There was a time in this country, not so long ago, when the structure of generations made sense. To wit:

Elderly people were veterans of the Second World War. From the tumult of their youth and the prosperity of their prime, they enjoyed the serenity of the golden Autumn of their years.

Middle-aged people had made the Nineteen-Sixties. Grappling with consequences of that era’s hedonism, they at the same time attempted to uphold its ideals while raising families and coming to responsibility.

Young people were those who grew up in the shadow of the Sixties, dealing with the wreckage of the new freedoms yet attempting to live out the promise that went before them.

This was a most vibrant arrangement, rich in sociological and narrative promise, and it bore much fruit for the republic. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the television program “Twin Peaks”, to give two examples.

But recently, it has come to my attention that the situation has changed.

Now, increasingly, Elderly people are those of Sixties, leading to, for instance, the spectacle of septuagenarian rock stars shuffling on stage in a grotesque parody of their salad days. Meanwhile their children have been forced into Middle Age, burdening them with responsibilities for which they were in no way adequately prepared.

Whereas the World War II generation is, by and large, deceased.

I don’t know when this change occurred. I don’t know who authorized it. I certainly wasn’t consulted. nor was anyone I know. Frankly, the entire situation is a disgrace, and it has gone on long enough. I intend to lodge a complaint. Manifestos and petitions must be pursued. I demand redress of grievance. Let no mistake be made: the country will be restored to the state it should be, and all made well again.

(Written AD MMVIII, 232nd year of American Independence. George W. Bush, President of the Republic, and gasoline at four dollars the gallon.)

The night after Peak Oil, I met Nixon by the Union Station Metro stop. He was wearing a dust-tinged blue suit and trying to hail a cab.

“I’ve got to get down to the Mall,” he was mumbling when I found him. “I can calm the situation. I reach out to people. I reached out to those goddamned war protestors, but they were too bitter. I can’t stand bitter people. Where the hell is a goddamned taxi?”

“There aren’t any more taxis, Dick. There’s no more oil.”

“What? Those damned Saudis won’t cough up more oil? Goddammit, we’ll send in the Marines and take it from them!”

“Dick, the Saudis are dead. They sent us all their oil and they died.”

“Hmm. Well, let’s walk then.”

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On Tuesday, our youngest child participated in Crossing the Bridge, the Girl Scout ritual of advancement. At the beginning of the ceremony, as at all Scouting ceremonies, a color guard brought in the Flag. All stood. I stood.

Then all, led by the girls, recited the Pledge of Allegiance. I did not. I do not pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, nor to the country for which it stands.

What is a country?

A country is a geographic perimeter, a line in the earth. On one side of the line certain things are instituted, on the other they are not. The earth itself is indistingushed. The line is entirely mental, even when it is marked by warning signs and border crossings. Within that perimeter are parameters: parameters of law, of capital, of economic condition.

A country is an assemblage of officials, both elected and appointed. There are tens of thousand who guide their days, and receive their livelihoods, by and from concrete entities representing the United States of America. Those men and women who act with a certain insignia on their sleeves may be said to be the fingers of the United States.

A country is a habit of thought.

In the early stages of the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson ordered the signal ENGLAND EXPECTS THAT EVERY MAN WILL DO HIS DUTY. He believed this statement would create a praxis, that it would cause his sailors to act in a certain manner. Two hundred years earlier, this would not have been the case. In the St Crispin’s Day speech, Shakespeare places in King Harry’s mouth many things to inspire his troops. Love of country is not among them. England makes no appearance as an entity, only as a location. In the interval between the two statements, the nation-state appeared. People, mostly in Europe, began thinking there was a “country” to which they belonged, and that this
“country” was a self-evident reality. They acquired those habits of thought, the associations, the words and names to be invoked towards action.

What is my country?

I am an American, a citizen of the United States of America. I was born within the boundaries of the United States, child of two citizens of that country. My grandparents and great-grandparents were likewise citizens of the United States, and now in turn my children.

To be an American is a fascinating thing. Of course, all countries and all peoples are fascinating. But the United States of America is a unique object, in current history, in all of human history. In many ways, the U.S.A. is the age encapsulated. I was born into the richest and most powerful nation in the world, rich and powerful in a way that no nation has ever been, in ways that no nation has ever before had the capability. The Unprecedented Era is the product of the United States, like a Model T or a Zenith television.

I live within the perimeter of the United States. I exist under its laws, under the authority of its officials. More importantly, I act out its habits. The Fourth of July is no ordinary day for me, nor is the first Tuesday in November. I feel a personal resonance with the Revolution and the Civil War, and can imagine those actions in landscapes I know. The generations of my family match the arcs of American history. I can find a place for my loved ones and myself in those events.

I will not say the Pledge of Allegiance because it is unnecessary. The United States of America has my connection; it has no need of my allegiance. I cannot escape my country. If my country does right, I shall, within my power, try to aid it. If my country does wrong, I shall, within my power, try to stymie it. For I am an American, and I believe alongside Abraham Lincoln that it is not so important for God to be on our side as we to be on God’s.

It may be that we are in the last years of the nation-state, that the improved communication & transportation technologies that enabled its birth are undermining and will finally eliminate the concept. It will join the empire and the monarchy in the past. One could make the case that my refusal to say the Pledge is evidence of that decline even within me. But not yet. The words, the flag—I know them. If I forbear the habit of the Pledge, it is in practice of other, more important American habits. That is where I find myself, at the point in history in which I exist, and from there I shall continue in my small way.

Went down to the Boston Public Library for the first time since the renovations. There are now two cafes, plus a sit-down restaurant, in the building. It got me to thinking that in our day Americans demand three things of all public venues:

-Refreshments, particularly coffee
-Video screens (displaying something, it doesn’t matter what)

If you don’t have those three, forget it. Americans aren’t interested. Malls, rest stops, libraries, college campuses, churches–all must have them.

I do not wish to see the modern funeral parlor.

(Lest I seem too grumpy, let me add the renovations turned out very nice, greatly mollifying the harsh Brutalist interior of the new wing. Also, I had a quite toothsome lunch in the new cafe)

I don’t like what’s about to happen to the United States. I’m scared. But when I look at it, at the great arc of history, I have to admit that there is something deeply on target about Donald Trump coming to the presidency. It is only what could be expected. And a phrase keeps popping to mind: the Gatsbyean Doom. Trump is the Gatsbyean Doom. There could be no other. There are no ifs in history. All of American history has been aimed at this. The Gatsbyean Doom. Like a bobbing styrofoam cup at the brink of Niagara Falls. There could be no other.

I will say this: in 1990, with the ending of the Cold War, America lost a raison d’etre. We have not yet managed to find another one. We have wandered in malaise. In Trump we find a thicker, richer, new & improved malaise.

Here’s an odd patriotic note as we head into the Independence Day weekend: Between the Great Lakes battles and the riverine engagements of the Civil War, the United States had seen more significant inland naval combat than any other nation on earth. China has the Battle of the Red Cliffs, East Africa the Battle for Lake Tanganyika, but no one can match the extent and importance of our fresh-water operations.

(We share the Great Lakes battles (which include Lake Champlain for these purposes) with Canada, but they don’t have the Civil War experience. And hey, we could throw in the riverine operations in Vietnam for good measure.)


As we were passing through a rest stop on the Mass Pike on Tuesday my eyes fell on the pair of TVs in the dining area and I found myself explaining them to an imaginary foreigner.

Imaginary foreigner: Why are zere TV screens in ze dining area?
Me: You have to understand: to the American mind, being out of sight of a video screen equates to death.