Sometimes I wonder if the future, in some strange metaphysical way, reaches down into our psyches and readies us to accept what is to come. Maybe we know things before we know them. By the time change is plain to see, we’ve unconsciously adapted to it and have learned to call it something else–God’s will, human nature, life.
Let’s say, for example, that the American Empire is just about over. Let’s say China and India and other countries as well are set to surge ahead in science and technology, leaving reduced opportunities for upward mobility for the educated, while capital continues to roam the world in search of cheap labor, leaving a shattered working class. Let’s say we really are becoming a society of fixed status: the have-nots, an anxious and defensive middle and what George W. Bush famously calls his base, the have-mores. What sort of shifts in culture and social structure would prepare us for this looming state of affairs? A resurgence of Christian fundamentalism would fill the bill nicely.
Intellectually, scientifically, even artistically, fundamentalism–biblical literalism–is a road to nowhere, because it insists on fidelity to revealed truths that are not true. But religious enthusiasm is not all bad. Like love or political activism, it can help troubled souls transform their lives. And if what we’re looking at is an America with an ever-larger and boxed-in working class and tighter competition for high-paying jobs among the elite, fundamentalism is exactly the thing to manage decline: It schools the downwardly mobile in making the best of their lot while teaching them to be grateful for the food pantry and daycare over at the church. At the same time, taking advantage of existing currents of anti-intellectualism and school-tax resistance, it removes from the pool of potential scientists and other creative professionals vast numbers of students, who will have had their minds befuddled with creationism and its smooth-talking cousin, intelligent design. Already, according to a study by University of Minnesota biology professor Randy Moore, 40 percent of high school biology teachers don’t teach evolution, either because it’s socially unacceptable in their communities or because they themselves don’t believe in it.
If you think of current behavior as an advance accommodation to what is on the way, some things make sense that otherwise are mysterious. Why, at the very moment that we are talking obsessively about academic “excellence” and leaving no child behind, are we turning our public schools into factories of rote learning and multiple-choice testing, as if learning how to read and count were some huge accomplishment? Well, if your fate is to be a supermarket checker–and that’s a “good job” these days–you won’t be needing Roman history or art or calculus. By the same token, cutting state university budgets, burdening students with debt and turning college into a kind of middle-management trade school makes sense, if shrinking opportunities for the professional elite lie ahead. Why create more competition for the graduates of the Ivy League?
Another mystery potentially explained: Government’s determination to keep working-class women from controlling their fertility. Why does it set a biological trap that dooms them to years of struggle with repercussions for everyone around them, including their children? (It’s true that teen pregnancy rates are going down, but they’re still astronomical by the standards of any other industrial nation–six times the rate in the Devil’s own country, France.) For all our talk about single-parent families–the reason for the terrible poverty of black New Orleans, if we are to believe right-wing columnists Rich Lowry and David Brooks–we act to bring about more of them, and of the most vulnerable, makeshift kind. Somehow single motherhood is supposed to be the fault of the left, but it’s the right that has cut public funding for contraception, held up Plan B, restricted abortion, flooded the schools with useless abstinence-only sex ed and now even threatens to bar confidentiality to girls seeking birth control. If you wanted a fatalistic, disorganized working class, a working class too worn out by the day-to-day to do much more than get by, saddling girls with babies is a great idea.
Hurricane Katrina was heartbreaking–and it was shocking too. The realities it laid bare–the stark class and race divisions of New Orleans, the callousness and cluelessness and sheer shameless incompetence of the Bush Administration, the long years of ecological mismanagement of the Gulf region–show how far the process of adaptation to decline has already gone. Bush’s ownership society turns out to be the on-your-ownership society. The rising tide that was supposed to lift all boats is actually a flood that only those who already have a boat can escape.
For decades the right has worked day and night to delegitimize concepts without which no society can thrive, or maybe even survive–the common good, social solidarity, knowledge and expertise, public service. God, abstinence and the market were supposed to solve all our problems. Bad news–climate change, rising poverty, racial and gender disparities, educational failure, the mess in Iraq–was just flimflam from liberals who hate freedom. Is there another world power that lives in such a fantasy world? Now, in old people left to drown in their nursing home beds, in police who reportedly demanded that young women stranded on rooftops bare their breasts in return for rescue, in the contempt for public safety shown by Bush’s transformation of FEMA into a pasture for hapless cronies–we can all see what those fantasies obscured. A government that doesn’t believe in government was a disaster waiting to happen.
That disaster was Katrina, and it’s swept us a crucial political moment. It’s as if we’re being given something people rarely get: a chance to take a hard look at the future we are preparing for ourselves, an America that has used up its social and economic and intellectual capital and in which it’s every man for himself, and every woman, too.
Is that the future we want? Because if we let this moment slip away, that is where we are heading.