The Age of American Decline

More often than I care to remember I have sought refuge in the 60’s. There is something so powerful and potent about the work that members of that generation were fighting for, and struggling with, that it’s hard not to be enraptured by their vision and energy now that more than fifty years have passed. Part of the reason I take refuge in the ideology and spirit of the 60’s is because I feel, and I think I share this malaise with others of my age, that my own generation and its philosophical movements fall short of being anything meaningful or powerful beyond self-interested attempts at “change.” Change for the sake of change is not, in my view, on a level with art for the sake of art, and for all its self-impressed bravado and narcissism, being a “hipster” isn’t quite the same to me as fighting for racial integration.

But part of this decline is, I think, attributable to something happening (and being documented with depressing familiarity) across America, a change in the demographic of the Nation. In this way I’m not talking about age or gender or race, but about locality. I am talking about the geographical spaces in which people are being born and growing up – and if the United States Census Bureau is to be believed, we are becoming a Nation of alarming one-dimensionality. According to a report by the Census, the number of Americans living in rural areas is only sixteen percent of the Nation’s population. This is in shocking contrast to the percentage that lived in rural areas in 1910, when such numbers stood at seventy-two percent. I do not cite to these numbers in an effort to play off of some ancient debate between city or country, or to exalt the wisdom of Henry David Thoreau over the relentless drive in American culture to innovation and achievement – both city and rural life offer something unique and meaningful for individual and social existence. But therein lies the problem – the possibilities of American life are declining, and as a result, we are a Nation of increasing singularity in both vision and practice.

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with New York City, or San Francisco, California. They are both on coasts, and enjoy wide cultural attractions. New York City has been home to more poets – Auden, and Lowell (to name just two) than one could endeavor to catalogue, just as San Francisco (my birth city) produced the original Gary Snyder. Both localities have created national and localized poetics and innovations that have propelled America to vast degrees of wealth and prosperity. But, despite all of this, they remain New York City, and San Francisco, California. They remain, two places. They do not represent the frigid winters of North Dakota, the multitude of lakes of Minnesota, the deep rural traditions of Faulkner’s South, or the quietude of the mesas of New Mexico. They represent their particular places – and though they are distinct, and deserving of praise and place in the tapestry of American vision, they are limited. They are limited because they can only offer two geographical views – east and west, Pacific and Atlantic. Vast visions to be sure, but incomplete. That is because the great idea that is America is its diversity, and the ways in which we grow, live, and interact with the world around us. And that is, fundamentally, what drove the vision of the 60’s – a mission of diversity, an energy of change, and a collection of voices from all parts of American life. I don’t think the existential malaise of New York or San Francisco could have done that alone.

I think I can be personal about this sense of vision of which I speak. Having spent a good number of years in the Midwest, and in particular in North Dakota, I can say I know something of – what is often, and unjustly derided as – “rural” vision. I know what -40F feels like, and I know what snow and wind can do to chill the bone and rock the soul. In my time in North Dakota, and in my own travels (and at its root, all travel is essentially about this), I have come to understand myself, my identity as a San Franciscan, a Bay Area resident, a college student at the University of California, and all of the other cultural monikers we come to use as shorthand to quickly identify ourselves and others in conversations at airports and café’s around the world. But this deep enrichment of my individual self could not have happened without those conversations. I could not have truly understood myself, or rather continue to understand myself without a vision of life and world that differed or mirrored my own. Whether in Bismarck or Fargo or rural towns throughout the state, I have come to understand the shared otherness that unites us all, as Americans, as individuals, and as shared members of the human race. And more importantly, I could not then have formed a hybridized image of my soul as both a Californian and North Dakotan, and also an American. But something of this ability to recognize ourselves as individuals, and to see ourselves as integral parts of something larger and more diverse than our geographic spaces is seriously at risk in our Nation.

We are no longer – as the Census Bureau informs us – a Nation of small and rural communities. Instead, we are increasingly a nation of megalopolises – places with layered suburbs of similarity, where every convenience from 7-11, to Wal-Mart, to symphonies and poetry can all be found off of a quick interstate, and in the comforting light and city noise of traffic and language we readily know and speak – Starbucks, Target, and ExxonMobil. Rural communities are not immune to these things. They are conveniences there, too. But perhaps there is still some mystery, intrigue, and a new language and vision to explore on the vast and open prairie landscapes that haunt my soul and bring tears to my eyes, such as when I read Willa Cather’s My Antonia – an expostulation of such grand beauty and vision that anyone who reads it should be moved to leave the city and move to the country; or when I explore the rugged beauty and twilit landscape of the buttes of western North Dakota, or the simplicity of a setting sun over a small lake, with friends who accent language a little differently, and who grew up in towns of forty or fifty. This is not an attempt to overlook the narrowness and parochialism that can accompany rural visions (or city visions, for that matter), nor is it an effort to shirk the harsh realities that rural communities endure racism, violence, and economic stagnation on par with any we might see in divided suburbs in the city. Instead it is an attempt to see those problems, and those solutions, from a view I would otherwise not have had access to.

Let me also say that I am proud to have been born in California, and would not change the place where I am from, or where I grew up. None of us should desire that. It’s a part of who we are. But, it was a long effort, on the part of my ancestors, to get to that part of America, and they took some varied routes. Many of our ancestors did – and I think, too, that that speaks profoundly to the need Americans innately have for being shaped by diversity. But too often a diversity that is overlooked, and which is intrinsically a part of our National history, is one rooted in a geographic and regional diversity of profound implications. Part of this is of course relative – as all things human must necessarily be. I believe that part of what formed the Nation’s consciousness in the 60’s (that generation and movement I first spoke of) was the result of a discourse of diversity. I simply don’t feel a similar power or symmetry with that symphony of perspectives with the movements of my moment. As people take to the street protesting over money – either conservative or liberal – the movements do not seem to possess the same verve, or poetry that riding a bus to Selma, Alabama did, or taking the steps of Sproul Hall at the University of California, Berkeley to fight for the shared freedom of speech. In my reading of those histories there was a mosaic of music and life that seemed to flow in such effusion, that the movements themselves seemed connected with life. Of course this might be because every cultural moment imagines its predecessors to have been grander – but in this case, I suspect it may have been.

All of this returns elliptically, however, to the decline of America. Often in the popular media this decline is depicted as the decline of “Rural America,” a harkening to the notion of the Buffalo Commons, where one day the entire Midwest will empty out and be restored to a place of ecological nature. But to my mind the decline of rural America is a decline of America itself. Our Nation is one compelled and triumphant – through both its failures and successes, its pathos and aspirations – by diversity, and chief in that diversity are the places we hail from. That diversity is exemplified through the shared dialogues we immerse ourselves in when we travel or meet those from other places, but it is a diversity increasingly stunted by the pursuit of the “city” life, or of “city” opportunities. There is nothing wrong with those efforts, but what I long to see, and what I ask of my generation, is a pursuit to create opportunities, and with them life, in rural spaces. To become a new generation of pioneers, and forge a destiny not mandated by the slick and easy realities of mass commuter transit, billboard advertisements, and smog filled traffic. I think that what will define my generation – if it is to be defined at all, and I suspect it is rapidly losing ground in an ever deteriorating narcissism of self – will be an effort to rejuvenate American culture and diversity by doing what the pioneers did: creating a self defined by a rugged spirit of individualism and also community (and in the process forging meaningful communities from the first brick), and doing so in spaces that aren’t frequented by air travel. There is something glorious, inviting, exciting, exhilarating, and terrifying about the openness and “emptiness” of rural space – but therein lies the possibility of creating a generational consciousness, that defines not just some limited poetic space of a city block (they have poetics enough), but rather that serves to inspire a way of envisioning America, and which embraces the rugged terrain and gentle prairies that mirror its infinite possibilities and variations.

Michael Lopez

Northern California and North Dakota

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