Decline of the American empire? The Mandibles is a timely read …
A few months ago, I rushed out to buy The Mandibles, A Family, 2029 – 2047, a new novel by author Lionel Shriver (best known for her novel We need to talk about Kevin which was later made into a film). I loved that earlier novel and the description of this newest work had me very excited. The premise is a not-too-distant future in which the American economy has finally collapsed outright, with the world rejecting the US dollar and embracing a new global reserve currency called the ‘Bancor’. In angry retaliation, the then-President (Mexican-born, no less!) announces the US will default on all its international loans. The country closes in and off, resorts to printing mountains of its own US dollars and confiscates all domestic gold, as hyper-inflation and a massive depression set in.
The unfolding chaos is traced through the story of one family, the Mandibles, who in earlier times, had been quite wealthy and privileged. Shriver is unforgiving to her readers as she forces the economics behind and following the collapse upon us. The novel describes how the whole mess came to pass, insisting we understand fundamental concepts like fiat currency and how monetary policy functions outside the theoretical box of pure economic theory. We are forced to watch what happens as scarcity descends quickly, how survival stretches the boundaries of morality and what character traits, knowledge and skills define the winners and losers in the new world order.
Shriver has a Liberarian view that sees government intervention (or interference, I suspect, is how she sees it) as perhaps both a cause of the meltdown and an ongoing obstruction in getting out of the mess. Self-reliance, hard work and ingenuity, and depending on family and friends in hard times are her prescription for getting back on track. The Mandibles ends with a return to a ‘utopian’ life in — of all places — the state of Nevada, where freedom is explored by those unwilling to succumb to further economic enslavement by the government through its proxy, the newly branded and omnipotent IRS.
As a Canadian raised in a society where the social safety net (despite its ongoing erosion) remains fairly intact, I can’t embrace the full cure that Shriver puts forward. Is it really wrong to expect our proxies in government to organize communal caring mechanisms? Are we saying that accountability at those levels is impossible? That institutions must fail us because individuals can not control the impulse toward indifference in the face of bureaucratic distance?
We are grappling with all of the themes Shriver covers in the novel, from the looming tidal wave of massive healthcare spending for an aging population, the impacts of this on the younger generations already struggling under the economic realities of today, the rise of protectionism, environmental degradation, the “Latinization” of the American population and most of all, the precarious economic foundations of societies which are propped up on ideas, algorithms, markets of the mind.
With the recent election of Donald Trump and what might be a big shift in American policy — and no one really knows in which direction, imaging the world in only a few decades seems more timely and important than ever.
Dressed to kill …
I came across a shocking news story today on BBC.com (UAE warns against wearing national dress abroad) describing the terrifying take-down by police of a UAE national outside his hotel in a small Ohio city called Avon. His crime? He was wearing the traditional dress of his homeland – long white robes and head scarf – and the hotel clerk’s sister feared this meant he was a member of ISIS. Naturally, the police were called and a video of their action is to me one of the most chilling things I’ve seen.
It begins with an officer driving to the hotel where the suspect is staying and continues with the typical SWAT team descent we all know so well from TV and movies. The rifle is grabbed, the officers exit their vehicles and upon seeing the culprit, begin to scream in unison, “Get down, down on the ground, now, get down, now!!!!!!” The man, named Ahmed, is seen prostrate, face down, silent, then turning slowly to say in quiet and calm contrast to the hysterical jacked up police choir, ” This is not good.”
Ahmed’s hands are cuffed behind his back as he lies in wait. His pockets are emptied. He is fully searched. The team mills around, looking at scraps of paper and cell phones emerging from Ahmed’s pockets. Fast forward and Ahmed is back on his feet, parts of himself being returned by the police. A call is being made to someone Ahmed knows perhaps or at least someone who speaks Arabic. Suddenly Ahmed collapses — no doubt having fainted from the stress. It turns out, he was in the U.S. for medical treatment related to a stroke. They get him medical help and the video ends as it started, the officer back in his vehicle, driving off to the next call, or perhaps back to the station, or maybe to have a coffee to process the event.
The BBC article states that in response to the event, the UAE has issued a warning to its citizens to avoid wearing traditional dress while traveling outside its borders. Ahmed has said he was bruised and bleeding from the take-down.
If the video weren’t real, it would be a sharp satirical little masterpiece capturing the paranoia of the times we live in. Times where speaking Arabic or working on math problems on an airplane are enough to get you questioned or even thrown off the plane. Fear mongering politicians, ignorance, insecurity about the world we live in reduce conveniently into an “us / them” “good /bad” dichotomy that we can all understand — and act on.
It got me thinking about “dress”– what it means to us; how we use it as a social “signifier” that tells others who we are, which groups, cultures and subcultures we belong to. How it is also imposed on us by others (the head scarf I was mandated to wear while traveling recently in Iran; the business-appropriate attire (not too sexy; not too flashy) required in the corporate world; the “modest” adjustments to clothing choices prescribed for the aging woman (no more short shorts for you!). The daily update on what is fashionable provided by the Internet. We are nothing if not fashion conscious.
Ahmed paid the price for what he was wearing. And in the UAE and other lands, expats who have pushed the boundaries of western dress have been arrested for immodesty.
Being different — looking different, sounding different, acting different — can be dangerous. Xenophobia rises again and again, our memories of where this can lead are frighteningly short.
I don’t want to live in a world with Donald Trump…
…but I do.
I don’t want to feel the blues like a giant marshmallow suffocating me every few months,
but I do.
I don’t want to catch glimpses of horrific cruelties to people and animals on Facebook,
but I do.
I don’t want to feel no further ahead at this age,
but I do.
that you were excited to get an iphone at 67 years of age.
From time to time they ring my doorbell. Usually on a Saturday morning, not too early. And that makes sense. People like me are usually home, still lolling around in their pyjamas and recovering from the bloodbath of a busy week over coffee.
So when the bell rings this morning, I am pretty sure I knew who to expect. Glancing through the little window in my front door, I see a young woman on the other side with a young man a few feet behind her. She in spectacles, pony tail, no make up, casual blouse and slacks. He in the tell-tale white shirt and pants.
Grabbing the doorknob, I shift instantly and unconsciously into Jehovah Witness defense mode.
I know they’re only doing what they’ve been told they must, to save as many souls as possible. Because that is, in fact, the price of their own ticket to God’s heaven. It’s a dirty job, but by God, they’ve got to do it. And so they endure the snubs, the rudeness and verbal abuse, the door slamming.
But I’m not a door slammer. As I do with telemarketers, I give my JW friends the courtesy of delivering their preliminary pitch. It’s only a few seconds of my time and it’s the least I can do for a fellow human being who’s just trying to get by in this cruel life. Each time, the pitch is a little different, but it’s usually no more than a polite greeting and announcement that they’re here, they have something to tell you, would you have a minute to hear about God?
So I am unprepared for what comes next. I say hello, peering around my door, not so much to hide my half-dressed body as to protect myself from their imposition.
“Hello,” she smiles. She motions to a stack of pamphlets cradled in the crook of one arm, graphic depictions of some dystopia that I don’t linger on so as not to appear interested. “We’ve just been talking to your neighbours,” she says, “About anxiety.”
This is brilliant! She is brilliant! Who is her communications or sales advisor, I want to meet him or her. This is the pitch that cannot fail to engage every single soul at every doorway.
Do you know anyone today who is not riddled with anxiety? From the doom and gloom of climate change, income inequality, terrorism to ever-demanding work schedules and ever decreasing work-life balance? Failed or failing or no relationship, trying to have kids and/or coping with the demands once they’ve had them? The horrors of online dating, mountains of student debt, dim job prospects, pressures to be thin and have fitness model muscular definition? Having to look forever young? Who hasn’t seen a therapist, done some cognitive behavioural therapy, been prescribed an antidepressant, taken a mindfulness meditation course, tried yoga to fend off the anxiety monster???
So I applaud her. In my mind, of course. Before she can utter another word, I gently begin to close the door. “Sorry,” I shake my head and smile demurely, “I’m not interested.” The energy in them shifts but ever so slightly. They move from the pitch to capitulation, yet again. With resignation, they slowly relax and thank me as they start to turn around. “Thanks, have a nice day,” I call after them. They nod distractedly and carry on down my front steps. I always feel guilty at this stage but it’s clear they’ve built up a certain immunity to rejection. They turn on to the sidewalk as I close the door and head back to my coffee.
Jesus, I think. What next? Will this new pitch actually draw in some poor souls down my street who just need a friendly ear, a lover, a dog?
I feel a knot developing in my stomach.
The bigger picture
In my 20s, I spent time living and teaching English in Wuhan, China. My job was to prepare MBA students to receive instruction in English from visiting Canadian profs — improve their listening and speaking skills for lectures and help them apply a ‘western’ (linear) approach to academic writing.
Foreigners were still exotic then in China, and it wasn’t unusual for people to stop in their tracks, mouths agape, upon seeing me in the city or even on campus. In fact, I could count on this if I happened to be with my new boyfriend – a handsome young foreign student from Senegal, west Africa.
But there was refuge from the culture shock and hotplate dinners. Down the road from the campus guest house where I lived was a little restaurant — just a couple of tables — where my boyfriend would sometimes invite me for a real meal. It was always the same — chicken stir fry with rice. Was there a menu? I don’t remember.
The best part of going there, though, was the waiter. He seemed thrilled when we arrived, as if we’d simply made his day. He was also young, perhaps early 20s. And he was decidedly fashion-forward, even within the constraints of the place and time. He had a trendy haircut and his outfits mimicked those that were in style in the west. He stood out and he was making a statement and we understood it.
I spoke no Chinese really and he spoke no English, but over the months, we developed an affection for one another. Before I left China, we visited the restaurant one last time. When we rose to leave, the waiter handed me a gift. It was a watercolour he had painted, a historical scene of a woman and child on horseback. He’d signed it with a smiley face in spiky haircut – himself, of course – and had written my name in English along with his own in Chinese.
I framed the painting when I returned. Over the years, I wondered what had inspired him to paint it. Was it a tribute to his own mother? Did it evoke some important Chinese theme?——
One day not long ago, while reading one of my favourite online magazines, I was surprised to see my painting embedded within a larger painting that was apparently a Tang dynasty-era classic (Spring Outing of the Tang Court, by Zhang Xuan, 713－755 AD)! My waiter friend must have been practicing his skills by copying a section of the grand work from the golden era of Chinese civilization (according to Wikipedia).
So what, you ask? Yes, so what.
It’s taken 20 years to see the bigger picture and it was an accident that the bigger picture came into view at all. More likely, I’d have continued to believe my painting was evoked from the fond maternal feelings and imagination of my waiter friend.That’s the story I told myself for 20 years. Instead, there’s a different story about iconic art works and technical practice. There are other figures surrounding my mother and child. The horse has a head and a tail. The painting has a name.
Would it have mattered all these years, knowing about the bigger picture? Does it matter now? Will I forever see my painting as an amputation? Will I enjoy it less knowing there is so much more to see beyond mother and child?
May I quote from NY Times’ economist Paul Krugman’s article yesterday?
“…the next time you hear some talking head opining on what we must do to satisfy the markets, ask yourself, “How does he know?” For the truth is that when people talk about what markets demand, what they’re really doing is trying to bully us into doing what they themselves want.”
Ironically, this concluding paragraph sat just above a headline questioning the “competence” of the Center for Disease Control in its mishandling of ebola-related measures recently.
But back to Krugman. He’s weighing in as he often does, as a critic of U.S. (and beyond) economic policies and warning that things may be about to get much worse — as in, ‘depression’ worse. Served up of course with a heap of growing income inequality (which ironically, another headline tells us that Fed Chair Janet Yellen is ‘alarmed’ at!!).
It all reminds me of a dream I had in my 20s during my student years. I was living temporarily in a university residence-style building while I worked in Toronto for the summer. It was a skyscraper – well over 20 floors – and we would sometimes sit on the roof and look out over the cityscape facing southward. In the near distance we could see Lake Ontario just beyond the mirrored fortresses in the banking district.
One night I had a terrifying dream. I was standing on that roof looking out at the city when suddenly the building bent forward, sprung wheels and began to roll south down the street! In a flash, it picked up speed and was rushing forward at a terrible speed. Toward the lake. And certain death. Oh god, the terror. The confusion. How could this be happening? Buildings did not – could not – have wheels. Skyscrapers were solid structures with deep foundations embedded firmly in the ground. Born of blueprints and calculations by architects and engineers. There was math behind this for god’s sake.
Oh, prophetic dream. The betrayal by the certainties of math; and experts. The waning comfort of faith that things are going to be ok – eventually. Young adults like my son now scoff at the effort demanded by post-secondary degrees and diplomas that lead to a life-time of student debt and an uncertain living wage. At midlife,we find ourselves blinking from fatigue, working harder now than ever before. Those from the right families in the right neighbourhoods carry on as they place their children in the right schools that lead to a life-time membership in the club.
I awoke from my nightmare with the building at full acceleration a few blocks away from the lakefront. Nowadays, I live in a house further north.
My nest is emptying, though not empty yet. My son the 20-year old student lives with me still — why not; the house is too big and the school is in the city. We’re both busy busy busy as one must be in 2014, with work and school and in his case, the gym and preparing endless protein-packed meals to support his fitness lifestyle.
We’ve become more like roommates really in the past few years. I didn’t notice the shift happening while I was underwater from a protracted dying marriage and the aftermath of all that. As a sensitive child who had suffered greatly from my own parents’ dysfunctional relationship (like most of us) and my father’s alcoholism (like many of us), my going-in perspective as I became a parent was to spare my own precious child from as much of the adult shit as possible. Because after all, it certainly isn’t the kids’ shit, although as beneficiaries, they are left to ‘pay it forward’ in their own adult lives.
So back to my parenting style. Vigilant while trying not to stifle autonomy (doubt I was good at that). Exposure to as much opportunity as possible without overwhelming or terrifying. Holding personal excellence up as the standard, rather than beating the crowd. At home, refusing to fight with my ex in my son’s presence. After his father left, refusing to bad-mouth him and even standing up for him (‘he’s still your father, he’s human like the rest of us and you need to respect him…’). I would, I pledged to myself, protect my son from the ugliness of the adult world.
But as I navigate through this unforgiving stage of life, there is no hiding from his wizened eyes. No protecting him from my own flawed fallibility.