It was the most beautiful weekend any of us who were there had ever experienced, and it was in Texas. I hadn’t left the DC-Baltimore corridor in 15 months, four months of which I was nearly homeless. But there I was, with a number of my closest DC friends, 20 minutes from any paved road near the Piney Woods Region, 70 degrees and pure sun in March — big country, big sky, big property, big hikes, big trees, big sunsets, big campfires, big tents and sleeping bags where the Texans slept, big cabins for the non-Texans who didn’t have all the gear, big trucks to rent for the drive there and back, and I deliberately arrived standing on the back of a pickup truck my friend rented dressed as the Marlboro Man. It was 40 minute drive into ‘town’ for a town supermarket whose deli counter served only barbecue, a combined gun and liquor store called ‘Dual Shots’ whose logo was a rifle crossed with a handle of vodka and the moniker: ‘shoot’em up, slam ’em down.’ I came back to the 40 degree grey rain of DC and started laughing hysterically apropos of nothing but how comically ugly reality was next to that brief glimpse of heaven.
Why is it that the most beautiful places are so often the most troubled. Whether Jerusalem or the Sea of Galilee, every inch of Israel is just the same way — go to Israel and you immediately understand why three religions spend millennia driving themselves crazy to possess it. Once upon a time so were the South of France and the North of Italy, and so, not that long ago, were Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Dresden, Warsaw, Tokyo, St. Petersburg and Novogrod, Nanking, Normandy, the Somme river, Sarajevo, Lisbon and Cordoba, the Carpathian Mountains, Istanbul and the Gallipoli Peninsula, Damascus and Beirut, Aleppo and Palmyra, Charleston and Richmond, the Yangtzee River, and arguably the entirety of Africa. And long before them, it was always the same in Classical Greece, and Rome, and Agra, and the Forbidden City, Tenochtitlan and Yucatan, and Babylon, and Persepolis, and Troy…. It’s almost as though the world demands a horrible price for living amid such idyllic beauty – you get all your joy and pleasure upfront, and eventually you’re made to pay for your happiness all at once.
The USA is a beautiful country, and I have or had close friends who live in so many different beautiful areas (occasionally they moved elsewhere, we didn’t fight…), be it Central Texas, or the Bay Area, or the Rockies, or the Cascade Range, or the Carolinas, or the Great Smoky Mountains, or the Sonoran desert, or even Upstate New York and Western Mass, this country has so many sights in it that are ravishingly gorgeous; comically and ludicrously stunning. Just living and breathing in those idyllic surroundings can convince you of the absurd notion that life is supposed to be pleasant.
Beauty makes us all feel insignificant. When all but the most arrogant among us encounter people we find beautiful, our natural personality can be wiped as clean as an untaught slate, such is the power they have over our attention. So how much more then does beauty rob us of our personalities when we live within it every day?
If you’ve never been, go to the Palouse, or Crater Lake, or the Grand Prismatic Spring, or Multoma Falls, or the Antelope Valley, or Angel Oak, or the Maroon Bells, or Lake Tahoe, or the Berkshires, or Acadia National Park. When looking at any of them at all, it shouldn’t take you more than a second to figure out why millions of people have been willing to die and kill to defend their portions of it. Living amid that kind of beauty drives people insane, they develop a desperate attachment to everything about it – not just the sights and the climate, but the way the landscape allows them to live. The very makeup of their personality becomes everything they associate with the lifestyle their region provides. They often feel as though they’re Texans or Southerners before they are people, they are not just proud of living among such beauty, they feel, in some ways, that they ARE that beauty. No matter how horrible their life circumstances, at least they get to feel pride in where they come from. And to remain part of something so beautiful, they would be willing to perform some of the ugliest acts on Earth. For such a lifestyle, they’re willing to kill millions, enslave millions, rape millions, kill millions more by rejecting progress and science, and what seems on the surface like such an idyllic place to live is often a nightmare – a nightmare all the worse because most people can’t compromise themselves socially or professionally by admitting that their lives are anything but a benevolent dream.
But if their lives are nightmares, all that remains to take pride in is the land to which they were born and the lifestyle which it affords – if they can make that way of life seem better than others, so billions of humans reason, perhaps they can convince themselves too that their lives are wonderful.
It’s probably an accident of evolution, but pride matters more to people than survival. There are some humiliations so great that the vast majority of humanity would much rather die than experience them, and would much rather kill than experience them. How many people in the 20th century West committed suicide to avoid exposure as what society then termed a ‘sexual deviant.’ How many people in the Soviet sphere committed suicide rather than face political charges that were usually false and almost always justifiable? How many people kill themselves every year to avoid financial ruin? Americans did not fight Vietnam for eleven years because our existence was threatened, we fought Vietnam for so long because we didn’t want to lose a war for the first time. The US didn’t go into Iraq to install democracy, and we didn’t do it for oil money either, we did it because we felt humiliated after 9/11 and smashed something so the world might know not to fuck with us again. And whether they’re Proud Boys invading the capital or al-Qaeda recruits with bombs strapped to their chests or 1924 Nazis marching in Munich, it’s usually not the people with nothing who become terrorists; people with nothing are too busy trying to survive. It’s usually people who have at least some means, but less than they used to, and whose means therefore bring them no satisfaction because all they can think of is their loss. They are tasting uncertainty for the first time and feel as though the floor of their life expectations crumbles beneath them.
At least the dead stop suffering, at least the lifelong oppressed have no idea what they’re missing out on, but the humiliated feel the pain of their loss every day for decades. There is no more dangerous person on earth than a person who feels as though their reasons for living have been taken from them. Then they look askance at these Westerners, or Northerners, or liberals, or neoliberals, or capitalists, or social democrats, or white people, or people of color, these people whom they’ve always looked at as weak, immoral, lazy, undeserving, and see that these others have the privileges and amenities they dream of having every day. Self-esteem and self-actualization is not achieved in a fight for survival, it’s achieved in a fight for pride, and pride goeth before the fall, pride depends on exclusion, on watching the humiliation of others. Some people call this fight for pride ‘supremacy, others call it ‘justice.’ But either way, the real motive is a collective retribution. It’s not enough to succeed, others must fail, others must feel humiliated, preferably feel humiliation of which you yourself are the cause.
For those of you readers who are American and white, imagine for a moment the first generation of your family who came to our country and how they saw this country when they left Europe: land of opportunity, land of dreams, land of wide open space, ‘beautiful’ land, ‘virgin’ land, land with no inhabitants to come between them and ownership, no dictator to whom they answer, no persecutor against their religion, land of choice, land, finally, of pride.
And when they arrived, was it any better than Europe? Well, probably a little, but not enough to matter to their self-esteem. For those who didn’t immediately go to the country, this land of open space was a land of claustrophobia. Few people were trying to kill them, but they had no choice but twelve-hour-or-more factory shifts, where hands were continually scalded and fingers cut off, after which they came home to tenement housing of worse sanitation and much less privacy than they ever had in the old country. Many saw little choice but to go west, where opportunity was present for anyone willing to die for opportunity or kill for it.
Every gain of prosperity is a deal with the devil, a real life Milgram experiment; your suffering stops, and in exchange, someone else suffers on your behalf. Here it used to be slaves of African origin, and unfortunately with every move to create greater prosperity for their descendants, that suffering seems more and more outsourced, to Bangladesh, India, China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines, gorgeous countries every one of them, where cut-rate products are mass produced for cut-rate wages by the billions every year. And insofar as industry has stopped human suffering, we have now transferred that suffering to the million species on Earth we are driving extinct. Life is not meant to be harmonious, it’s a story that gains meaning through our struggle to succeed. Struggles to succeed are as bound to eventual failure as life is bound to death. We only create success out of failure by editing the way we view our failures to make them into successes. What makes life worthwhile is not pride, but meaning, finding meaning in our struggles and realizing that in spite of all terrors, they are worth fighting to the end. That is the source of real self-esteem, not that we succeeded, but that we know tried our best in a fight within a rigged system.
So think furthermore of how the American south seemed to the whites who came there. Whether Spanish or English or Irish or German, they were presented with the chance to own some of the most beautiful places on earth, so beautiful that they were completely distracted from the morality of the enslavement, occupation, defilement, ethnic cleansing, of the land it cost them so little to own because it cost others so much.
So now, in the very beautiful places which gave so many generations of white southerners and westerners so much pride for so long: heatwave after heatwave, hurricane after hurricane, wildfire after wildfire, tornado after tornado, oil spill after oil spill; and now even a blizzard in the South causing more damage than any hurricane. Millions without power, freezing in the below zero cold, with their own personal floods in every basement.
The places in world history that suffer the most are always the places where joy is most easily obtained, where pride is most easily obtained, places where millions of people view their self-respect as a god given right, usually obtained at someone else’s expense with little conscience to bother them. The world seems to have some seismic way of locating them and making them pay for their joy in blood.
Beauty is transitory, or so Mr. Spock told us. All unique things of this world are fragile. These environmental disasters are getting more and more frequent, and they’re occurring in all the places where beauty is so common that you can ignore it: wildfires in California, floods in the Carolinas, hurricanes everywhere, a pandemic where we seem to be the deadliest country on earth, and now cold spells in the hottest state in the Union worthy of Minnesota or Michigan. Within a generation of getting so proud that they took the regulations off mass industry again, during a period when we should have known so much better, the world remands us for our pride; for viewing our control over the world as our destiny rather than something it rents out to us.
Be it environmental or warfare, some kind of reckoning is coming, and I believe it will particularly be on these fault lines of beauty in America, where so many cultures now have lived together for so long, accumulated so much history, so much tension, so much oppression, and so much meaning. The American chapter of history is now more written than waiting to be written, history will remember the modern era as ‘American’ in just the way they remember the Imperial Era as British, Romanticism as German, the Enlightenment as French, the Baroque as Spanish, and the Renaissance as Italian. There is not much more to write in the American chapter than how it ends. It will probably end as every chapter does, with the humiliated counting themselves the lucky among us. The America we know will still be there in some form, but it will be very different, perhaps not even a united states as we understand it today, and our country will become just another history lesson about what happens when we take pride in our accomplishment in inheriting pieces of the earth that other people paid for.
Some version of these beautiful American areas will always be there, but they will be very, very changed, and rather than being that part of America people from abroad try to avoid, will be another stop on the bucket list, and what seems to us like the obscenities Pompei probably seemed to many Romans may be the great ruins of the year 4000. “Come see the ruins of the Astrodome and Dirty Sixth Street!… Archeologists think this used to be a drive-thru liquor store… This is a belt buckle, it is thought that men used to wear it to conceal their genital size… This used to be called a ‘taco truck’ where educated Americans of European extraction would eat something called ‘breakfast burritos’…. This is a house designed took look like what people in the 1900s thought spaceships looked like… We believe this fossilized slab was something called a ‘steak’ but some archeologists are unsure human beings can ingest something of that size….. These forty-foot statues are thought to be of a group of 20th century musicians known as ‘The Beatles’… We believe this giant village was what was called a Renaissance Fair but evidence shows that its inhabitants were primitives because everything of which they partook was from the Middle Ages…. It is believed that these two giant bodiless calves with sports socks were connected to a body larger than the Empire State Building…. For two thousand years this has been a museum of antiquated toilet seats….”