Rome imploded because of a loss of purpose, identity and moral vigour. What are we doing to avoid that?
BLUE HAIR! GREEN HAIR! And all those stupid goddamn tattoos, these days! Why, when I was young, we...we…well, we grew our hair down to our asses, but we didn’t dye it purple, for Chrissake. For us, it wasn’t some vacuous fashion statement, or herd thing; it was ideological: we were Protesting Against the Establishment and Fighting for Principles. I can’t remember which principles at the moment, but important ones, like freedom. And getting laid.
Between last column and this, I turned 75—three-quarters of a century!—a meaningful and shocking age that propels one ever closer to the looming horrors of The Watch Out Years: “Did you turn off the stove?” “Let me help you with that carton.” “No, you got it backwards: your ophthalmologist’s on Fort, your knee guy’s on Hillside.” “You can’t make a coffee date with Ezra. Remember? He died last year.” “Do you need a new battery for your hearing aid?”
"Sack of Rome by the Visigoths" by JN Sylvestre, 1890
Life’s arc: from ever-hopeful to Eveready.
I’m a so-called “war baby,” born in ’43 in New York City—a year and place made ever more legendary when Horowitz, with Rodzinski conducting, performed a never-to-be-equalled Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto before an enthralled and rapturous Carnegie Hall audience of 3,000, including my grandfather, Mendel, who, backstage post-concert, shook Horowitz’s hand—the defining event of his (my grandfather’s) life. I’m sure my violinist mom would have been there too, even pregnant with me-to-be, but, with patented self-concern, I decided to pop out in August, well before the November concert, thus imposing home-stay on both of us. Unrelated to this story, my mother declared me “a handful” from the day I was born.
A world war was raging, then: a time of near-global mayhem and clear moral demarcations. I gallop across history to remark that this urgent international moral partnership (our guys) lasted as long as it could post-war, then waned in increments, squandered in Cold War “red menace” paranoia, insensitive and ill-planned geo-political realignments, bumptious American cultural and economic hegemony. Faint hopes of post-Depression egalitarian social activism were overwhelmed by market ideology and culture, which, in turn, made a deep home for itself in the American soul. (Ahhhh, Pete Seeger, friend, where are you now? Looking down, I’m sure.)
And today, we have a collapse of illusion about American national purpose, a Make America Great Again sociopath/narcissist in the White House (in every worrying sense, the right man for his times, scarily canny about the American mood), and tough-guy political autocracy spreading globally like some poisonous rash.
Humans will soon be replaced by robots in almost all work (couples counselling the possible exception) and in two generations all human systems will be taken over by self-aware AI…if other social, economic, political and environmental catastrophes haven’t pre-empted complete technological annexation.
And waiting impatiently in the wings is a novel and final form of human-orchestrated planetary suicide called global warming, concerning which, do not miss Gwynne Dyer’s mesmeric and terrifying disquisition “Geopolitics in a Hotter World” (available via Youtube).
Such events and consequences will unfold within the span of our remaining years; yes, us—me writing and you reading these words. If a question hangs over our age, it asks, meekly: “Are things getting worse slow enough for us to survive?” Such a question invites an obscure calculus, but with no possible answer on the happy side of the ledger.
Evan Osnos, in a New Yorker piece last year, “Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich,” profiles the uber-wealthy’s very real fears—not cocktail chatter, but palpable, act-upon worries—of imminent civilizational crackup. He catalogues their preposterous, sane/crazy survival strategies, their attraction to and investment in remote properties, islands, gigantic stashes of food and water, hardened bunkers, guns, hired security, rockets to some distant planet, cryogenic hibernation, brain preservation awaiting some future all-clear, etcetera—in other words, me, me, me in Tomorrowland, none of it social innovation and problem-solving now. Mind, it drinks at a rich pool of irony and sounds like the setup for a Twilight Zone episode: walls of canned food, but “I thought you packed the can opener,” or bird crap suddenly blinding the all-clear/we-can-come out-now periscope lens.
Here’s the above in shorthand: a number of staggeringly wealthy, intelligent, thoughtful, analytical and resourceful first-raters are making immediate on- or off-planet plans to survive imminent civilizational cataclysm and complete collapse.
Near the finish of the piece, Osnos offers the gossamer comment: “contemporary life rests on a fragile consensus.” Gosh, there’s a sleep-well turn of phrase.
“Gene, you’re way doomy at 75. You know the red pill/blue pill thing? Well, you’re like the black pill.”
Me? Come on! Predicting $15 for a tub of Haagen Dazs, that’s doomy.
I have just finished social historian Morris Berman’s Dark Ages America, an informative and gnawingly pessimistic telling of the American story roughly from the post-World War years to now: from rabid, Cold War anti-communism to the current nation-destroying merger of corporate money, the right-wing political agenda, resurgent racism-tinged religion, and the ever-amplifying mutter of frustrated, futureless, fulminating Middle America.
Likening the US now to the Roman Empire at the time of its collapse, Berman reminds us that Rome wasn’t defeated in battle by an enemy; it imploded because of a loss of purpose, identity and moral vigour, that strange pre-collapse combo in which a people can no longer answer the question: “What are we doing?”
So, can we talk about Victoria or, possibly, Lifeboat Victoria?
I believe the world needs more Victoria, but the state and fate of this place is so parlous, so up for grabs, these days, its unique qualities, values and ability to regenerate community so at risk, that I’m unsure about wishing more Victoria on the world. I have never felt like this before about my city. I worry that the conditions, skills and tools for sustaining existing communities and forging new ones are weakening, breaking, and that the city is on the verge of turning into just another goddamn place.
If it’s not too much of a sideways jump (this column’s a string of them), let me explain why I have no warm-fuzzies for communitarian simulacra like LUVs, Large Urban Villages, or companion small ones—SUVs, that the City of Victoria has thought up. You can tell intuitively that it’s just lingo, a technocrat’s wet dream, the kind of mechanistic abstraction devised by people or organizations that favour script over story or authenticity.
The real sin of LUVs and SUVs is hidden deep in social code: it reduces any and all other reasons for or possibilities of community to footnotes. How? By highlighting the self as a shopping unit instead of a citizen engaged in expressions of neighbourliness and the transactional potentials of community.
There is an accelerating drama playing out within our Victoria communities, a cultural battle about how to live, with strong implications for land use. Look, urban design is really social design—prettified language, in other words, that asks the questions: “How shall we live?” and “How can we fashion our city and our communities to create and sustain coherent, cooperative, successful social connections and relationships?” and even “What’s important?” “What do our choices mean, and where do they lead?”
“Story is more important than policy,” wisely notes the New York Times columnist David Brooks. Story comes first (Who are we? What do we want and need?) Policy (How do we achieve that?) flows out to try to make story come true.
Victoria inspires an unusual emotion from visitors and residents alike: yearning. Why? At its best, it is one of a diminishing number of places that still projects the possibilities of social sanity, which is to say, rootedness, coherence and continuity in a time when everything seems tossed in the air. Visitors have little trouble picking up this rootedness in its hundred tiny coded expressions: public courtesy, merchant honesty, cars stopping for crossing pedestrians, lack of litter, unmolested parks, a sense of neighbourhood order, civil greeting between strangers, past and present connected, and so on. It isn’t, or isn’t just, that we have held on to a lot of our old buildings, but what this holding-on means: a respect for scale, proof of the great accomplishments of modesty, to word it paradoxically.
However imperfect the results, at least we’re still trying here. In a world that has lost such things and has little idea where to find them, that counts for a lot. You don’t want to treat such qualities carelessly.
To put this another way: Victoria still manages, if haltingly, to convey a message of safety and continuity in a world increasingly poised for conflict and eruption. For the city’s land use thinking or policies to fail to honour this essential fact about the place is, or would be, a tragedy.
How, then, to put Victoria on alert about such matters, how to initiate community-wide conversation about our invaluable social assets and atmospherics, how to prepare to sustain community in the unfolding battle for the future?
Such concerns pose a deep challenge not just for the city’s leadership, but all of us. We’re in the middle of transition times in Victoria, headed somewhere either by design or default, capable either of embodying a living story or obliged, with a shrug, to prepare for nostalgia.
Founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept.