Below is the latest The Pain -- When Will It End?
Updated 09/24/08


Note: my essay on David Foster Wallace is published in the Baltimore City Paper’s Big Books issue this week. I also have an essay on children's literature in ther same issue, if you're interested.


Artist's Statement

I spent last weekend visiting my friends Jim and Sarah in New Haven, enjoying the respectable pleasures of suburbia: taking Percocets, figure-skating on Wii, watching a show titled “Destroyed in Seconds” on HDTV. One segment of this program showed an F-117 Stealth fighter losing a wing, tumbling out of control, and crashing into a residential neighborhood during an air show. Over footage of this fiery accident is clearly audible the voice of the announcer at the air show, saying in a relaxed, laconic voice: “Everyone just stay where you are, folks, stay where you are… everything’s all right… maybe a good time to get a bite to eat…” Jim and I gaped at each other in astonishment and delight, and thanks to Tivo were able to rewind and listen to this insane monologue again. He reminded me of Kevin Bacon as the ROTC cadet in Animal House shrieking, “Remain calm! All is well!” while smoke bombs and ten thousand marbles fill the streets, Bluto in a pirate costume swings down and abducts a sorority girl, and the EAT ME cake splits asunder to reveal The Deathmobile a-snarl, roaring through the chaos.

I mention this because everything you hear any government official or financial expert say about the current financial crisis is no different from this announcer's blathering: Stay where you are. Maybe a good time to get a bite to eat. John Ralston Saul, in Voltaire’s Bastards, writes about the reflexive instinct of all governments to “avoid panic” in all situations, including situations in which panic is the appropriate response (as when the French government claimed that the prevailing winds were blowing all the radiation from the Chernobyl disaster neatly around France, as if by divine intervention). I’ve seldom seen it more clearly illustrated than by this scene of a supersonic jet erupting into a fireball in a housing development while an announcer suggests this might be an opportunity to grab a hot dog.

This week I had lunch with my friend Steve, who was a broker for about two weeks before he quit in horror. “We became a socialist country this week,” is how he put it. “Although the beneficiaries are all multibillion-dollar corporations, which is not exactly how I would’ve planned it.” As I pointed out in an artist’s statement a few weeks ago, the people who own this country champion free markets and small government when they’re making money, but scamper for taxpayer bailouts when their crimes are exposed and their con games fall through. In short, they privatize gains and socialize losses, an economic philosophy also known as Heads-I-win-tails-you-lose.

Events are in fact conforming disturbingly to the scenario outlined in an email sent to me by my Peak Oil friend Rob back in July: "over the course of the next few months the US banking and financial system collapses, beginning with another major bank failure (or its equivalent), followed by runs on ordinary savings accounts, then followed in turn very soon by gasoline and diesel shortages, followed shortly thereafter by food shortages." I asked Rob about his predictions yesterday, and he followed up with this analysis:

I'd say we're still a little short right now of even the first step (collapse of the US banking and financial system) […] though last week's events look a lot like the beginning of that process. The failures of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and AIG were certainly the kinds of "failures" spelled out in the scenario. Reports indicate that the current Hank Paulsen plan was centrally prompted by fear of runs on banks, though among other scary things too. (So that's about right, so far). But fears of fuel shortages in Nashville seem to have been prompted much more by concerns about the follow-on effects of Ike's impact on refineries than by understanding that the financial crisis will have its own follow-on effects. And widespread fuel and then food shortages are not currently anywhere in view. (They follow, when they do, since we have little of either stored anywhere in this country, and so are vulnerable to panic buying as soon as the inevitable mass psychology of panic and hoarding are set off.)

But let's check back as we observe how things play out this month. If Paulsen's plan is rejected, or is otherwise rapidly proven inadequate, bad things could accelerate and do so quickly. In any case, there is zero chance that Paulsen's plan or any variant of it now being discussed will stabilize the gigantic problems that have prompted them. They are all nothing more than new sidewalks (gangplanks?) on an earthquake. And that's all they're meant to be. It was only a few weeks ago that Paulsen said he never expected to need the powers he has now demanded. We are lied to constantly, and with impunity, as you know. […] So this week's pieces of the larger crisis, however deep it turns out to be, will only have begun to shift the topsoil of the grand canyons of shit that lie beneath us. The rest of our lives, if we live long enough, will be spent immersed in the stuff. The only thing worse would be to be younger, and so to have more years ahead of us enduring that.

Jeez louise. Way to liven up the party, Rob.

Yesterday I spent about an hour on the phone talking to my friend Megan about the collapse of the American Empire. We discussed the historic failure of the economy, and the dismal possibility that the ineducable dullards of the Red States, infatuated with the smug, preening middle-school bitch goddess Sarah Palin, are actually going to vote for another four years of the same. She and I are both, for the third time in a decade, resigning ourselves to the impotent, bitter position: Live it up, shitheads. Have a ball. Good luck getting those manufacturing jobs back. Oh and let us know how Iraq works out. Megan described the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, which her mother more or less forced her to watch, and reported to me their ominous message (it wasn’t nearly subtle enough to be a subtext): We Can Do Everything Better Than You. Everything. Megan, glumly, kinda believes it. We can’t do shit in this country anymore. We blew it. The Chinese and the Japanese are just waiting to buy our country now.

Megan’s hope is that, once we’ve been forced to give up our dumb imperial ambitions, we’ll maybe remember all those ideals we used to believe in—you know, America? This is so Megan, and it's one reason why I love her, but I have to say it really doesn’t sound much like us to me. Sure, it’s true that post-imperial nations can be pleasant places to live: you get good museums, fine cuisine, life’s usually pretty comfortable, and you don’t have to worry about invading other countries and maintaining occupations anymore. But somehow I don’t see us going that route. We’re too spoiled and pugnacious and stupid. We’re not the type to age with dignity; we’re more likely to go deep into denial, getting hair plugs, Hummers, and trophy wives to stave off our fear of inevitable decline. I see us acting more like Russia, which, twenty years after its own ignominious collapse, is proud of its ruthless thug of a president and invading little nations on its border just to throw its muscle around. I’m picturing President Palin nuking Havanah and all the crewcut cro-magnon dudes who like to chant “U!S!A! U!S!A!” being, like, “Yeah! America is back, motherfuckers!”

I've largely deferred to the opinions of friends in this week's statement for the same reason that I ended up drawing a cartoon about my own ignorance and apathy: because I know less about the economy than I do about Gaussian physics or Polynesian history. I knew too little about the economy even to draw the stupidest, most simple-minded metaphor about it. My lack of interest is so total that's it's kind of suspicious, an active avoidance rather than genuine indifference, the kind of blind spot that in nightmares is the red flag of repression. This incuriousity is especially glaring given that I actually have some investments. I have so far made no inquiries of my broker as to whether I have any money left at all. I should probably get around to asking since, if it were to turn out that the cash in my checking account at this moment represented my total personal worth, I would budget very differently. On the other hand, I might well just elect to blow it all on powerful drugs or very beautiful call girls.

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