In this weekend feature I bring you two recent book finds that you may have already come across anyway. Essentially, the American situation looks pretty much unsalvageable given rather pitiful efforts to reverse its downward spiral--so you might as well enjoy it. While I tend to read (and watch) very little fiction--that being peddled by various American leaders aside masquerading as fact--these two books may be worth your while. Just as Americans themselves know that their country's best days are long behind it, so too do its writers relish the thought of penning its epitaph. Thank goodness there are antidotes to factually challenged and mindless USA#1 boosterism from Americans who know better. As (American) James Kenneth Galbraith once said, pessimism is the mark of superior intellect. If you're not up to being mugged by reality, I suggest you watch Sarah Palin's new documentary or some other brainless "feel good" fare.
(1) Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story has garnered much well-deserved acclaim for this creative Jewish-Russian immigrant to the United States. Having had a similarly peripatetic existence, I like to think that those of us who have lived in different cultural milieus offer some insights others cannot. Witness, for instance, the stultifying pablum of much of the political-economic blogosphere where thoughts of (mostly male) American WASPs are regurgitated ad infinitum.
With his early childhood years spent in the Soviet Union, Shteyngart offers trenchant cultural commentary on modern-day America, from its military adventurism to its stunning prodigality. Extrapolating from those, he comes up with some pretty scary yet funny scenarios. Having witnessed the demise of Marxist-Leninist rule from most parts of the world, it is noteworthy how the forecast "End of History" has not spelled dominance for American freedom 'n' growth shtick. Rather, in the absence of alternatives, capitalist liberal democracy has lost its capacity for reinvention and brought out the worst in itself. Indeed, it has credibly been argued that the Chinese have done much more to make their (admittedly bastardized) iteration of Marxist-Leninist rule work in the aftermath of 1989, but that's a story for another day.
At any rate, the cavalcades of whimsy Shteyngart conjures do have a serious point in pointing out serious American decay. Do enjoy, and here's a brief foretaste from Slate that I found particularly illuminating:
He is also, as it happens, plenty ticked off about American military adventurism (there's recently been a war with Venezuela), repressive "national security" measures (the citizenry is under the boot of a heavily armed government entity called the American Restoration Authority), and the country's fiscal dependence on the kindness of Far Eastern strangers. (The only U.S. money that's worth anything is pegged to China's currency.) It's not just that the culture is shallow and crummy; the real problem is that the shallowness and crumminess contribute to enabling a toxic, even a lethal, political environment, and as the novel goes along, the seriousness of Shteyngart's purpose becomes more and more apparent, and the tone grows melancholy. Near the end, after a visit to his parents on Long Island, Lenny muses on living "at the end of the busted rainbow, at the end of the day, at the end of the empire." Shteyngart's first two books were unrepentantly gleeful about the demise of the Soviet empire; the end of America makes him a lot sadder.Debt ceiling debate, anyone? (And do watch out, Hugo.)
(2) Comedian Albert Brooks' 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America is more recent, having come out in the middle of 2011. While incorporating similarly obvious references to the United States' astonishing debt orgies fuelled by China and other Asian countries, it also goes out on a limb. Being a scholar of innovation, I am often struck by how it is treated as an unbridled good when it is not always the case. Social changes that it engenders and Marxist critiques of its political economy aside, there are other possibilities. (I'll have more on this important point in a later post so stick around.)
Brooks adds a thought-provoking device that juxtaposes breakthroughs in medical science with even worse American finances. To be sure, there's an element of truth in that those who devised Social Security probably did not expect medical innovations to allow Americans to live as long as they do. Longer life expectancies have, in recent times, meant more pressure from influential senior citizens to shower themselves with more and more retirement benefits while saddling politically apathetic future generations with insurmountable future burdens. In 1996 Peter G. Peterson was already sounding alarm over an all-engulfing economic crisis to be brought about by the retirement of the baby boom generation. I guess it has well and truly arrived. Non-discretionary spending they call it, the sacred cow of American politics. It all adds up to one heckuva problem that's only bound to get worse as the IOUs pile up without relent.
The angle on the US-China relationship is also trenchant. A few months ago I posted about the PRC-funded Confucius Classroom programmes for teaching Mandarin in California K-12 classrooms. As you would expect, Palin think-alikes and other assorted whitebread were vehemently opposed to the idea of teaching a very useful language in today's world. Given how poor primary education is in the United States, you'd have thought even these bigoted ingrates would be thankful that their betters offered much-needed help. Though he doesn't mention this ongoing controversy, Brooks was likely aware of it while envisioning Los Angeles being levelled when the Big One finally comes and wreaks trillions in damage. Fed up with America's ill treatment of it, China asks for and is given half ownership in Los Angeles in exchange for the task of rebuilding it.
At any rate, here's a nice condensed summary from Singularity Hub:
Of course, they come with a price. The crux of 2030 seems to rest on a very simple question: what will happen as the population of the US is allowed to age indefinitely? Not an ideal mind you, nor the worst possible scenario. What would happen to the US, as you know it today, continues apace for two more decades unshaken from its course of age-fighting medicine? Brooks seems pretty sure we’d f*ck it up. The troubles of 2030 are shaped by bad politics as much as they are by amazing technology. We let the gap between rich and poor, old and young, expand so that only the elders (bolstered by medicaid and social security) can afford to stay healthy. High prices in education and ridiculous interest rates keep the next generation from investing in college, struggling to make ends meet with the jobs they can get quickly. In short, for the first time in history the US raises a generation (or two) whose future looks bleaker than that of their parents.-------------------------
Both offer some fine reading for those who enjoy pointed humour. In the year 2011, the Great American Novel is all about the grave it has dug for itself.