Three Cheers for Prosperity! (But What About Posterity?)

“What about poverty and racial prejudice?” asks Lloyd Degener, a character in Louis Auchincloss’ Tales of Manhattan , written more than 30 years ago.

“Oh, don’t bore me,” replies Eric Temple. “Those battles are won. Oh, I know there’s a good deal of cleaning up to be done, but everybody’s basically against poverty and discrimination. That’s what gives protest its dead aspect today. Those crowds of chanting, bearded youngsters with their placards. They won’t listen because they dare not listen. In a world of dwindling causes they cling with tight fingers to the few that are left!”

The fictional Temple is a member of a law firm that dates from Edith Wharton’s brownstone New York and Theodore Roosevelt’s strident progressivism. In the early 1930’s, Temple had scandalized his Republican partners by going to Washington to work for the New Deal and then, in 1939, when it was not especially patriotic, the 41-year-old Temple had joined the Canadian Army to fight fascism. By the mid-60’s, in the seventh decade of life, he seemed to believe that all the good fights had been fought and won.

Presumably, Eric Temple has gone to wherever it is that the infernal knacker takes lawyers after they die. Just as well for Temple who, had he lived into our times, would have been clinically depressed at how narrow is the field for heroic endeavor, how rare the life of dramatic idealism. He would have sat in his bed weeping at the empty, grandiloquent language that we sling around about ourselves and our little projects. The interminable hissy fit over political correctness would have had him under the covers hiding. And poor Temple, he would have gone into deep denial before he’d have admitted that the better part of a year of the nation’s existence has been devoted to discussing the inhalations and consummations of a 24-year-old cock-sucking, thrill-seeking representative of a highly desirable, California demographic market segment. It would have laid him cold to accept that we have nothing on our minds, nothing we see needs doing, no hope that extends past our own personal schemes and our career advancement plans.

The broadcasting air is heavy with words and terms like aspiration, bold vision and American dream, which, on closer examination, reveal themselves to be synonyms for an acquisitive individualism. From billionaire to office boy, it’s stock tips and how did the market do today? A nation of oinkers. Naught is heard but root, grub, schlurp and snuffle.

We are living the 1920’s over again, when making money, gawking at movie stars and cheering athletes was the American preoccupation. The 20’s had certain prophetic voices in the arts, but now, it seems, we are too rich and too satisfied with ourselves to have a muse or to heed the voices of spirits who speak only to those who fast in the wilderness.

That time in America 75 years ago was also an era of vacuous public debate, unheard-of low voter turnouts and the dismal, 1924 Presidential contest between John W. Davis, a Wall Street lawyer, and Calvin Coolidge, about whom nothing could be said then or can be said now. With the jazz age in full force and the money rolling in, the Flapper Decade had its chance to do something grand. That generation, like this one, couldn’t think of anything but getting it and spending it, and the chance to use their prosperity for a purpose grander than private pursuit was lost.

Now it is 75 years later and we have another chance to do something grand, do something big that will matter 100 or 200 years from now. The pressure is off us, we have the means to build, to shape, to create, to transform.

In Europe, they are attempting that big thing, which, if they succeed, will be marked in the history books on the birthday of the next millennium. The people who invented nationalism and let it loose with its attendant horrors are in the act of abolishing it.

For the last half-century, the Europeans have been depositing bits and pieces of their old national sovereignties into a new kind of nation, one without a flag, a nearly invisible nation, one devoid of the trappings of glory, a multicultural, polylingual, functional cooperative, centralized and yet decentralized at the same time, a great state comprising 300 million people plus with no grand capital, but half-a-dozen dispersed political, military and administrative centers. Europeans move themselves, their money and their merchandise from France to England or from Germany to Spain with as little trouble as we travel from New Jersey to New York.

Americans may look at it and say that it’s not a real country aborning because it doesn’t look like the United States, but the United States wouldn’t look like the United States if, in 1776, each of the original 13 states had spoken a different language and had, off and on, been at war with each other for the previous 500 years.

A real country, of course, has an army and prints its own money. Year by year, the nations of Europe have been integrating their armed forces until today it would be difficult, if not impossible, for France or Germany to undertake a large or prolonged military action by itself. For all real intents and purposes, Europe has abolished its national armies of the past and invented a new supranational defense system.

Now, in the past few days, 11 of these nations have given up the right to issue and control their own currency. Germany will no more be able to create its own money than the State of New York can print dollars. After the first of the year, all non-paper-and-coin transactions like credit card payments, bank deposits and such will be expressed in Europe’s new supranational money, the euro. Three years after that, the old, historic paper money and coins will be gone. No more francs, no more centimes, or pesetas or lire or marks or pennies. (Britain, always slower than the other countries to sign up, has not yet joined the European Monetary Union, but will have thrown in penny and pound and joined by 2003.)

We have no great project under way. We’re not even dreaming about one. Here we are in the high noon of the greatest prosperity there ever was, and we can’t think of anything to do with our money but spend yet more of it on ourselves. Any exchange of national sovereignty for something like what the Europeans are making is unthinkable here. My God, we can barely contemplate making Puerto Rico a state, a country we went and seized.

We don’t have the imagination to help Mexico, that catastrophe in progress, that ecological, political and population near-disaster sitting no farther away from us than a dry riverbed. Either help Mexico or move it 500 miles offshore from Texas. There is a grand project, but it’s not for us.

What is? We talk about the American Dream, but listen closely, and what the speaker means is that in America, you can get yours, and that’s all there is to that dream. The American Dream is a hoax; it’s merely a pig-out.

There is no Dream for America. There could be, though, a dream of a renewed land, institutionally, physically, every way. A madman commits suicide on television protesting health maintenance organizations, but he’s right, of course. How can we be so rich and have so little? Why do we kill off the fish, why do we have this antiquated transportation system, why do we still have ugly malls and a thousand miles of uglier commercial strip, why is the top of every mountain and hill to be desecrated with a sky lodge, why is the water going bad and why, why, why do we let the time and the opportunity pass us by?

Was Eric Temple right? Perhaps all the battles may have been won, but have all the jobs been done? Is there no great and grand accomplishment for us to achieve?

Three Cheers for Prosperity! (But What About Posterity?)