A recent article in the Washington Post described some suburban high schoolers preparing for their proms by spending nearly $3,000 to rent an H2 Hummerzine, “complete with six TVs, a DVD player, strobe lights under the leather seats, a faux fireplace, a fog machine and a disco ball.” Sushi bars are optional. I was pretty judgmental when I first heard this. Three thousand dollars that could be better spent, I mused, taking a lobbyist to lunch. Or learning lessons with William Bennett. Or providing a week’s worth of groceries for thirty children of minimum-wage earners whose promised tax credits were axed in the wee hours before the new tax law was passed. Young people these days…

Upon more sober reflection, I began to think that perhaps the wise promgoer would be best advised to apply the three thou as a down payment toward outright purchase of said Hummerzine. If the tax laws are not kind to poor families, they do provide breaks for those who buy six tons of vehicle (or more, with sushi bar). And where there are bars, sushi or otherwise, I believe city ordinances mandate that there be restrooms. Park the sucker in a good school district, throw in some loft space et voilà! wretched excess turns into reasonable real estate.

But the aspirations of the teens quoted in the Post were strictly short-term. They said they wanted to feel like queen-for-a-day, J-Lo-for-a-night. It was interesting, this choice of Hummerzine as bulletproof pumpkin. It was curious, this figuring of tank as magic coach. Perhaps military-style vehicles have been romanticized more than I appreciate, in music videos and Fox war montages (according to one poll, 75 percent of undergraduates say they trust the military to “do the right thing” either “all of the time” or “most of the time”). Or perhaps it’s some kind of post-Columbine chic of the semper paratus.

Whatever Hummers might symbolize to promgoers, they make me think of the Malthusian prognostications of grim futurists like Samuel Huntington and Robert Kaplan. From this genre of predicted global anarchy, there has emerged a trope of the stretch limousine as cocoon inhabited by wealthy First Worlders while desperate, ragged Third Worlders tap at the darkened windows begging for tossed favors. Don DeLillo’s latest novel, Cosmopolis, takes this image for a ride, so to speak: The banker-narrator glides through the hardscrabble canyons of Manhattan, periodically descending into the tumult of street life then retreating back to the limo, his soundproof, air-conditioned matrix. In the end he goes broke, has to hail a cab. The moral is clear: If he’d had sufficient fire in the belly to begin with, he would have had a Hummer.

Perhaps it’s just me. I do feel as though we have entered some kind of alternate universe, some game concocted in a cyberwar-zone. It’s as though the Bush Administration is using Kaplan and Huntington as templates rather than cautionary tales. It’s as though they’ve set out to map The Coming Chaos into being–throwing out the rules of diplomatic engagement, launching “pre-emptive” war, turning ally against ally, magically transforming the federal surplus into a multitrillion-dollar deficit, consolidating the major media outlets into a singular right-wing bullhorn of rage, degrading the environment and upgrading the secret police. What remains of government funding is earmarked for technology that will map every wiggle in our walk, every giggle in our talk, every twiddle in our DNA.

The modern Cinderella, tracked from the womb, would never make it past the concrete barriers in front of the palace. Her name on the security list rather than the “A,” she’d be hustled off for questioning about her association with that elusive alien with the strange blue glow, the one last seen waving a radioactive stick in the vicinity of six white lab rats. And those stiletto-heeled glass mules would end up in a dipsy dumpster of confiscated potential weaponry. Similarly, as high schoolers around the country elect their prom kings and queens, they compete imagistically against the king and queen of hearts in the Pentagon’s “Most Wanted” deck of Iraqi bad guys. Or against the king and queen of “bleeding hearts” in the commercially popular Deck of Weasels, a set with the faces of celebrities and politicians who have criticized the Bush Administration. Or against that Republican-issued deck with face cards of the Democratic Texas legislators who removed themselves to Oklahoma in order to block Tom DeLay’s redistricting plan.

Yet the romance of the Cinderella story that most Americans embrace, or embraced until recently, is rooted in a dream of self-invention, of economic as well as personal liberation. Unlike Margaret Atwood’s dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale, Americans gobble up fantasies like Maid in Manhattan; our engines are fired by the belief that with hard work and the right makeover, being a maid in Manhattan need only be a phase. People love Cinderella for her challenge to the feudal order, her quintessential class-hopping freedom. But today’s high schoolers are graduating into a world of upwardly spiraling tuition costs and downwardly spiraling job prospects; of meanspiritedness toward the poor, of powerlessness of the middle class and indifference among the rich. They face a future in which the tracking of educational, economic and behavioral patterns risks reinstating a kind of social stasis that will keep large numbers of (yes, even white) Americans ghettoized and “in their place” to a degree we have not seen in this country for generations.

I suppose I am not a good one to decipher the youthful preference for what is in effect–and affect–an elegantly appointed bomb shelter on wheels. Humvees are hard for me to fit into the sugarplum order of crisp tuxedos, tulle skirts and happily ever after. If teens are expressing a sense of their own destiny–however sardonically–it seems a hard-edged vision, like using a pit bull as fashion prop; a dream of guarded hearts preparing for a wild ride, determined to party on in the necropolis, as though the end were nigh.