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.
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.
…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.