Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Foolish, foolish people, what have you done?
As the markets melted yesterday and billions in imaginary wealth evaportated, habitual debtors and idiot spendthrifts all over the country sat on their couches watching the numbers and quaking with fear. The party is over, and it's time for the children to metamorphose into adults.
This is assuming, of course, that they have the capacity to do so.
A few years ago I was working for a property appraiser in Bakersfield, and in that capacity frequently visited the city's newest upscale suburb, Haggin Oaks. Even though the American economy was chugging along at that time, I was appalled by what I saw in this fools' paradise, where the nouveau-riche were building enormous McMansions and imagining themselves the heirs of the Hapsburgs. Some of these piles were silly imitations of Renaissance French castles, with turrets and stained glass; others were incredibly tasteless examples of the style I call Vegas decadent. At the time I figured probably 90 percent of the owners of these ridiculous pretensions were in way over their heads.
One day as I got out of my car in a post office parking lot, I was nearly run over by a huge, red SUV. This thing was really enormous, and it disgorged a woman so tiny she had difficulty getting down from her high perch. She had her small boy child in the passenger seat, and was able to reach up and lift him out of this Sherman tank with some difficulty. But what do ease of access and egress matter when you're driving the monster everyone else envies? So don't bother me, we'll waste as much gas as we want! And I thought the same thought watching her that always popped into my head driving through Haggin Oaks.
"Who the hell do these people think they are?"
Andrew Bacevich, author of "The Limits of Power," was interviewed recently on PBS by Bill Moyers. Washington Post reviewer Robert G. Kaiser wrote that Bacevich's slender volume describes "an America beset by three crises: a crisis of profligacy, a crisis in politics and a crisis in the military. The profligacy is easily described: What was, even in the author's youth several decades ago, a thrifty society whose exports far outdistanced its imports has become a nation of debtors by every measure."
In his interview with Bacevich, Moyers quoted from the book: "The pursuit of freedom, as defined in an age of consumerism, has induced a condition of dependence on imported goods, on imported oil, and on credit. The chief desire of the American people is that nothing should disrupt their access to these goods, that oil, and that credit. The chief aim of the U.S. government is to satisfy that desire, which it does in part of through the distribution of largesse here at home, and in part through the pursuit of imperial ambitions abroad."
This is the philosophy of fools, and it permeates American society from top to bottom and back again. It's at the top, however, that this foolishness, raised to a pitch of absolute hysteria, is at its worst. It has led us into the Middle East generally and Iraq specifically, in an idiotic attempt to secure the petroleum resources to continue a way of life that has no future -- a way of life Dick Cheney has called "non-negotiable."
At the bottom, where most of us live as what our capitalist masters insultingly refer to as "the consumers," it has led to bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger-box stores and endless vistas of strip malls, and unconscionable levels of frivolous and self-destructive debt. These debts have now matured, and borne a bitter fruit.
We've sold our souls and our Madisonian heritage for a pile of garbage.
All of this recalls the parable of the Prodigal Son, in Luke 15:11-32, and while that story ended happily, God only knows how our story of prodigality and foolishness will play out.
The Hieronymus Bosch-inspired painting of the Prodigal Son is by Russian-born Chicago artist Andrei Rabodzeenko.