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Destination: Ancient Rome! I recently released a somewhat eccentric time travel story at Fictionwise. More on that below.
That Great Sucking Sound Remember that line from H. Ross Perot's presidential campaigns on an independent, Reform Party ticket in the 1980s? He was warning about NAFTA, the trade agreement that allegedly was going to send American jobs south to Mexico with a huge whooshh . Truth is always stranger than fiction. Ross had it half right. The giant sucking sound you hear is that of China inhaling. As China inhales (along with India, Sri Lanka, etc), out go American jobs and in come cheaper goods purchased by unsustainable debt. To some extent, it's a scary reminder of the 1920s: successive Republican administrations awash in corruption, cronyism, and incompetence; a populace drunk on speculation, for whom no car moves fast enough, no skirt is too short, and no fundamentalist Prohibition law exists that cannot be violatedevery man is a stock expert and the American Dream of being poor today and a millionaire tomorrow is just around the corner. Well, that's just part of it.
Here's the other part, I think. When I was a kid in 1960, using an obsolte Geography text dating to my birth year of 1949, I was deeply impressed by a lesson in which we learned that American good fortune put us at the top of a kind of evolutionary ladder in which less fortunate people in Africa and South America sold us raw materials dirt cheap in return for our generosity in defending them from Communism. Even then, there seemed to me something wrong with this formula. Now of course it looks like sheer Cheneyist predatory capitalism (a la Kenny Boy Lay, where they don't care if they are screwing Little Sambo in the Congo for his gold mines, or little Joe Sixpack on Main Street for his tax dollars; it's all the same). I felt then, and I now that I was right, that this state of affairs would naturally smooth itself out. So here's the larger picture.
Having been given half a continent by Divine Providence (the old Protestant Colonial vision) or should we say, having conquered a half continent full of natives who were building gigantic mound cities in Ohio and elsewhere during the European Middle Ages, we have spent several centuries depleting this great land of its resources. It's said that, when the Pilgrims were kicked out of England for being the same radical zealots and extremists they are in the U.S. today, a squirrel could hop into a tree in Maine and jump from branch to branch without ever touching the ground until it reached somewhere almost in Florida. All of that, like so much of our natural resources, is gone. More notably, while we exhaust ourselves arguing over meaningless Mesopotamian creation myths that the zealots feel are scientific, countries like India and China are busy educating scientists and engineers. Now why do I say stuff like this? Because I'm one of those crazed libburruls who hates America? Or because I'm a smart guy who loves the U.S.A. and wants this country to stay on top, but knows it can't because it is being pulled down into the muck of stupidity by Bush and his fellow homunculi, especially the cynical opportunists and millionaires at Fox (plus throw in one bloated drug addict and street criminal, Limbaugh, and one howling lunatic with a mean streak, Ann Coulter). While we are busy trying to force 6,000 year old bedtime stories into our science classroom, our students recently scored 22nd in the world in math, and 28th in sciences. They aren't doing that in Indiarather they are outproducing us in engineers alone at better than 10 to 1, and India has some of the toughest technical universities on earth.
What does it all mean? Tom Friedman tells us the world is flat. He's right. I call it the Calcuttafication of America. That imbalance I noted as an 11 year old in a Geography class is evening itself out. Remember the Empire on which the sun never set? That was the British Empire, long gone. Now it's the America of Bush's new world order, a world of global corporations that owe no allegiance to any nation, be it U.S. or European. Problem is, for Third World countries that are racing full steam to catch up, it's a nationalist issue. Hence, the sight of men last decade, on the streets of Rawalpindi or Delhi, with no property but their loin cloth and a begging bowl, but dancing for joy to learn their country possesses atomic bombs. The sucking sound has been going on for decades. I remember the howling in the 1960s when the Interstate highways killed off our railroads, and when the U.S. merchant marine fleet sank beneath the waves as those same Bushian American global corporations shipped cheaper under Panamanian and Liberian flag. I remember the howling about the U.S. car industry getting swamped by cheap Japanese imports in the 1970s. Here's a sad fact to put it into perspective: If you could go back in time and walk into any U.S. home in 1955, you would find that everything in that house was made in the U.S.A. You would have to look hard to find anything made abroad. Today, there is almost nothing in the U.S. home that is made in the U.S.A.
Will we have ghettoes like they do in Calcutta? Most likely, as the standard of living rises in India and China, the worst of their poverty (and it is still prodigious) will at least soften somewhat. Meanwhile, our internal Third World will simply get larger. You see, we've always had our own developing nation within us. It's just that we refer to it as the ghetto, and it has tended to be most visibly filled with people of color. Since people of color were kept invisible until the rising star of Rosa Parks in the 1950s, the American developing nation has remained invisible to most of us (all but those who live in it). If you want, however, to find a huge white ghetto, look no further than Appalachia. Both the urban ghettoes, the Native American reservations with their high suicide and infant mortality rates, and white poverty preserves like Appalachia are a historic stain on our self-adulation. With the brainwashing of our population by various extremists who have taken over the government, the religious madrassas of Christian fundamentalism, and various bastions of far-right zealotry in the culture wars, it is virtually impossible for the average American to get the straight story.
Is there hope for democracy and prosperity in the U.S.A.? Only if we have good leadership (nonexistent in the corrupt and cronyist Kenny Boy Lay government today) and true information (nonexistent in the goose-stepping world of Fox Propaganda Network). Sadly, 'pride goeth before a fall,' and I'm afraidvery afraidthat the American people are about to learn the lessons of the Great Depression all over again. Only this time there may not be a world war and a renewed industrial revolution to pull us out of that kind of hole. You and I had both better hope I'm wrong.
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The Sibyl's Urn, or: Destination: Ancient Rome! by John T. Cullen (2005 Clocktower Books). Told in the second person, this novel makes you the hero or heroine as Professor Darwin and his exotically beautiful assistant Amalthea take you on a journey back to ancient Rome. At stake is a lost scroll belonging to a sibyl, or prophetess similar to the ones at Delphi in Greece. The scroll holds secrets the ancient Romans would dearly like to know, and your traveling companions have their own dark reasons for wanting to make this journey. Along the way, you get to sample the sounds, sights, and smells of a world that is as alien to ours as it is intriguing. Some of the early research material here wound up in my book A Walk in Ancient Rome (iBooks/Simon & Schuster, 2005).