DUTY

Duty

Courtesy of James Howard Kunstler 

I drove the eight miles from Cambridge to Greenwich, New York, around eight o'clock and the night was bell-jar clear. A scrim of deepest blue sky backlit the landscape of tender hills and valleys while on the ground I wended the twisting two-lane state highway 372 with my brights amplifying the yellow road signs and the iridescent lines on the pavement, alert for deer, who can kill you. The Talking Heads spastically warbled one of their triumphant electronic anthems of post-modernity over the radio. It happened that I had been playing fiddle at a contra dance.

     What a strange privilege it is to live in these perilous times. I don't mean privilege in the sense of the college humanities departments, with all their crybaby overtones of grievance and resentment. I mean in the sense of having lived through a thrilling turbo-powered climactic chapter of the human melodrama. Until a few decades ago nobody ever swooshed through these ancient hills in a motor car, on a magnificently engineered minor country highway, and in perhaps less than a decade no one ever will again, and at the collective level of a culture or a nation we have no sense of this whatsoever.

     We have no sense of anything except the junk-cluttered moment, including our junk politics and the junk ceremony of the present election. When today is a long time ago we will wonder at the feckless cravens that modernity made of us, in particular the absence of any sense of duty to the project of being the only self-aware organisms (as far as anyone knows) in the universe. In this country, anything goes and nothing matters, and that's the simple sad truth of where we are right now.

     In all the monumental yammer of the media sages surrounding the candidates they follow, and among the freighted legions of meticulously trained economists who try so hard to fit their equations and models over the spilled chicken guts of daily events, there is no sense of the transience of things. Tom Friedman over at The New York Times still thinks that the petroleum-saturated present he calls "the global economy" is a permanent condition of human life, and so does virtually every elected and appointed official in Washington, not to mention every broadcaster in Manhattan.

     We're not paying attention, of course. Someone told all these clowns about fourteen months ago that we will be able to keep running WalMart on shale oil and shale gas virtually forever, and they swallowed the story whole, and then force-fed it down the distracted public's throat. In reality – that alternative universe to flat-screen America – all the mechanisms that allow us to keep running this wondrous show teeter on a razor's age of extreme fragility.  We're one bomb-vest or HFT keystroke away from a possible dark age, or at least a world made by hand. The true sense of entitlement extends light-years beyond the peevish carpings of the tea-bags-for-brains bunch.

     The only issue in this election contest between Pee Wee Herman and Captain Kangaroo is how to do nothing to disturb the fantasy that we can keep living the way we do. I am coming to detest Mr. Obama for the unforgivable feats of doing absolutely nothing to oppose, resist, or remedy the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, and doing absolutely nothing to restore the rule-of-law in banking. Mr. Romney, at this point, can only be pitied as some kind of thought-experiment gone awry in an evil consumer product testing lab on a planet of oafs. His fecklessness has no modern analog. Next to Romney, Bob Dole looks Lincolnesque.

     Which brings me in a very roundabout way to my point: Lincoln emerged out of a political age as mendacious as ours, after decades of gaming the issue of slavery. Out of that morass of lying connected to immense human suffering somebody had to bring the clarity of real moral duty to broad consciousness and Lincoln was selected by the same hand of Providence that would lodge a bullet in his brain-pan five years later — so it is not that hard to understand the awe of Providence that attended the terrible convulsion of the 1860s and all its long-resounding ramifications. It took most of the 20th century and then some for us to un-learn that life is tragic.

     In the history that doesn't repeat but only rhymes, we're in the 1856 equivalent of the cycle now, short of the moment when mere clowning turns to savagery. I can barely stand to watch the antics, dogged by visions of where this is all tending. We have achieved something that few cultures ever have before: made ourselves unworthy even of our own low standards. There is no center left to hold, only ragged edges around a core of darkness.

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