Living in the Ruins

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My Depression — or Ours? By Tom Engelhardt

Among my somewhat over-the-hill crowd — I’m 64 — there’s one thing friends have said to me repeatedly since the stock market started to tumble, the global economic system began to melt down, and Iceland went from bank haven to bankrupt. They say, “I’m just not looking. I don’t want to know.” And they’re not referring to the world situation, they’re talking about their pension plans, or 401(k)s, or IRAs, or whatever they put their money into, so much of which is melting away in plain sight even as Iceland freezes up.

I’ve said it myself. Think of it as a pragmatic acknowledgement of reality at an extreme moment, but also as a statement of denial and despair. The point is: Why look? The news is going to be worse than you think, and it’s way too late anyway. This is what crosses your mind when the ground under you starts to crumble. Don’t look, not yet, not when the life you know, the one you took for granted, is vanishing, and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it.

Today, in my world at least, this is the most commonplace of comments. It’s just not a line I’ve seen much when the press and TV bring on the parade of financial experts — most of whom are there largely because they didn’t have the faintest idea that anything like this might happen. Whether they’re reporting on, or opining about, the latest market nosedives, panic selling, chaotic bailouts, arcane derivatives, A.I.G. facials, or bank and stock-exchange closures, it still always sounds like someone else’s story. I guess that’s the nature of the media.

It’s professional for reporters and pundits to write or talk about the pain of others, not their own. Normally, you just assume that’s the case. So, for instance, when Frank Bruni, in a front page New York Times piece on the second presidential debate, writes, “Now the situation looks gloomier still, with markets in other continents tumbling — with a world of hurt at hand,” it really doesn’t cross your mind that he might be including Frank Bruni in that description.

Here’s a rock-you-to-your-socks fact I happened to read in a news report the afternoon of the day that Barack Obama and John McCain had their town hall meeting with 80 uncommitted voters and moderator Tom Brokaw. In the last 15 months, according to the Associated Press, Americans lost $2 trillion from their retirement plans. Now, that’s a world of hurt and you could feel it the moment Brokaw first called on an audience member. Allen Shaffer rose and asked: “With the economy on the downturn and retired and older citizens and workers losing their incomes, what’s the fastest, most positive solution to bail these people out of the economic ruin?” I have no idea what Shaffer’s situation is, but I’ll tell you this, his didn’t sound like a reporter’s question. It sounded close to the bone. It sounded like a world of hurt. Not surprisingly, neither presidential candidate actually responded, in part, undoubtedly, because to be close to the truth either would have had to say something like: Hey, how the hell do I know?

At this point, despite the onslaught of news about how bad things are, dotted with portrayals of Americans in trouble, I suspect there’s quite a gap between the world as reported and the world as felt by most Americans. Let me give you a simple example. In the news these days, it’s common to hear that we are at the edge of a real recession or, as International Monetary Fund managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn put it, “the cusp of a global recession,” or even the verge of a “deep recession.”

Recently, the word “depression” has finally made it onto the scene. Little wonder, as ever more financial institutions totter, while, for the first time in memory, the initials GM and the word “bankruptcy” repeatedly end up in the same headlines. “Depression” arrived on the media scene, however, in a formulaic way and usually quite carefully hemmed in as part of a comparison: If X does or doesn’t happen, this will be “the worst crisis since the Great Depression,” or simply that it is “the worst [you fill this in] since the Great Depression.”

And yet a recent CNN poll indicates that nearly 60% of Americans think an actual depression, even a great depression — not a situation bad enough to compare to one — is “likely.” To many of us, it’s already starting to feel that way and that’s no small thing. When you see a Wall Street Journal headline like last Friday’s — “Market’s 7-Day Rout Leaves U.S. Reeling” — don’t you feel like you’re in a different world, however the experts care to define it?

The edge of panic in the voice of a friend telling me about the 401(k) she’s not looking at catches the story for me. It’s visceral and scary and, let’s face it, whether this is the half-forgotten past coming back to bite us or the future kneecapping us, it’s depressing as hell.

Being Depressed

And speaking of depressions no one is much talking about, let me just say what a journalist can’t: I’m depressed.

It crept up on me, but I can date the feeling to the first week of October because a friend emailed me on September 29th this way: “I’m given to gloomy thoughts You really get the sense that things are on the verge of spinning out of control.”

I remember the email I wrote back with a certain embarrassment. I was neither gloomy nor down, I responded. My reigning feeling was one of “awe” — that you could live your whole life and never experience a moment like this one. At about the same time, I told another friend that I found it staggering to turn a corner, bump into History, and discover that he’s unbelievably gargantuan.

Even as I sent that email off, it felt kind of callous to me, but it was what I thought I felt. The media claims to know — and report on — “our pain,” just as the presidential candidates claim to feel it. How could they? I didn’t even know my own. It took a remarkably long time to notice that weird feeling — as if another body were sagging inside mine — I identify with depression, and so finally say to myself: Okay, maybe you were awed, maybe you still are, but you also feel gloomy as hell.

Here’s the strange thing: I’ve been running these last nearly six years. I’ve written (or posted) with regularity on how the Bush administration, with its blind, fundamentalist faith in military power, had pushed an imperial America into a precipitous decline. In July 2006, I typically ended one dispatch on the subject, “The Force Is Not With Them,” this way:

“Oh, and there’s one fundamentalist character I’ve left out of the mix, someone who definitely bows down to force. Call everything that’s happened these last few years Osama’s dream. It’s hard not to think of William Butler Yeats’ poem, ‘The Second Coming,’ and then wonder: ‘And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?'”

I posted a piece at TomDispatch in April of this year in which, to some criticism, Wall Street expert Steve Fraser specifically brought up the “D” word in this passage:

“Nonetheless, the current breakdown of the financial system is portentous. It threatens a general economic implosion more serious than anyone has witnessed for many decades. Depression, if that is what it turns out to be, together with the agonies of a misbegotten and lost war no one believes in any longer, could undermine whatever is left of the threadbare credibility of our Gilded Age elite.”

Last January, I even posted an essay by Chalmers Johnson, bluntly entitled “Going Bankrupt,” suggesting that we were fast heading the way of Argentina 2001. I’ve certainly long been convinced that we were spinning out of control, that this was madness, and that we were, in some fashion, heading down.

But a near global financial collapse and crash in a matter of weeks? I can’t claim that such a possibility even crossed my mind. And anyway, who can ever claim that learned and lived history bear much relation to each other any more than do the experiences of reporting and being reported upon.

That was a thought, a construct. This is my life. That was so much writing on the page. This is the world I’m sending my children into (which depresses me more than anything). I find I have no particular faith that, in the worst of times, the best of things will happen.

Now, at least, the media is talking about the Great Depression and, of course, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, fireside chats, and the like. Even Barack Obama did so the other day in an interview with ABC’s Charlie Gibson. But, of course, the Great Depression brought Hitler as well as Roosevelt to power. And if people are disturbed by the anger, the threats, the rage exhibited recently at McCain/Palin rallies, then hold your hats as things turn truly grim. So I sit here and worry. And I know I’m not alone.

In these last days, I’ve thought some about my parents, about their whole generation which lived through the Great Depression, those fathers and mothers who had a “depression mentality” for which we, the young growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, had no patience, and about which we had next to no curiosity whatsoever. I sure didn’t anyway. That was so past. Despite the good times, they feared otherwise.

It’s unnerving when history becomes yours, when no one can tell you where the bottom is, or what life will be like after that bottom is reached. It’s one of those moments when you discover why overused phrases — I think here, for instance, of “through a glass darkly” — were overused in the first place.

What a grim Alice-in-Wonderland feeling this turns out to be — in which the world simultaneously seems to shrink to you and expand to take in everything. Maybe this was what it felt like in parts of Asia as the great meltdown of 1997 began, or in Argentina as national bankruptcy hit in 2001. I wouldn’t know. Those were distant tsunamis to which we were immune. It was Washington then that dispatched the International Monetary Fund to other countries in such crises to “impose discipline.” Now, ominously, the IMF (and the World Bank) are imposingly back in Washington — and not for a night on the town either.

The Invisible Ruins

I’m a New Yorker and, soon after September 11, 2001, my daughter and I took the subway downtown to see the damage for ourselves. The jets had been screaming overhead the preceding days, and that acrid smell from the collapse of the towers had drifted up the island. But walking in that area, which wasn’t yet known as Ground Zero, glimpsing down blocked-off side streets those humongous shards of the World Trade Center, that was staggering. The indescribable scale of destruction was something the small screen simply couldn’t transmit. Within a few minutes, still blocks away, our throats were already raw and we were hacking and coughing.

As for so many people then, life brought films to my mind. In my case, those giant shards conjured up, as I’ve written elsewhere, the final scene of the original Planet of the Apes — that unforgettable shot of the Statue of Liberty atilt and half-buried in the sands of time as the two humans escape down the beach on horseback.

And yet in September 2001, the real damage was largely confined to a number of square blocks of downtown Manhattan, including the shut-down Stock Exchange on Wall Street, as well as part of a single building in Washington DC and a field in Pennsylvania. This, we were told, was “the Pearl Harbor of the twenty-first century.” And soon enough, with a helping hand from the Bush administration, Americans from Akron to El Paso were officially — and mistakenly — terrified for their lives and for their country. In the next seven years, the Bush administration managed to turn that misplaced fear into something like prophecy and bring down the house.

Today, on a visit to lower Manhattan, there would be no smoldering fires, no smoke, no raw throats, no gaping holes, no smashed buildings, no ruins, and yet, as you walked those streets, you would almost certainly be strolling among the ruins, amid the shards of American financial, political, and even military superpowerdom. Think of it as Bush’s hubris and bin Laden’s revenge. You would be facing the results, however unseen, of the real 9/11, which is still taking place in relative slow motion seven years later. It should scare us all.

Hey, I’m depressed, aren’t you?

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the American Age of Denial. The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), a collection of some of the best pieces from his site, has recently been published. Focusing on what the mainstream media hasn’t covered, it is an alternative history of the mad Bush years. You can listen to a podcast of Tom Engelhardt discussing this piece by clicking here.

Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt