Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Clusterfuck Nation

Comment on current events

by Jim Kunstler
, author of

The Long Emergency (Atlantic Monthly Press 2005)

The Time Remaining (November 06 2007)

If an American political party was ever in for an ass-kicking, it's the current incarnation of the Republicans. Everyone has finally turned on them, even their neo-con war strategists - Richard Perle and Company - who told a Vanity Fair reporter last week that George Bush didn't know how to run a war that seemed like a good idea before they handed it over to him.

Meanwhile, just days before the election, televangelist Republican cheerleader Ted Haggard gets nailed for consorting with a male prostitute while on crystal meth - taking up the baton in the GOP relay-race of grifters and pervert-hypocrits, Tom Delay, Jack Abramoff, Duke Cunningham, Bob Ney, Mark Foley, David Safavian, et al - and the mid-term vote begins to look a little gnarly for the family values crowd.

Let's say the Democrats win control of at least one house of congress and possibly two. Are they going to shut down the project in Iraq? I doubt it. Badly as it has worked out, the alternative of withdrawing the US military presence there may be worse. Anyway, we'd still be sticking around the Middle East - in Qatar and Kuwait and a few other places - and we'd have to stand on the sidelines and watch Iran gobble up the substantial oil resources around the Tigris / Euphrates delta region. What would be the remedy for that? Invade Iraq all over again?

I confess, what bugs me about my Democrats is that they seem to think we can just duck out of the contest for Middle East oil and keep enjoying the happy motoring fiesta - which, by the way, is not just the way we live in this country but also the basis of our economy, when you sweep aside all the bullshit. Contrary to what a lot of utopian Democrats wish, it will never be prime-time for ethanol, bio-diesel, hydrogen, or twenty other nominees as replacements for gasoline - at least not the way we run things now. Driving a Prius might induce raptures of eco-moral superiority, but changing the zoning laws would produce a better outcome - and that's just too hard.

It would be nice if the Democrats put forward some concrete policy ideas for moving this society away from extreme car dependence and continued suburban sprawl-building - for instance, a federal project to repair the passenger rail system that was once the envy of the world and is now so fucked up that the Bolivians would be ashamed of it - but the Democrats have been too brain-dead, too chicken, and too distracted by sex-and-race politics to actually lead the American public. The only change they have really beat the drum for is gay marriage, which more than a few people of sound mind regard as something that will not necessarily make the USA a better place.

The big fear about a Democratic-controlled congress is that, in the absence of any good ideas for transitioning the nation for a post-oil existence, they will put all their new power behind a grand inquisition against their defeated rivals. Ever since the Watergate hearings, we've gotten into the habit of thinking that all tragic political events can be corrected or compensated for by holding investigations. This is based on the seemingly logical idea that if we could only find out what went wrong with some affair - Iran-contra, Nine-Eleven, WMDs in Iraq - then we wouldn't repeat the mistake. But history doesn't really repeat (though it sometimes rhymes, thank you Mark Twain). And so our investigation mania had become as self-defeating and addictive as our behavior around automobiles.

Reality never did get much traction among the candidates in this election season. Neither party truly recognizes the implications of our energy predicament, or wants to talk about it. It will take a shock to the system, and there are several in the offing. The complex arrangements we depend on these days will eventually respond to reality even if we don't. I nominate the financial system as the one most likely to seize up first, since it is burdened with extraordinary perversities producing unprecedented distortions in the basic matter of what constitutes value. The oil markets have enjoyed a season of supernatural stability, but the home furnaces are now running and the inventory sedulously built up before election day is starting to draw down again. There are still nearly two months of 2006 left and a lot can still happen.

The fate of George W Bush in the twilight of his tenure might invoke spasms of nausea in the casual observer. His own party will use him as a dumpster for their recriminations and regrets. He's sure to face some additional horrific crises in the more than two years left. The economic wreckage that he's leaving behind will become manifest to everybody as a maelstrom of bad credit sucks houses and family futures into an abyss of insolvency. His previously loyal minions will begin to inform the magazine reporters - a la Richard Perle and David Frum - of all his odd little personality deficiencies, like an inability to pay attention. If he's lucky, he'll get a blow-job in the vicinity of the oval office and nobody will ever hear about it.

But remember this: history is not going to stop because Nancy Pelosi is having a bad hair day.


Gawn South (October 30 2006)

My travels last week took me to small college town in Georgia and into the heart of Vermont, and the contrasts were instructive. To protect some sensibilities, I call the Georgia town "Peachville". There are lots of places like it down in Dixie, and they all suffer from similar problems.

Peachville's surrender to the tyranny of the automobile is total. For a region whose people like to yap about "defending freedom", their own capitulation to the car is complete. Practically every street in this town of 40,000 has been turned into a multi-lane mini-freeway. If you wanted to walk, or needed to walk - and a number of faculty members at the college where I spoke said they did - then your experience would be frightening and miserable because there are so few sidewalks, and the distances between things is scaled to cars, not people.

The quality of the buildings was another striking thing. The remnants of Peachville's little main street downtown was composed mostly of one-story buildings so ugly that they seemed to be missing some essential DNA. They were mean little brick boxes lacking any ornament, denoting an utter disregard for the public realm of the street. Along a couple of blocks, the town officials had recently carried out a "street upgrade program", meaning they added a center median with trees in a few places, but the buildings themselves are so weak and homely that no amount of tarting up the streetscape will make much difference.

All the town's recent wealth had gone into the construction of a franchise strip along the street connecting Peachville with a nearby interstate. Here were all the anonymous chain restaurants and familiar chain stores, and the four-laner was unencumbered with any frivolous decor like medians or sidewalks. This was the stuff they were really proud of. Of course, it is an infrastructure for daily living that has no future in an energy-scarcer world - along with all the new McHouse subdivisions outside of town - and yet this is the stuff that they identify with "freedom" and "progress". It will be hard for them to let go of it.

I had dinner that night in a little independent "authentic down-home" eatery across the street from an abandoned 1970s-vintage drive-in bank. Everything inside was made of plastic, and of absolutely the cheapest kind. The walls were adorned with signs or discolored cardboard prints in warped frames. There were two fluorescent light fixtures over our table that made the food look yellowish-purple. The food was like something you might be served in a state penitentiary.

I have some theories about southern culture - I'm entitled to have them, and even express them, whether you like it or not. This is a region that was miserably poor until very recently. All the material progress, the new wealth of the Sunbelt, has been acquired rapidly over the last thirty years or so, and it has been delivered in the form of corporate products: tilt-up buildings, hamburgers, Ford pickup trucks, manufactured "homes", and cornucopia chain stores overflowing with plastic goodies. Building all this stuff and hitching employment rides with these ventures has dragged the cracker class out of the extremest poverty. Nearly universal air conditioning has also changed the picture, giving folks a reason to make an effort to do anything after the sun rises above the windowsills.

The reason their authentic down-home eateries are so bad is because for two hundred years they had a miserable diet of cornmeal, sugar, and pork fat, and a miserable concept of cuisine for presenting it. The reason the decor is so bad is because until fairly recently they lined the walls of their houses with newspapers and sat on benches. Electricity from the TVA also arrived relatively late in the game, and the finer points of interior illumination have not yet developed there. A restaurant dining room in Georgia is lighted the same way as a used car lot.

The sad fact is that the final blowout of the cheap oil age has been the foundation of the Sunbelt's prosperity. The whole nation is afflicted with the cancer of suburban sprawl, but down there it is invested with the highest values. It is their truth and beauty. To a certain extent, their former poverty embarrasses them and they want to forget about it, not celebrate it.

They seem to have no plans for coping with a daily life that is not based on cheap oil. They even resent the suggestion that they might have to. They will keep sending a disproportionate number of their young people into the military to help with the current project of securing future oil supplies by attempting to pacify the Middle East. Sooner or later that project will come to grief and the people of Georgia will have to make other arrangements like everybody else. But the process may be extremely traumatic for a people who have not allowed themselves to imagine a future different from the present.

I was in Vermont, two days later. I had dinner in the Bobcat Cafe on Main Street in Bristol. The place was full, the lighting was mellow, the furnishings were wood, the napkins were cloth, and the menu was composed of things other than cornmeal, sugar, and pork. Vermont, by the way, is also a mostly rural place that had been relatively poor for a hundred years before the 1960s. The customers in the Bobcat Cafe seemed to include all ranks of local society. I noticed one particular man sitting at the bar eating dinner on his own.

He was wearing work clothes. The back bar he faced while eating, where all the bottles stood, was a magnificent piece of 19th century carving. It represented an effort to create some beauty. It was lighted softly and carefully. It gave the guy something to look at while he ate his dinner and drank his beer, some beautiful forms to contemplate while his mind wandered among perhaps more mundane concerns. In Peachville Georgia, nobody would have ever thought of creating such a thing in the first place.


Enter Barack Obama (October 23 2006)

History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes, Mark Twain famously observed. A hundred and fifty years (roughly) after the civil war, the United States faces another possible political convulsion. The earlier one was over slavery, a moral contradiction so stark and awful that an emerging modern industrial polity could no longer ignore it. The coming convulsion we face in the 21st century is not so much moral but no less stark: the collapse of a faltering industrial polity in the face of depleting energy supplies. Like the earlier dilemma of slavery, our national leaders refuse to face it.

The years just preceding the Civil War, the late 1850s, have some resemblance to our politics today. They were highly polarized. They produced outcomes in politics (the Kansas Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision) which allowed a vicious pro-slavery minority to impose their will on the rest of the nation - just as a fundamentalist Christian minority imposes its will on the public today.

The 1850s were also a time of disarray in the political parties. The Whig party, which had more-or-less run things since the time of Andrew Jackson, dried up and blew away because it ceased to stand for anything. The opposing Democrats of that day had sold their souls to the pro-slavery interests. In this vacuum of cravenness, the Republican Party formed and nominated a failed one-term congressman turned railroad lawyer from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln to run for president.

Now, in 2006, we have two political parties in disarray. The Republicans are hemorrhaging legitimacy in an unsuccessful military adventure and a sewer spill of scandal. The Democrats are going Whiggish - sinking in a bog of equivocation. And now along comes a first-term senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, as the most appealing figure of authority in a looming presidential contest.

Like Lincoln, Obama is not completely formed politically. His lean face, like Lincoln's face pre-beard, needs filling out, as do his ideas and prescriptions for leadership. What he has in common with Lincoln is a gift for plain and convincing rhetoric. After decades of spin, PC euphemizing, neocon proxy speech, and similar bullshit, the public sees Obama as capable of straight talk. He told the last Democratic convention that there were no Blue or Red states but only a United States - and after the crowd heard that they wanted to trade in John Kerry like a bad wedding present.

Obama, who is not up for re-election this fall, has cut a swath through the heartland to boost other candidates and has generated huge admiring crowds. Time Magazine columnist Joe Klein said on NBC's Meet the Press show this week that the crowds of mainly Midwestern white people seem to feel tremendous gratitude to Obama for not being Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson - a seemingly odd point worth examining.

Obama's father was from Kenya and his mother from Kansas. He grew up mostly in Hawaii, with a four-year side-trip in Indonesia. He had a distinguished academic career at Columbia and Harvard. Though he is half-African he carries none of the baggage of stereotypical American black culture. He doesn't speak in the patois of the ghetto (or pretend to), and he appears not to possess a sense of implacable grievance for being who he is.

Since the 1960s Civil Rights project climaxed in the federal legislation of 1964-65, and then dissolved after the murder of Martin Luther King into a kind of voluntary apartheid of grievance, there have been no African-American leaders who represent unequivocally the prospect of real assimilation into mainstream American culture. Among the lies we tell ourselves is that America has become a happy multicultural kindergarten. In fact, black culture has never been so overtly and self-consciously separate - and that separation has tragically been promoted by the white yuppie progressive establishment pandering to implacable black grievance. Below the uppermost classes of both races, there has probably never been so much mistrust seething below the surface.

The convulsion that a President Obama might be elected into would be one first of economics. Our industrial economy is going to fall on its knees when global energy scarcities gets traction. There is going to be a scramble for resources world-wide and here in North America, and we are all set up to fracture along ethnic and regional lines as that occurs. The presence of a suddenly overwhelming, non-assimilated Hispanic population will only make things more difficult.

A President Obama would also very probably face a geopolitical crisis as the US, China, Russia, Japan, Europe, and the Islamic nations jockey desperately over energy resources while their own populations grow restive, desperate, angry, and possibly aggressive. In other words, a President Obama would possibly face a world war, a civil war, and a great depression all at once. This is not a happy fate for any leader, and so perhaps in the public perception of Barack Obama, in the rising of his star, so to speak, the public apprehends the outlines of tragedy, just as the historical Lincoln is an incomplete picture without the tragedy of his murder a few days after the resolution of the terrible war he presided over.

Remember, history rhymes but does not necessarily repeat itself. I am not saying that a President Barack Obama would be assassinated. But he would certainly have a rough passage through a sea of troubles. This nation, and the familiar patterns of everyday life in it, might not survive the kind of convulsion I describe. Whatever happens, an Obama presidency would probably have to be improvisational, on-the-fly, as Lincoln's had to be amid the uncertainties of war. Someone on Meet the Press said Obama's wife would pressure him not to run. Well, Mary Lincoln was nervous, too, and with good reason, it turned out. But Abe did not shrink from his call. Destiny is a stranger mistress. And maybe more compelling.

Bill Totten


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