbare, Styrofoam/plastic existence that is strictly utilitarian before we disappear completely.

I think as a people, we Americans have a predilection for the dramatic. A country founded in blood, sundered by civil war, carved out of a huge and dramatic landscape -- one that was formerly occupied by numerous nations of people -- no wonder we’re drama queens. We tend not to notice events that don’t make a splash.

And let’s face it: as a people, we are at our best during crisis situations. Look at the secret delight, the coming-together we so enjoy when we help out at the scene of an accident, or hunker down to ride out a tornado, or pitch in after a flood. We are made for disaster -- it’s the rest of the time when we don’t really know what to do with ourselves.

And so I think that there is something built into the American psyche, some underlying, secretive spot that tells us that, when this grand experiment finally ends, when this strange empire that cannot ever call itself that finally goes down, it will be Big, and Loud, and Flashy.

Look at our films, our modern legends of ourselves and who we are as a people: disaster awaits us at every turn. Future scholars will be amused and probably not a little puzzled at how deeply paranoid we were at what might be coming to get us next: meteors, dinosaurs, birds, robots, invasion from space/sea/foreigners/the past/the future, invasion OF the sea -- it’s like we know on some level, deep inside that we’re going down, it’s just a question of how.

But it’s always, always got to be something Big.

I would suggest that when empires end, when the great gears of a sprawling, widespread and diverse empire begin to slow and grind down, it is almost imperceptible to the people living there at the time. I would argue that it’s much easier for future scholars looking back to stick a pin in the spot where empire ended, but not so much for the extant people of said empire.

We are given to understand that the Roman Empire ended in 476 AD, exactly, but that is long after Goths and other tribes had sacked the city of Rome several times, long after the Empire had been split in two, long after the prestige and power of the true empire had waned. But to our minds, that was the date the empire fell -- boom, crash, flames, over.

Even our language suggests hyperbolic drama in a moment of here/not here: the empire ‘fell,’ as in it toppled over. I would suggest it didn’t ‘fall’ so much as it ‘slid.’ And I bet they never knew it was happening, or at least never had a clear sense of ‘the end.’

I don’t think we’ll have a clear sense either. I think we will slide further and further into shabbiness, into a cheapened and degraded existence, an entropic descent as things incrementally grow more and more shabby. We won’t die with a bang -- it’ll be a whimper.

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