Saturday, February 4, 2017

Sweet Joy of the Apocalypse

Radio Free New Hampshire, Februray 4, 2017.

They had me at the photograph.  The grizzled goatee, the dark sunglasses, the black gloves and the patches: "In God We Trust" and "Survival Condo Security team." And don't forget the gun. A really cool gun. I want one. It's Operation Desert Storm tan, with an AK47 shaped clip, air vents and a mounted scope which undoubtedly has a laser site. And next to the guard a glimpse of a vehicle with huge deep tread tires. You know this condo, built in a former ICBM hardened missile silo in Kansas is impregnable. Well, as long as that guard doesn't decide to turn his gun on you. 

Adolph Hitler's bunker in Berlin had nothing on this condo. Evan Osnos, writing in the New Yorker, tells us about the super rich ("centi-millionaires" and billionaires) who are nervous about the future. Having got so rich, so fast, they hear the sounds of the coming apocalypse.  Each seems to have a different vision of what it will be like, where the threat will arise.  Some are worried about a tsunami, some about a dirty bomb in Miami or Washington or New York. Some are worried about that bottom 99% rising up and storming through Greenwich, Connecticut with pitchforks.
But, you know, at base, most of them had some picture of the pie in the backs of their minds:

I am reading a wonderful book now, "The Destructive War," by Charles Royster,  and when I do my treadmill in the morning, I'm watching the 2nd season of "The Wire" and both of these say something about the phenomenon of humankind's capacity to deal with disaster, and with the fear of disaster.

While the ultra rich come at this from different angles, they wind up investing in escape (New Zealand is the most picturesque option, Kansas the most depressing) or burrowing in and digging a moat.

People see disaster coming from natural disasters overwhelming man's engineered solutions, like the tsunami flooding  Fukashima, or from social upheaval.  While some people, like Bernie Sanders, try to focus on fixing things, on working to make civilization more functional, these isolated rich people are more in the Marie Antoinette mode--and really, that "let them eat cake" remark was simply a mix of unconcern about the fate of others with the conviction there is nothing which can be done about it anyway. 

What Royster does in "The Destructive War" is to describe the campaigns of William Tecumseh Sherman and Stonewall Jackson in a way which ignores the details of which regiments were sent where, but which details the actual burning, impaling, raping, shooting, murdering as the Union Army and the Army of Northern Virginia tore through the countryside, or pounded towns and cities.  
Most high school students are familiar with Sherman's remark he would make Georgia howl. But what his troops did in Columbia, South Carolina is less well known. We've seen  the dystopian, post apocalyptic Hollywood movies about the breakdown of civil order after a cyber attack or about the outbreak of a contagion, or about an asteroid colliding with earth.  But what the Union soldiers did to the people and physical structure of Columbia makes the doomsday movies of today look like a tea party. (That analogy is chosen advisedly.)

Cotton bales left in the streets by retreating Confederates were set ablaze and flaming cotton balls became airborne and lit up blocks of houses, mostly in the grandest and most lordly neighborhoods, so it was the rich who saw their homes burnt to the ground.  Drunken Union soldiers pillaged and raped. Stores were demolished. Factories were burned. Railroads, bridges destroyed. They did everything but plow the earth with salt. 
 When a delegation of the town's remaining gentry got an audience with the commanding general and complained, Sherman told them it was their own fault for leaving so much liquor available. Sherman said it wasn't his fault his troops got drunk and disorderly.  
That was disappointing. I'd have preferred he take the Old Testament approach of Stonewall Jackson, who owned the devastation wrought by  his own troops.
For Jackson, shooting down unarmed civilians, shooting prisoners of war, burning homes to the ground was an effective tactic: He did all that, once he crossed the Potomac into Maryland. 
Stonewall hoped to invade Philadelphia and, he reasoned, once the North had enough blood spilled, land despoiled, the Federals would give up. This is not the war of Bruce Catton or Shelby Foote, of grand armies and gallantry and big ideas. This is apocalypse, dreadful, dirty and most foul.  
If those rich guys in Silicon Valley or Wall Street want to think about what the collapse of social order would mean for them, they have only to read this book.

That mean guy with the rifle standing in front of the bunker in Kansas would be long gone, once the mobs arrive.

The 2nd season of the Wire is the least successful of the five. In large part this is because at least half of it is spent with White people, rather than the Black inhabitants of Baltimore.  The Whites are experiencing a slow apocalypse, as their work as stevedores on the docks is disappearing, replaced by robots.  They gather pathetically in their bars and tell stories about the good old days, the capers and characters which emanated from the work in the harbor. As in every part of The Wire, work is the force which gives their lives meaning.  When they lose meaningful work, their families collapse, their humor becomes bitter and they lose their sense of purpose and joy.  
They are funny, but never quite as funny as the Blacks we have come to know and love. 
In the case of Baltimore's Blacks, you have the sense they are doing the best they can do. Education in public schools is not an option when you have no functioning families. Their choices are slinging drugs on the corner, ripping and robbing or dying. Their language is vivid and profane and wonderfully communicative. And they are very, very bright. 
Not so much for the dockworkers, who are mostly sorry for themselves and might have better options, if they hadn't chosen to simply get drunk, get their girlfriends pregnant and to wallow in the past, which was never as good as they remember it.

I remember driving slowly through the streets of Baltimore when I was 6 years old, in the back of the family Studebaker.  We were on our way to New York City, from Washington, D.C., and this was before the completion of the interstate highway system.  There was no Route 95, no 495 beltways. So the trip, which now takes 4 hours was 8 hours, and one of the slowest parts was through Baltimore. White women sat on the white stone stoops, sometimes scrubbing them with wet brushes dipped in pails of water. My father remarked the women were proud of those stoops, but the way he said it was derisive, as if, for some reason I could not understand, they were fools to take pride in their stoops. 

I have the same inchoate feeling now about the Whites of the Wire--they are foolish to take pride in the things they value.

Baltimore is now Black in the inner city, with a fringe of affluent white suburbs, but the downtown, around the inner harbor is being gentrified. The apocalypse has already happened for the Whites who once lived there, who have been pushed out to Dundalk and Townsend. They are now the guys with the pitchforks and people just like them in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania brought  those pitchforks to the voting booths last November. 

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