Thursday, July 30 update: In Old America

In other nations across the world that have passed a certain age — where there are ruined castles and temples dotting the landscape, and other monuments of mighty kings and despots are stacked on each other as just part of the historical scenery — there has also been more than one apocalypse. People take this for granted. Tourists come to take pictures of it. There is no big project going on in these countries any more. Any ones that used to hold sway, have been wiped away by (mostly) war and conquest, migrations and treaties. Now there are just ordinary people pursuing an ordinary existence according to whatever native culture they have practiced for a very long time. We envy them because they seem somehow more relaxed and in touch with the timeless essentials of life.

The ruins of the Great Wall of China, the Appian Way and other Roman roads, the monument fields of Burma dotted with old temples — these are major tourist attractions. And yet New York State’s own ancient ruins are barely noticed even by its own tourism department. The Erie Canal is still sold to the public as an aggressively recreational destination where you can bike, kayak, jog — the new Empire State Trail. But the hundreds of miles of canal remnants — the ingenious, beautifully constructed, highly practical and now half-hidden and romantic ruins of Empire — are marketed to travelers almost not at all. This is a sure sign that the future has not yet arrived.

Someday, some of us who know well where the most obscure stones and ditches can be found, and what purpose they served, might be in a bit of demand as field guides to the curious. But it seems like we have a long hard road to travel before we become anyone’s authentic Old America, even our own. First we have to reach what I call the “Yeltsin on the Tank Moment,” but American-style. (The role of Yeltsin has not yet been cast.) This is a moment described somewhat in one of Dmitry Orlov’s books as a visible manifestation of a previous unseen moment when an empire actually does lose all legitimacy — unseen, but felt as surely as a needle feels the north just before it swings.

During the Soviet establishment’s fast slide toward dissolution, Gorbachev’s glasnost campaign unleashed a torrent of words. In a sort of nation-wide talking cure, many previously taboo subjects could be broached in public, and many important problems could suddenly be discussed. An important caveat still applied: the problems always had to be cast as “specific difficulties,” or “singular problems” and never as a small piece within the larger mosaic of obvious system-wide failure. The spell was really only broken by Yeltsin, when, in the aftermath of the failed putsch, he forcefully affixed the prefix “former” to the term “Soviet Union.” At that point, old, pro-Soviet, now irrelevant standards of patriotic thought and behavior suddenly became ridiculous — the domain of half-crazed, destitute pensioners, parading with portraits of Lenin and Stalin.

Meanwhile, the Northeastern states — the “cradle of 400-year-old American local government,” and the earliest seat of Empire — are still holding their own most virtuously against the nation’s COVID enemy. Well, we’re in for some chop. Real ‘Muricans in the heartland, of course, are trying to fend off the “fascist” mask cult, while many Northeastern communities are growing scared to death of what happens when school and college starts — so many of them being built around college life, if not actually “college towns.” There’s a distinct chill in the air when you go to work and read stern official memos that sound like wartime orders.

And so we continue to grow apart. Political colors will not fill these lengthening cracks, when so much of what is at stake is dependent on the not the sanctity of lofty ideals, but raw physical space — the Northeast, the Empire State, the city, the community, the hospital, the body. So there isn’t going to be some weird half-and-half “two Americas” composed of a central clot of red states and a bunch of geographically separated blue states, like some secular East and West Pakistan. And I’m not sure how a national government can survive such local conditions, even if it wasn’t already a massive looting operation and wanted to survive.

There probably isn’t going to be any revolution. (As Orlov adds, “It took years for people’s thinking to catch up with the new, post-imperial reality. It was not an easy transition, and many remained embittered for life.”) Then again, nations and empires shattering is a very ordinary thing, historically speaking. It gave us great nations like France and Germany, and it also gave us the Turkmenbashi — father of all Turkmen, and lover of art and literature. (Like a certain strongman we all know — the one we all love to hate, and hate to love.) But the road from ex-Gaul to the Fifth Republic wasn’t an easy one, and it led through fear and violence — including wars — and was paved with (and actually, by) petty dictators who made the trains run on time, drained the marshes, and maybe also kept the viruses down.

In Old (Upstate) America, we’re just waiting for a change of season, and maybe a glimpse of the future in the still waters.