Life Here Now

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When we talk about imports and exports we tend to talk about things like foreign oil or Chinese goods. But the past few decades have seen changes in our country far more profound than simply the origin of the products we find on the shelves of our stores. Life here has started to look a lot more like life in other places.

Sadly, I have come to appreciate that my undergraduate major in Latin American history prepared me for life in a country where elites use religion and patriotism to generate support for a system that produces, and then protects, huge disparities in wealth. Over time, the mill towns of the Midwest and Southeast have taken on the look of the old industrial Midlands of England, places where the jobs left, never to return.

Decades ago homelessness emerged as a crisis in this country. Now we tend to see it as an unsightly feature of certain locations -- it has gone from being a pressing issue to something that we try to avoid, like traffic congestion. It is as if, in exchange for outsourcing jobs, we have imported complacency about public suffering.

In a real sense, we are all immigrants in a new country. Our deep malaise is the reaction of people who find life in this new place harder and less pleasant than they expected. At the same time there is also a nostalgic yearning for the way things used to be in the old homeland. Our loudest political faction has successfully exploited this by asserting that we need to reclaim the virtues, public and private, of a mythic past.

But the most significant change in this strange place we call home is the view of the future. Gone is the ascendant trajectory that defined the path forward in the old country. Instead we look out over the horizon and see a replay of the cycle of rise and fall that has marked life in other places and other times. This, more than anything else, is what disorients us. We are like sailors who, looking up at unfamiliar stars, worry that we will not be guided back to a safe harbor.


With a Perspective, this is Paul Staley.