We Americans sometimes forget how new we are to the history of the world.
Here in Western North Carolina, for example, we live like other Americans. We drive cars on expressways, live in towns and cities, buy or build homes and apartments equipped with electricity and running water, erect schools, churches, and fast-food restaurants, build shopping malls, buy meat, vegetables and milk from large grocery stores, vacation at the coast or overseas, gather local information from papers like The Smoky Mountain News, and commune with the world via the internet and television.
Since the Second World War, Americans have lived by the old dictum that only the dead have seen the end of war. For almost 70 years we have served as the world’s policeman, opposing the Soviet Union in a cold war, communism in Korea and Vietnam in hot wars, and a variety of fanatics, terrorists, and dictators in wars hot and cold. We fought to a stalemate in Korea, lost in Vietnam, won the Cold War, and won — at least militarily — the battles of the Middle East. Our armed services remain the most battle-tested in the world, and we spend far more on these services than any other country. (A good part of this spending, incidentally, is for veterans’ entitlements).
William Manchester, author of a number of best-selling books, including The Death of A President, American Caesar, and Goodbye, Darkness, spent nearly 30 years writing a three-volume biography of Winston Churchill. Still a young man when I read the first volume, The Last Lion: Visions of Glory, in 1984, I was entranced by his account not only of Churchill but also of the Victorian Age into which he had been born and the Edwardian Era in which he won his first real measure of fame. Manchester gave me and thousands of other readers more than the man: he recreated the world in which Winston Churchill had so exuberantly lived.
Since reading Ben Wattenberg’s The Birth Dearth 25 years ago, the subject of demography has fascinated me. This past week I finished Jonathan Last’s What To Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster (ISBN 978-1-59403-641-5, $23.99), a look at declining fertility rates in the United States and around the world. As libertarian humorist P.J. O’Rourke quipped, Jonathan Last’s book is “a powerful argument that the only thing worse than having children is not having them.”
Of all the Beat writers of the 1940s and 1950s — Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, John Clellon Holmes, Gary Snyder, and others — it is Jack Kerouac who most fascinates post-millennial readers. His works remain in print; he has inspired several biographies and has served as a central character in different memoirs; his best-known novel, On The Road, was released in 2012 as a movie. Like Hemingway or Fitzgerald, he is one of those American writers whose life often seems larger than his work, a figure of romance, a legend.
The teenage cashier at the grocery store is conversing with a customer. “That’s right,” she says. “The only thing that will work is for civilization to collapse so we can all go back to nature.” Later I encounter a friend at a party, a married woman in her 50s who has just completed an advanced handgun course, has stocked a year’s worth of provisions in her house, and hopes to purchase a farm in a remote area of Madison County. “When everything falls apart,” she had said to me earlier in the year, “I want a place for my family to feel safe.” Seeing her reminds me of a dozen other acquaintances who believe our civilization is teetering on the verge of an apocalypse. Nor is this phenomenon restricted to these mountains: the Internet is rife with bloggers predicting breakdown and widespread disorder, and advocating ways of survival.
For the past 80 years more and more Americans have linked themselves economically to the machinations of the federal government. Having come to depend so heavily on government regulations and monetary entitlements, and by this dependence having subsequently given so much power to Washington, we now rightly credit the government with having the power to bring boom or bust, to change a bad economy to a good one and vice versa, to alleviate the suffering of those caught up in a depression or recession.
Let me take a deep breath and see if I can get this out in one long ugly sentence:
A man has some sort of mental fugue while driving, slams into a another car, and kills two people; his married brother moves into the man’s house while the man is in prison and a mental evaluation unit; the brother sleeps with the man’s wife; the man sneaks out of the institution, returns home, finds his brother in bed with said wife, and bashes in the wife’s head with a table lamp; the authorities send the man away for treatment which includes living in a wilderness prison where he befriends an Israeli terrorist; the brother, whose wife kicks him out of the house, moves into the man’s house and assumes responsibility for his nephew, a 12-year-old who has a village in Africa named after him for work he did there when he was 10, and for his niece, a 10-year-old who is in a sexual relationship with a female teacher in the private school she attends, a relationship which ends when the brother takes some money to keep the affair quiet rather than reporting it to the authorities; the brother himself engages in internet sex, sleeps with a homemaker whose husband knows everything and then with a much younger woman who later abandons her aged parents to the brother’s care; the brother suffers a stroke, but continues to engage in sex.
Think of the times someone has said to you: “You’ll love this book!” This well-intentioned person then shoves a book into your hands and dances off, leaving you gripping a volume, white-knuckled, you are now required to love. Though occasionally you’ll open the book and find yourself surprised by its pleasures, more likely you will read a few lines and sink slowly into the nearest chair as full of lead as Bonnie and Clyde.
When I was a child living in Boonville, N.C., a town of 600 people, my mother would load us into the station wagon twice a year — at the start of each new school year and at Christmas — and drive 25 miles to the Sears store in Winston-Salem. That store was dinky by today’s standards, but to me it was a place of enchantment. The parking deck was on the store’s roof, and we would descend the stairs into a palace of delights: the odor of roasted peanuts from the confectionary stand at the bottom of the stairwell; the toys calling to us from the shelves off to the left; the racks and racks of clothes in which my siblings and I, to my mother’s chagrin, played hide-and-seek.