Way up here in the heartland,
far from the craft beer parlors, Facebook stock bucket shops, and gender
obsessions of the mythical Urban
Edge People, the detritus
of your country is up for
sale. The lawns are strewn
with the plastic effluvia
of lives lived through humankind's weirdest moment: Pee Wee Herman action figures, creeping
tot tables, failed kitchen appliances that created more labor than they
were designed to save, extruded plastic this-and-that, unidentifiable knick-knacks of forgotten sitcoms, Jimmy Carter Halloween masks, trikes brittle and faded from ultraviolet exposure, artworks conceived in a Zoloft fog, pre-owned
cat litter boxes, someone's
deceased mother's lawn fanny, the complete works of Jacqueline Susann, a savings bank in the shape of an outhouse....
The puzzling part is that every
lawn sale contains exactly the same array of useless and pathetic objects. Is this how a Ponzi culture meets its end: the terminal swap-meet
beyond which no horrifying object meets any mystifying
desire for acquisition? If this
is where consumer culture
crawled off to die, then what possible zeitgeist awaits a people left so hopelessly de-cultured on aspiration's lowest ladder-rung?
I dropped by a religious cult commune in the next town over on Saturday. Some of the guys who dwell there
have been helping me out on hire
with the physical labor of the rather ambitious garden construction here at Clusterfuck
Farm, so I was informed about their weekend festival. The group occupies
a former "gentleman's
estate" built in the
1920s when the economic growth machine operated at full Ponzi steam. The
buildings are quite beautiful;
the main house is a Greco-Roman
beaux arts mansion; a massive horse barn has large
and graceful arched windows; and there are other houses and barns on the
large property, which occupies a sweetly enfolding dell of land in this county of hills and valleys.
The weather couldn't have been more beautiful
and the property was maximally groomed for the
festival. There were several
tents up, nice ones, decorated with colorful medieval-looking swags. One was a big
circular tent set up for
the folk-dances that are
part of their subculture. You got
a very clear picture of the demographic shape of the outfit: at the core of it were vital and healthy-looking young adults, median age around 30, I figured, who were running things, doing most of the work, organizing the daily routines. Then there were the old Boomers turned white-haired grandparents (many times), seekers from the 1970s who had signed on with the outfit long ago, reproduced mightily, and now played a background role in the
scheme of things.
There was a costuming motif that was not too intense but allowed for visual
self-identification among the members:
long skirts for women; beards and pony-tails on the
men, who all otherwise dressed in ordinary catalog casuals of the day. It set them apart without making them look too kooky. It also reinforced gender differences (the horror!) in a micro-society not dedicated
to erasing and transgressing
them. I didn't know much about the group's internal workings, but it seemed to me that the men were in charge,
and I got the impression that
far from representing some clichéd notion of
"patriarchal oppression," it produced a reassuring tone of confidence
in clear lines of responsibility - a quality now completely absent in outer America's culture of
incessant lying, systematic
fraud, and consensual evasion of reality.
I was especially interested to
observe the behavior of the children,
of which there were very many.
For one thing, they appeared fully integrated into their society, not ring-fenced into some special
ghetto of juvenile disempowerment
palliated with manufactured video power fantasies and endless snacks. They were unperturbed
and self-possessed. None were
screaming, quarreling or carrying on. They were not hopped up on Big Gulps and Twinkies. They did not require constant
monitoring. They danced along with the adults, or circulated confidently on their own, and with their friends, in the crowd.
I was a keen student of religious cults in the 1970s when I was a young newspaper reporter. The blowback from the Age of Aquarius had propelled a lot of lost souls into quests
for meaning and especially
communion beyond the sordid
precincts of the idiotic common culture of the day. They were also
seeking structure in chaotic
young lives unable to get traction in a bad economy.
I was interested in what the cult scene had to say about America generally and, I confess, attracted to the melodrama of fringe lunacy I found there, including a lot of colorful unbalanced personalities among the various founders and poobahs. I poked around a number of religious cults, including some accused of maliciously coercive practices,
and I eventually even wrote a novel based on my experience
("Blood Solstice," Doubleday, 1988).
All this is to say that
I retain a broad skepticism about organized
religion in general and about American Utopian endeavor in particular. But the country and its
baleful culture are now
in an even more advanced
state of entropic degeneration
than was the case in the
last days of Vietnam and Watergate. Those two awful
conditions were at least settled and the nation moved
on. The troubles that now
afflict us guarantee a much broader systemic collapse that will surely require
great changes in everything
that we do and everything that we are. The demoralization of
the larger American public is
so stark and pronounced that you can smell
it in the rising heat.
What I saw on Saturday on this farm was
a wholly different group demeanor: purposeful, earnest, confident, energetic,
and cheerful. It mattered
too, I think, that this small
community's economy was centered on agriculture and
value-added production of common
household products (they make soaps and cosmetics for the natural foods market). This was a snapshot of the much smaller-scale and local economy of America's future,
aside. I don't know whether these people represent a lifeboat, or if these qualities of character can be enacted in a wider consensual culture, and
one not necessarily based
on religious doctrine, which
I am not so avid about.
books are available at
all the usual places.