by Michael Buozis
The oblivion of childhood does not provide us with reliable memories about the state of the world when we were youngsters. Why would it? Kids don’t watch the news, unless you sit them down and make them watch. Psychologically, children up to a certain age – let’s say around twelve years, because I think that’s what the experts say – don’t even process events outside of their immediate reckoning. Maybe twelve is a bit old. But there is a certain limit for the youngest of us to empathize with others, or comprehend the consequences of the news they may or may not be exposed to in the course of any given day. How old was the youngest child to look upon the multitude of images of September 11, 2001 and get what he or she was seeing? Probably younger than twelve, but most likely older than five or six or seven. Enough with the pop psychology.
The media landscape has changed so much since my youth, I don’t know if I’m equipped to understand the effects of this oversaturation of information on the hearts and minds of children born in the last ten years. In my formative years, television news was contained in little compartments, easily avoidable. Four months before I was born, Walter Cronkite retired from the CBS Evening News. News was something curious adults sat down with and consumed, deliberately. If one wanted more in-depth coverage of any of the events briefly noted in network news segments, one had a host of newspapers to choose from. Seven million fewer daily newspapers are read today than when I was born. This in a country with 80 million more people. The deliberation once required to stay informed has receded in the face of constant bombardment from at least five national 24-hour news networks and the vagaries of the Web 2.0, where social media has been coopted as a tool for information dissemination as much as a tool to say, “Happy Birthday, Charlie!” The picture of a married couple sitting down to watch a newscast, as it’s being aired, while their children play with wooden blocks on the carpet seems anachronistic today, like a pastel-tinted midcentury relic.
The old days, which aren’t as old as all that, seem quaint in a number of other ways. Again, my childhood memories are not a wellspring of world events and societal analysis, but I remember the days before conspicuous consumption. Or at least I remember the days before conspicuous consumption was so damned conspicuous. When I was five years old, halfway through kindergarten in a rural township in New Jersey, my parents bought a house in Easton, a small city on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. Taxes were low and they got a good deal, and the house was literally right across the street from the river and a park with a modern playground – think polished steel tubes and cracked concrete – and open grassy lawns. The house, which was built for someone in the second decade of the 20th century who had enough wealth to require a servant’s quarters in a separate building, had only one proper bedroom. My father built a wall, which stood unfinished for at least ten years, in the middle of a large family room on the first floor of the house, so my sister and I could have our own rooms. I had to walk through my sister’s room for the rest of our time by the river. The servant’s house in the next lot had grown into a massive gray apartment building with wooden shutters and siding and a bright red door which matched our own. Otherwise the house was much the way it must have been for the original owners. Over the garage, a concrete patio opened over the gravel driveway and on the other side of the house terraced flower beds led down to a nice lawn with two more terraced sections bordered with railroad ties. The railroad ties would get chewed up by car tires every couple of months when a nighttime driver on the river road lost control and ended up spun out in our yard. Sounds nice, huh? A recent real estate listing of the house showed the size of the interior as 924 square feet. Tiny! Especially by suburban standards. But I never thought of the space as remotely inadequate, despite the fact that I had a few friends who lived – get this – in big mansions on the hill. That was the sort of town I grew up in, like a rustbelt city in a Bruce Springsteen song where a kid could look up enviously and with disdain at the wealthy people who looked down on everything else. Only I didn’t feel that way at all.
The envy never came, but the disdain showed up – and I’ll overstate that feeling for the purpose of this essay – when families in similar economic situations as my own started bulldozing the cornfields and dairy farms north of the city, in quiet Forks Township, to build massive homes off of Sullivan’s Trail, where John Sullivan had led his expedition to eradicate four nations of Iroquois who had sided with the British in 1779. I haven’t been back to Easton in years, but by the time I graduated high school, the landscape had changed so remarkably I could not tell whether my own age or the city’s accelerated development had sucked all the magic out of the downtown and the surrounding countryside. I slept in cornfields where now stand endless tracts of McMansions. As a young child, I walked with my father and sister every winter Saturday morning to the Quadrant Bookstore near Easton’s Center Square. The old man behind the counter told me stories about executions on an intermittently submerged island in the Delaware River, and blew dust from the covers of dusty tomes, and always smiled when I brought my books to the counter. By the time I was old enough to know how special this was, the old man had to sell the store, and the new owners cleared the first floor for a café and were only friendly when you bought coffee or an expensive sandwich and had nothing to say about the books you purchased. Somehow I knew, without knowing it literally, that the people moving into subdivisions on the periphery of the city, by driving up real estate prices, were ruining all the things that made Easton special and would ever make me want to stay there into adulthood. Again, I’m overstating my disdain.
Of course conspicuous consumption, the building of big houses and the purchase of big cars and trucks, bigger sodas and bags of chips, had started long before I noticed them. In retrospect, Easton, as something of a backwater, survived relatively unscathed until rather late in the game. Sure the midcentury ranch houses of Palmer Township and even some smaller developments on the fringes of the farms in Forks Township fit closely into the tendrils of the urban landscape, but they did not infringe in a significant way on the hinterlands. Most of California, by contrast, outside of San Francisco, started as sprawling blight. But to the woods of that rural New Jersey township we left for Easton, I returned often, well into the 1990s and there I saw the way Americans, outside of city centers, could still be inconspicuous. But I’ve rambled on relentlessly about my childhood enough and will leave a telling of those simple experiences for another time.
The great Shakespeare scholar, Stephen Greenblatt, frames his recent book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, around two epochs in European history, when the rising civilized cultures looked to be on the precipice of a fatal fall, both eerily familiar to anyone who lived through, or is now living through, America’s current and decades-long fin de siècle. Poggio Bracciolini, a late-14th/early-15th century notary and scribe to two popes, serves as a guide, in Greenblatt’s text, not only to his own era of the early Renaissance, but also to an earlier bastion of humanism, the heyday of classical Rome, only slightly more distant from Poggio’s time than Poggio’s is from ours. If Poggio’s vocation was to work in a secular manner for the most corrupt of Catholic history’s sacred leaders, his avocation was to hunt for books. You will be forgiven if the title “book hunter,” conjures only Johnny Depp’s cigarette smoking, goateed schlock in Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate, but Poggio’s adventures were much more prosaic, if not much less dangerous. Instead of beautiful blonde demons, Poggio had to fight off grumpy, drunk and burly monks to get at the lost humanist treasures of the decrepit monasteries of Europe.
Greenblatt particularly calls attention to Poggio’s discovery of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, a book Greenblatt himself discovered in his school’s bookstore while rummaging for cheap summer reading as an undergraduate. Lucretius can only qualify as a beach read for the most astute students of classicism and Greenblatt gives a good history of the Epicurean tradition, which Lucretius, and therefore Poggio, helped bring into the modern world. Epicureanism, in its true sense, is not what most of us think. Epicurus never advocated excess or decadence. The early Christians who wanted his memory pilloried stuck us with this misunderstanding. Instead, Epicureanism embraced a view that allowed humans, in Auden’s words, “to find the mortal world enough.” Epicurus preached moderation and an embrace of the simple pleasures of this world: friends and family who would support us, food that would sustain us, and avoidance of the complications inherent in a belief in existence beyond the physical world. But because of Poggio, and a long succession of monk scribes before him, the Epicurean tradition, as maligned and misunderstood by posterity, exists despite the weight of the world falling away from any intellectual tradition, as Christian tyrants pulled Alexandria and the rest of Western civilization into the Dark Ages.
In an ironic subversion of influences, the progressively secularizing West may have unconsciously misunderstood the ideas of Epicureanism, the basis for modern secularism, as a call for excess. It’s a common misconception that might be tragically malignant. If the mortal world is all there is, then one ought to delight in the possessions one can accrue while alive. Buy the biggest house. Drive the most expensive car. Drink every 32 ounce soda you can fit in your gut. Act on every tickle in your loins. If there await no rewards beyond the grave, then take your treasure now! This is the impulse behind our collective embrace of credit cards and unfair mortgages and leases on luxury gas-guzzling vehicles.
Greenblatt stumbles upon a few interesting revelations in his examination of Lucretius’s legacy. While current ignorance of the world’s affairs among zealous folks, and many others, seems due to laziness and self-centeredness, during the Middle Ages, many Christians suppressed a deep desire for intellectual exploration and discovery. Thus, Saint Jerome deprives himself of reading his beloved Cicero. Though controversial, to this day, from a Christian point of view, Lucretius’s ideas about “the nature of things” are simple, yet rigorous, life-affirming, yet fearlessly rational. His ideas, older than Christ, are as advanced as many fully modern understandings of the world.
For all the doom our perennial misunderstanding of Epicureanism and humanism might spell, Greenblatt spins a magnificent yarn filled with corrupt popes and murderous zealots and tracts scratched out by candlelight in dusty tomes to be relegated to monastery shelves and eaten by worms. The deposition of Pope John XXIII in Constance, and Hus’s and Jerome’s burning at the stake, provides an intriguing politically- and religiously-charged backdrop for Poggio’s discovery. Poggio, for all of his book lust, wrote a few classics himself, including a book of anecdotal jokes still hilarious in their bawdiness. Have you heard the one about the priest who chastised a couple during one Sunday service for their sexual adventures so explicitly that he inspired his congregation to go home and try out some new positions for themselves? It’s a crack up.
Though Poggio rescued Lucretius from the shelf, it was left to later pens to rescue him from obscurity. It was not until Thomas More, in his vision of a Utopia in the Americas, and Giordano Bruno, in his denial of the Christian ideal of Providence, that Lucretius infiltrated the intellectual discourse of Europe. Unfortunately, the mass of humanity has used secularism as an excuse for overconsumption and debt. We’re so fat that we’ve got to start thinking about the extra fossil fuels burned in the process of carting our extra fat around. If every overweight or obese America lost ten pounds, how much less carbon dioxide would be spewed into the atmosphere every year? It’s a disturbing question from an ethical standpoint. Can we even ask the question, whether fat people, in all the ways people can be fat – fat in belly, fat in property, fat in technology and noise pollution and ignorance and hatred and violence – are destroying the earth? Is it even possible to turn back the clock and reimagine secularism in its initial Epicurean conception? Do we, as Saint Jerome’s account of Lucretius’s life has it, drive ourselves mad with love for something we can never attain? Or do we, like Lucretius’s guest in On the Nature of Things, retire “sated with the banquet of life, and with calm mind embrace, like a fool, a rest that knows no care” before our bellies are bloated?
Michael Lewis thinks many of today’s European societies have done the former. In fact, in his new book, Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, Lewis goes so far as to blame the entire world financial crisis of the last five years not on a few opportunistic traders on Wall Street and in London and Hong Kong and Frankfurt, but on the varied, but fatally flawed, dispositions of the people from the many nations involved in the collapse of markets. Assuming Lewis gave a sufficient lashing to the American people in his previous book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, he focuses, in Boomerang, on four European nations and one state of the United States. The state, California, was governed by a native European, and the countries – Iceland, Greece, Ireland, and Germany – could not be more different from each other or from the United States. While Americans may be just plain fat, the Icelanders, Greeks, Irish, Germans, and Californians arrived at the brink of financial catastrophe in distinct ways, all elaborated in Lewis’s lucid narrative-driven prose.
While he explains complex financial issues, such as the collapse of Iceland’s economy, Lewis always tells his story with revealing details. Walking the streets of Reykjavik, Lewis notes the tendency of Icelandic men to ignore everyone around them, bumping into other people obliviously, not even stopping to excuse themselves or readjust their posture. Icelandic men, it appears, have no sense of collision. When the cod fisheries of the surrounding North Atlantic were nationalized and fishermen forced into hedging and selling their quotas to bigger businesses, socialism got a firm chokehold on Iceland. This, and not lax domestic and international banking regulations, Lewis posits, brought this tiny island nation of no more than 300,000 people to its knees. To be fair, one of the bankers Lewis speaks to says the fishing industry requires more training of its employees than the investment banks. We can only guess this has not changed all that much.
The hotel cafés and bars and the halls of government finance come alive in Lewis’s description of the unsustainable corruption and spending of the Greek public sector, not to mention the monasteries of Mount Athos. Greece bucks all the normal expectations of fiscal collapse. It’s a model the Republicans in America, led by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, surely can’t resist using as an example of socialism gone wrong. Seeing the European version of the Tea Party, in the guise of fat, overpaid Greek public workers and the scapegoats, a bunch of monks who were smarter than the government, and the bankers who were the only fiscally sane people in the country, turns expectations upside down. Even when Lewis gets to Athens, long after the previous government’s budget fraud was revealed to the European Union, the halls of the new government are still overstaffed. Albeit, they are floored in linoleum. It turns out those savvy monks used ancient deeds and promises of blessings (or perhaps threats of damnation) to force the government into questionable real estate deals. When the abbot is the only one who’s fat, there’s a problem. Those cozy public workers and the shyster monks and the Greek people who trust foreign strangers more than they trust their own countrymen and colleagues killed the Greek economy. Forget the government’s role in encouraging this state of things.
Ireland, on the other hand, suffers from a problem of government. However, Lewis suggests the problem is that the Irish government is too Irish for its own good. Ireland’s three biggest private banks lent money irresponsibly to developers who had little or no business plan, thus inflating a bubble so big that the majority of educated Irish young people started staying in their homeland for the first time in over a century. The banks failed when the housing bubble burst. Good enough. But then the stereotypical Irish spirit of self-sabotage set in. While the government couldn’t torture itself and its family for a jilted love and lost opportunity, it could bail out those reckless investment banks at the peril of its own people. Lewis visits the steel skeletons of Ireland’s bust and talks to an old man named Keogh who threw a few rotten eggs at the prime minister. The Irish people, despite their resignation, know how to stick it to the politicians who have stuck them with the bill.
The Germans, on the other hand, are obsessed with feces. Actually, Lewis’s idea, supported by some American thinkers, is that Germans are obsessed with clean exteriors and dirty interiors. You can’t polish a turd (they have this saying in German) so you’ve got to hide it in your banks. Lewis hires a young blonde woman to translate for him at his meetings with German economists and politicians. It turns out everyone speaks English, so he overpays her to drive him around the country and talk about shit. He remarks on how assured she is talking about poop, how odd it is for such a pretty girl to be saying such ugly things. It turns out there’s much to share of feculent German witticisms and idioms.
Geldscheisser – One who shits money.
Bescheissen – Someone shit on you.
Klugscheisser – An intelligence shitter.
Die Kacke ist am dampfen – The shit is steaming.
Scheissegal – I don’t give a shit.
Those shitty bankers housed in immaculately clean German banks acted against the German character of thrift. The survival of a healthy, robust, even dominant German economy despite the fact that its banks’ gullibility, along with Wall Street deception, caused the world financial crisis, hinges on the German people. They are not stupid, Lewis says, the way their shitty bankers are, thus they survive and thrive.
In Vallejo, California, the municipal government has exactly the opposite problem from the Greeks. There is one man running the city, with a staff of one. When his secretary goes to the bathroom, she must lock the door to the government offices, because no one else remains to receive visitors. After a long, treacherous bike ride on the streets of Venice Beach with Arnold Schwarzenegger, during which Lewis learns the governor wasn’t such a bad guy after all, he visits Vallejo. The weeds grow high. There are not enough cops or firefighters. People in California don’t like to pay taxes. Public workers in California fight tooth and nail for some of the best pay in the country. These two factors are helping break the Golden State off into the sea.
Whether the wealth-obsessed residents of Vallejo, or the cozy public workers of Greece, or the gullible bankers of Germany, or the headstrong men of Iceland, or the self-sabotaging Irish, Lewis points to aspects of cultures as the source of national fiscal destinies. The roles of governments and regulators, in this picture, are non-existent. What needs changing is the culture. Good luck.
To be clear, the alternate title of this essay is somewhat misleading. Those mansions I looked up at from my place down by the river in Easton were not McMansions. They were old houses, and some of them were full of old money. So who could blame all the middle class people who wanted mansions of their own, when the growth of their borrowing ability outpaced the growth of their income? I could, but that story’s for another time.
Discussed in this essay:
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt. W.W. Norton & Company. 2011. 356 pages. $27.
Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, by Michael Lewis. W.W. Norton & Company. 2011. 213 pages. $26.
Photo Credit: focusonfloods.org