Some years ago, at breakfast, my younger kid looked up, stared at me with bleery eyes and said, “I’ve seen the apocalypse. It all ends in chickens.”
To understand he’s not completely insane you have to see that he was probably still asleep and dreaming. He’s one of those people who can be dragged out of bed at the normal time the same as everyone else, but he’s not awake. He looks awake, insofar as his eyes are open, but he’s still dreaming and somewhere else. When I asked him what he meant, he just looked at me blankly and said “WHAT?” as though I were crazy. (And yes, Kate gleefully stole the prophecy for the con books. We writers are despicable beings. We not only steal from each other’s books, we steal from each other’s LIVES.)
This morning I woke up with the memory of his saying that, and the tone of voice, and the utter horror on his face. And out of that deeper mind, the idea came “Yep, it all ends in chickens.”
The world usually does.
Let me explain. This all comes from reading Dave Freer’s post on his visit to Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe for us could be substituted in a sentence with the words “hell on Earth” and it would work just the same way. We know of Mugabe’s violation of property rights; we know of the incredible inflation that made the Weimar republic look stable. Those of us like me, from far-wandering families, have cousins who fled when Rhodesia first became Zimbabwe and cousins who fled much later, in the oughts, when it was said it was not safe to be white in Zimbabwe.
But Dave’s son married a girl from Zimbabwe who fits the parameters of “an English rose.” And they attended the wedding there, with clearly a lot of her white relatives.
And Dave says things are getting better. For a given definition of better.
I’ve said before, and I’ll say again, that this country is in for a very rough time, maybe the roughest time we’ve ever endured, simply because what can go on won’t, and because in a time when technological change is pushing is towards greater individual choice, responsibility and freedom (yes, I can expand on it) our exquisitely trained “managing” class (not just in government, companies, churches, charitable societies are all on the same boat) has been TRAINED to hate our foundational principles and to idolize Europe’s centralized system which was moribund back in the seventies, and which is now completely at odds with the direction of the technology. (No? France invested tons in this video communication system, which never fully got off the ground and which has been lapped by the haphazard frontier that is the internet.)
However, in the United States we tend to take everything as all or nothing, our rough times and our happy times and… everything in between.
One of the first things that struck me about America was how seriously we take our history, our habits, our– By which I don’t mean we know it exquisitely well, because, particularly recently, we simply haven’t been taught – I mean that every American I know obsesses about whatever his source of interest it, whether it’s something like scrapbooking, or something like reenacting the civil war.
No, this is not common. Not in Europe. Perhaps it is the longest weight of history that lends all of it a sort of “shrug, it will pass.” Or perhaps it is that we are (or were, at least) a people of law, and of all being equal before the law. What was written in the constitution and the declaration mattered. It made us who we were.
Other countries in the world pay less attention to their founding documents. Their citizenship is a matter of people and history and blood.
I can’t fully tell you all the ways in which America is different – or how little the rest of the world “gets” us. I just can’t. I can’t even explain it to them. My brother, for instance who likes reading history (though mostly historical fiction) was once telling me about this history book he found and how it was probably something I couldn’t get here, so he’d send it to me when he was done reading. This is when I sighed and informed him that back then (pre-Amazon which changed my buying methods) I belonged to the history book club, and I’d read that book a year ago, and by the way there was also this, this and this.
See, in Portugal they have this idea of the US as “futuristic” which to them means that nothing that isn’t as new as tomorrow matters here. The idea of oh, my plumber, who is a civil war reenactor and can tell you what a soldier ate for breakfast on any given day of any given year of the war (perhaps a very slight exaggeration, but very slight, trust me) and who spends his time, money and considerable skull sweat studying the civil war, doesn’t fit into their idea of America.
Because they don’t get us. And we don’t get that the rest of the world isn’t like us. Even I tend to forget that, anymore.
It is perhaps easier if I tell you that US is like someone with borderline Aspergers, compared to a normal person. Lacking a long history and the organic understanding of how history works – having experienced a break with the past that comes from many of our citizens not speaking their parents’ language – and being, further more, a people created by words, we attach great importance to laws, regulations and words.
In the kindergarten of nations, we’re the kid with thick glasses and a book, the kid who grew up surrounded by adults and never really had a childhood. Periodically we have to wade in and tell them they can’t play that way, because it’s against the rules and this is how it will end – and they resent us, of course, PARTICULARLY when we’re right.
(In that sense, btw, what we’re going through now is our attempt to act like the other kids, so they will like us. It won’t work. And it will end in tears. And frankly, we’re starting to worry the other kids. We’re too big and responsible to act like them.)
Anyway, part of what that affects is how people are looking towards the coming rough times. Americans tend to follow from the principles and “where this leads” and so most of the people I know are expecting some sort of Mad Max future. They’re looking up recipes for “Neighbor au squirrel.”
But as Dave hints – and as I’ve experienced – that’s not the way the world ends. And this time, it really might not be the way the world ends because you have to throw the tech in.
Yes, some areas will go Mad Max. I was telling a friend shortly after Sandy that he really must have a backup plan in case NYC goes all “Escape from NY” because I don’t have enough guns to go in and rescue him. (Will NYC be one of the areas that goes Mad Max? I don’t know. Actually I think they’re first on the list of “most likely to glow with radioactive light” – but that’s another aspect.)
In law and on paper, yeah, we’re headed to a total collapse that would lead to that sort of thing… But the US, never having experienced that sort of collapse doesn’t know, bone deep, that collapses are never that absolute. Having watched collapses – Zimbabwe – at a distance, we see them as absolute.
But humans are humans. Humans are no more law abiding when society falls apart than they are when it’s whole – in fact, they’re less. Even in a country as law abiding as the US (we are. Truly) we’re each of us already violating three laws before breakfast because the d*mn things have multiplied to the point to obey one you have to violate the other.
When laws and rulers (yes, I know they’re supposed to be administrators, but most of them, right now, from corporate managers to the president, are under the misguided impression they’re rulers and acting as such) are suicidal, the normal person still chooses NOT to commit suicide. And contrary to the Marxist view of society which has influenced many of us whether we know it or not (having it shoved down your throat for seventy years does that) humans are not in general “everyone’s hand against everyone else” unless a kindly government prevents their killing each other. Humans, in general, are social animals who cooperate for mutual benefit.
Take the internet. Yes, you have hackers and scammers. But they’re a minority and easily avoided. Most of the internet is a good place to: learn; find like minded people; engage in mutually beneficial business.
So the government falling apart doesn’t mean society will fall apart – particularly not if we have the internet. It just means a lot of the stupid laws and regulations get ignored, and people go about the business of surviving in the best possible way.
And it’s likely to end in chickens, because they’re the easiest and cheapest to keep of the domestic animals (well, the city chicken movement does it bizarrely, with special fodder and all, but you can keep them cheaply – trust me – on leftovers and cooked rice and such.) In Portugal in the seventies every suburban backyard became a chicken farm. We ate a lot of chicken.
But you know, when you eat chicken you don’t starve. People traded and survived and some of them (inventive enough) even thrived.
It worries me but only a little, since my skills – the advanced ones – are of the word kind, which is harder to trade on the side. OTOH, in the seventies we didn’t have the internet. And my guess is people will find a way to buy stories, and I’ll find a way to sell them the stories… even if it all falls apart. It’s not like out tech will magically go back to the 19th century. It won’t.
If the currency is worth nothing, then we work with another currency and in ultimate instance with weight in gold. If the government is not trustworthy, someone will issue bonds. If the laws are stupid, we ignore them. People do what they have to do to survive, and I expect pragmatic, sensible Americans will keep surviving.
Not saying that for some places and some people, it won’t be hell on Earth. Not saying some states won’t be in serious trouble and turmoil.
Just saying that in some sense, the tough times will burn away the dross, that life will go on, that the new tech will become even more important – and that there’s life at the other side of this and, given how much faster things move these days, even people my age might get to see it.
This is not cheery talk. I said it before, and I’ll say it again: the central government has important functions, which it’s neglecting to go sticking its nose in things that don’t belong in its sphere. One of them is “To provide for common defense.”
It’s likely we’ll lose a city, maybe more to enemy action. It’s likely we’ll see foreign troops land and our own troops too unorganized to mount a proper defense (which is why a well armed populace is important. Assault rifles h*ll. I think we should have shoulder-mounted rocket launchers.) The rest of the world can’t survive without us, and in many places “let’s attack them” is the logical response. And don’t come back and tell me that an armed populace can’t face an army. No, of course it can’t, in the battle field, etc. BUT it can d*mn well make an area too hot to hold. Look at what the Afghans did to the Soviet occupiers.
It’s possible even that our own government will make things more difficult for states trying to survive (no? Look at preventing border states from defending their borders.)
But in the long run, the technology itself, the way life is going is running against the centralized ideas of government. In the long run, everything is pointing to a future that’s geographically decentralized and d*mn hard to govern from a central place.
In the long run the dysfunctional managers in the centralized organizations become more and more irrelevant, and individuals take over. And let’s face it, we, the odder elements of society, are perfectly suited for that future. Provided we don’t panic and assume the worst will happen, and neglect the tools of civilization. Provided we keep our heads down and work – for the mutual benefit of ourselves, of society, of civilization. In our own inimitable way.
When the dust settles, then we’ll see what functions of government we can’t do without. I’m betting very few. Mutual defense. Territorial integrity. Keeping the peace between the States.
For the rest we’ll have to go back to learning that individual humans are not some sort of monsters, needing a boot on their necks to behave like decent beings.
And we will.