Unemployment in Desert City hovers at nine percent. What jobs exist are mostly temporary and lacking benefits. Some 11,000 houses huddle empty, having been foreclosed or never occupied. Vast portions of the population sit idle. They have given up on the very idea of employment. The state legislature, its carving knives sharp and poised, stands ready to scrape the bones of already spavined public sector.
State parks, national monuments, public libraries — these spaces ask nothing of us save that we enjoy them in a respectful, sensible manner (sadly, universities are already lost). The keepers of them do not try to pry into our psyches and hearts to discern how to better manipulate our covetousness. The spaces themselves do not beckon us to consume for consumption’s sake, to sicken and impoverish ourselves in an attempt to satisfy desires that do not originate in our hearts and minds but from the innumerable screens and billboards that surround us at any given moment.
When the crisis first struck, blame aplenty made the rounds. People of means incommensurate to their ambition who got into mortgages they couldn’t afford, lenders who confronted incentives configured in such a way that truth became inconvenient, whiz-kid number crunchers whose sure-fire means of distributing (and, one supposes, dissipating) risk turned out not only to defy reality but to see itself defied by reality — the culprits are by now legion. One wonders, though, whether culpability legitimately extends to the vast number of working stiffs who just wanted to lay something by for retirement, for Junior’s education, for grand- or great-grandchildren. Oligarchs like Munger would like to convince everyone that, yes, blame falls on them, too. If Munger is right, then there’s little anyone can do but contemplate the sad fact that guilt by association has become an existential proposition worthy of Camus. To participate in today’s financialized global economy is to commit collective murder. Call it our Hi-Fi(nance) suicide.
My return to the West, however, has been a shock to say the least, because I remember this desert megalopolis being so different. When I was last here, everything was enlivened with quickening elixir of easy credit. Strip malls sprouted overnight. Entire housing developments appeared within the span of a week. People were drunk on the belief that their characterless, indifferently constructed houses were ATMs with ever increasing balances. It was a bad way to conduct one’s life, to be sure.
You’ll count heap big coup with your tent-city neighbors when they see you packin’ pelts and poles instead of tarps and old hoardings. Whatever the campsite equivalent of curb appeal is, you’ll have it with your very own teepee.
The one-two punch of de-industrialization and real-estate devaluation, though it dealt grievous injuries to the city’s two-footed denizens, has, strangely enough, set Detroit on a path toward becoming a veritable bushmeat Eden.
As Ulrich sees it, the creative class is marginalized because it has voluntarily given up the very things that give comfort to traditional marginalized groups. Creatives are alienated not at the level of the political, the economic or the social, but at the most basic human level. If the life of the poor is not the life we imagine for ourselves, it plays out as a parody of that life, following the same rituals of family, church, marketplace, and the political. At the center of all these rituals are the comforts of home, place, and humanity. Where the old alienation could be said to take place in a geographic location, the new alienation of the creative class is played out in lonely hotel rooms across the globe. And why is the creative class so alienated? Because it has chosen to be alienated in order to keep up with the dictates of money and success.
How do you get a generation reared on relentless manic cartoon optimism, which assures them that everything is fine, that there’s nothing to worry about, that nothing scary or bad will ever happen, to reinvest the world with a “creative social energy”? If anything, the culture of pathological happiness that currently afflicts the United States has effected a great drain on any creative social energy. Just look at the anemic public response to the bailouts and bonuses this past year. How, pray tell, should creative social energy be expended to make this unhappy tale palatable? Should people imagine Wall Street crooks as knights on a quest, searching for a treasure that by rights as theirs, and the citizenry as just do many orcs out to deny them this very thing?
Islamofascism transformed the incomprehensible face of worldwide Islam into mere incoherence: they hated freedom in general and our freedom in particular. Even better, Islamofascism tied in perfectly with our own growing belief that 9-11 was the new Pearl Harbor. Unable to accept that the events of 9-11 had been masterminded by a very tall Saudi billionaire criminal who now lived in a cave or by the disheveled and obese Khalid Sheikh Mohamed we knew that hidden eastern hordes lay in wait, ready to make the trains run on time and destroy our way of life. So what if nobody had actually seen Islamofascists goose-stepping to midday prayers, we had found our enemy and our war.
9-11 is only a Rorschach test, a mirror disguised as something else and held up before our believing eyes. We want life to be meaningful and when it is not or when it defies our chosen meanings, we call that disaster. Somewhere in the hazy cloud of debris raining down on Manhattan we thought we saw something: the devil’s face, American virtue, a clash of civilizations, or our own fragility. This is the reality of legerdemain: the suicide bomber is quicker than the eye. The act of flying an airplane into a building and the subsequent fall of that building are fundamentally meaningless. Viewed objectively through the eyes of god or the camera of a spy satellite flying far overhead, 9-11 is simply an event that occurred. The closely held truth of the magician is that magic takes place entirely in the minds of his audience.