This Prairie Crab comes with a photo diptych titled ‘Great Depression’, which was shot by Dutch artist Risk Hazekamp (from The Hague) while travelling in Kansas and Oklahoma to portray the former Dust Bowl before driving to Deep South for a different photo project. Her German friend Tania “Caya” Witte from Berlin is the model of the enactment—at the time, she was writer in residence in Matfield Green and Risk was artist in residence. Risk is quite famous for her gender-related photography, while Caya published three novels and is a well-known spoken word artist in German-speaking LGBT Europe.
This episode deals with what not only I am calling the New Depression. With the ongoing drought in the West, some parts of the country may also experience a new dust bowl, even while in the Midwest it suddenly, in May, looked like we needed Noah’s ark. Nothing surprises me anymore, least of all nature. Oh, and America.
An embarrassing, unsustainable farce
Months ago, I was hosting in our Matfield Green art space The Bank while Ans was holding the fort in The Gallery at Pioneer Bluffs. It was on this quiet sunny Sunday so typical of Kansas that a car stopped first at one gallery then at the other. Who—to the bafflement of both of us—stepped out and came in to look (mmm, rather to glance) at the contemporary art on display? Sam Brownback, our great state’s governor! The man, an in-the-face crowd charmer without peer, isn’t known to be interested in any form of art–as a matter of fact he had just withdrawn all moral and financial state support to the arts. He is the man known to aim for a big zero in all sectors that are not directly beneficial to corporate profit. And here he was, proudly showing personal friends from New York City our galleries as if he personally owned and operated them, and taking them on a tour of our little cowboy town / art-colony-in-the-ascend to show off its unique progress. “Isn’t it wonderful how these artists fix up the old prairie homes?” That memorable Sunday must have been the first and probably the last time that Sam “The Man” Brownback set foot in a place with a close relationship to the arts. So far he hasn’t shown much interest in education either.
“Sam Brownback says a high school’s purchase of a new grand piano illustrates that Kansas’ formula for funding its public schools is flawed.” This is the kind of message we Kansans read in the news. Our governor fires off shot after shot at the state’s budget and of course education, like the arts, or health care, or pensions, is a prime target. After taking hundreds of millions away from the schools in the first period of his pathetic “governance,” his second term (please explain to me why folks elect, criticize sharply, then joyfully reelect men such as Brownback?) is already marked by even larger cuts. He has to cut the budget, because the great state of Kansas is deeply in debt and getting deeper in the red all the time. That’s not my fault, that’s no Kansan’s fault but … indeed, Sam Brownback’s. It’s the decisions this governor makes. His fiscal actions stand out: excessive income tax cuts for the 1% (and especially the 0.0001%, such as our “Boys of Wichita”, the Koch brothers) have drained the state of unprecedented amounts of revenue. Now he has to fill at least part of the red-hot hole before it becomes the kind of black hole that can suck up the whole state of Kansas, including even … our beloved creationists. If Kansas had a healthy economy before Sam Brownback’s regime began, it’s in the pits right now. So what does Brownback do? He raises those taxes that only hurt the lower income Kansans.
I won’t bore you with the details, but of course the governor is blaming others for the state’s fiscal woes. At one point it was president Obama who, from Washington D.C., was weighing the state down. At a time more recently, the governor challenged other people if not the people “to come forward with better ideas. Criticism is easy.” Insanity is what his policies (strongly backed, if not formulated by the Koch brothers) have been called. *
The Kansas City Star Opinion Page writer, Yael Abouhalkah, signaled that a sixteen year old student at Smoky Valley High in Lindsborg by the name of Haeli Allison Maas wrote governor Brownback a letter which went viral. It isn’t a personal attack but “a gem” of wise considerations: “It is up to you to pave our way. You are important and you are needed,” she wrote, indicating she and many other students are at least behaving like a responsible person. “It is up to you to pave the way … Education is important and it should never been put on the back burner … Do not write off my generation and refuse us the opportunity to educate ourselves, because we will surprise you.” And her letter ends magnificently with: “Invest in our future and you will inevitably be investing in your future. After all, if you forget to educate the youth, who will take care of you?”
Once in a while, I am desperate to get out of Dodge, out of Kansas. While travelling from Matfield Green to Los Angeles and San Francisco on the West Coast and back, some 5,000 miles of freeway and highway passed under my wheels. A few roads appeared to be in better condition than expected, with repairs and improvements noticeable. Sometimes, while crossing into a different county or road management responsibility, the surface would improve or deteriorate visibly but all in all the recent (and ongoing) maintenance paid for by the federal economic recovery plans appears to have delivered. Yet the closer I got to cities, the more cracks in the system I noticed; in the cities the situation of “the Stygian fields of concrete tedium” ** quite often is deplorable, with broken asphalt and deep pot holes in which the growth of grasses and weeds indicates the long duration of the decline. Driving carefully and avoiding obstructions demanded my constant attention in some parts of Los Angeles and San Francisco, and especially in second tier cities such as Visalia, Bakersfield, Albuquerque, as well as in many smaller towns. No difference in Kansas, where Emporia, El Dorado, Topeka appear not to be able to succeed with the upkeep of their streets. Bridges and viaducts don’t look healthy either; the story is that tens of thousands of them in the United States need serious repair, as do power lines, sewer systems, et cetera. I remember Houston, Texas as one of the worst cities with most of its “oceanic awfulness” of asphalt in need of repair and replacement already for years. And I wonder if America, negligent for so long, will ever be able to catch up?
My ten cents? I’ll give you a full dollar. The truth is, I am a little sad. American society, which for many years I admired from a distance, to-day in close-up reminds me of the situation of French roads in… 1777. An engineer named Chambrelent calculated that once a road had reached a certain length it would be destroyed by the process that built it: “In travelling to the point where it will be used to prolong the road, one cubic metre of stone or gravel wears out much more than one cubic metre of road.” Physical reality was equal to the most perverse superstition: the more work done on the road, the shorter it becomes. ***
This, alas, reflects the entire state of the Union. The “unbeatable political system of checks and balances” of this, “the only real democracy in the world,” “the only one capable of leading the world,” the whole foundation of American society is breached. Misusing the Constitution by hiding behind it, if opportune, but neglecting its principles if not opportune, and not behaving according to the essence of its words and the intentions of its authors, Americans have created a pseudo democracy and set into motion the decline of a failing empire. They are still trying to successfully export their idea of democracy (to create alliances foremost to obtain military, strategic or economic benefits), but, as history tells us, preferably to countries under undemocratic leadership, fast-learning democratic pretenders themselves. America’s “insistence on trading freedoms for stability doesn’t achieve anything except kind words at the funerals of dead strongmen … the monsters it had unleashed and supported.” ****
In contrast, practically all of the few serious U.S. efforts “to help the world” and “to save the world” fail, because in essence no one is interested in pseudo help; meanwhile, the real democracies of the world have long lost belief in the watered down, or is it doped up, American version; and many of them have learned the hard lesson that “when you dance with the devil, you’ll be bitten on the behind.”
On the home front, expert marketing techniques are at work using jingoistic tones to keep the myth alive; therefore, in the eyes of most Americans the myth is reality even now the system of financing their democracy has become an embarrassing, unsustainable farce–a farce that they should realize for which they all share the responsibility. The leader of the Federal Election Commission, the agency charged with regulating the way political money is raised and spent, says she has largely given up hope of reining in abuses in the 2016 presidential campaign, which could generate a record $10 billion in spending. “The likelihood of the laws being enforced is slim,” Ann M. Ravel said in an interview. “I never want to give up, but I’m not under any illusions. People think the F.E.C. is dysfunctional. It’s worse than dysfunctional.”
Altogether it is an improbable story of self-delusion, irresponsibility, and ignorance, drowned in a sauce of hypocrisy. It’s like a gambler’s high—built on the feverish hope that all the steep odds will somehow be overcome. The American Empire is fading and most Americans appear to close their eyes to it. They see all foreign conflict they are involved in as “virtuous wars” by definition. Benjamin Franklin’s adage, “There never was a good war or a bad peace,” has never caught on. America avoids the truth about Vietnam, about Iraq. As Gary Young said, using a great simile: “The troops may have left, but the fallout from the conflict lingers in the American polity, clinging to its elites like stale cigarette smoke to a sweater—it stinks and they just cannot shake it.” *****
The American Empire has existed less than seventy-five (75) years. The U.S. is still a giant and will be for years, maybe decades to come. Many of its contributions will last long, I am sure, although some of them, such as its oldest (fast food) franchises, appear to be under attack. But its political structure and its socio-economic system and many of its doings—because done like fast food, too fast and without consideration of the long term effects–are crumbling just as its roads are, just as its infrastructure is. The Roman Empire lasted close to one-thousand (1,000) years. I can take you to roads in France built by the Roman equivalent of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that are still happily accommodating traffic. In 19th century France, more than 1,500 years after they were built, they were called “Chemins de César” –Caesar’s roads; or, also, “Chemins du Diable”—the Devil’s roads, since only a Caesar or the Devil could have managed to build such wide, sturdy, everlasting surfaces. Some of them never needed widening or repair until 1870, 1936 or even 1956. Now that’s what I call truly imperial.
Sadly, most Americans including the American leadership, and 99% of the pathetic leader-wannabees, never bother to listen to the likes of Haeli Allison Maas from Smoky Valley High in Lindsborg, Kansas, the one who wrote so wisely to Kansas governor Sam Brownback about the importance of the long term. They just expect no one to notice their short-sightedness. Education being in general low esteem and not only Sam Brownback’s, they cannot be expected to take heed of Julius Caesar’s wise thoughts either (as noted down by one William Shakespeare):
There’s a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
Some time ago, and unnoticed by many in America, the dice were disastrously rolled, allowing the countdown to infamy to begin. By the time they all start noticing, the clock can no longer be stopped. Who wants to take my bet?
* The Kansas City Star
** William L. Shirer, ‘A Native’s Return’
*** Graham Robb, ‘The Discovery of France’
**** Antony Loewenstein, ‘Why do western leaders love autocrats?’
***** The Guardian Weekly
Ton Haak, March 2015