What, Us Worry? Yes, Us Worry

Photo: Matt Mahurin

It is not just one thing. It’s the conjunction of so many dismal, sapping events and conditions that now creates a singular moment of waiting for the other shoe to drop in New York.

The collapse of the stock market. The breakdown of the city’s two main industries: finance and media. The nation’s worst hiring slump in twenty years. The city itself in deep financial extremis. This long, execrable, grinding buildup to war. Orange alerts.

Not just a conjunction but a pileup.

Each element of the oncoming calamity has its own particular velocity. There’s no preventing the wreck. Free fall becomes the most prevalent metaphor—even the accepted state of things. (“Oh, yeah, everything is pretty much in free fall.” Shrug.) We all wait—some with an effort at coolness, others with rising hysteria—for impact.

The slow motion is the weird, unnerving part.

The economy started to go bad almost exactly three years ago. Since then, against the background narration of possible soft landings and necessary corrections and recoveries and counterintuitive tax relief and now the prospect of ever-more-counterintuitive tax cuts, the hole has stubbornly widened and drawn more and more of us into it. (In the beginning, it seemed to be happening over there, to someone else—to the techies, the corporate flimflammers, and others who might deserve it.) Job insecurity is pandemic. Everyone knows someone who’s been canned. For a while, we were being told it was the worst downturn in a decade—back, in other words, to the last Bush-Saddam war. Now it’s the worst in two decades. And it seems reasonable to assume that with the uncer-tainties and costs of war—and an all-new big-bang, pay-no-attention-to-that $300 billion hole in the budget—the worst is yet to come. How bad could it be? How dizzyingly bad? Japanese bad? A ten-year-and-counting horizon of going-nowhereness, of sinking-furtherness? Of undoing a generation of prosperity and ambition?

The relentless chug-chug of war has been formally going on for six months now. And really, it has been going on for almost eighteen months—since September 11. Going to war—the complicated and stultifying process of amassing and launching the public-relations artillery—will likely have lasted much longer than the war itself. And the costs of this prefatory foot-stamping in societal distraction, in ideas and projects on hold, in hoarded capital, in personal unease, may be greater than the price of the actual mobilization.

The ritual of making the case, the ritual of righteousness, is strained and desultory—the PowerPoint aspect of it all is a cause of anxiety in itself. It’s such a monotonous, enervating argument (there’s not even any tonal variety—it’s like trying to reason with the dullard school principal and his nasty assistant principals; it’s bullying and infantilizing), because you know where it’s going to end up. We watch the war come from long perspective, to middle distance, to just about upon us—without any expectation that the end can be avoided, or that there has ever been any real intention to avoid it. It’s all been a none-too-clever setup.

Yet, oddly, it takes such a long time to get there on this weeks-not-months schedule.

And likewise, and as tediously, it takes a long time for the Dow to drop, or finish dropping (7,000? 6,500? Lower?). And for the pink slip to arrive. And for the city itself to break down—only ever-so-slowly does the paint start to peel, do the homeless return in force, do the panhandlers get more aggressive, do the museums shutter rooms, and does the garbage accumulate.

We’ve been here before—at least, many of us of a certain middle age have. It’s called the seventies.

When the Middle East—first with the opec nations embargoing oil, then later when Iran went nuts on us—became the abiding preoccupation of the age (an abiding preoccupation that did not seem to yield any more understanding than it does now—who are these people? What do they want from us? Why are they so annoying?). When the economy began a sickening ten-year ebb. When the city went bankrupt.

A magazine story I wrote in 1975, about that year’s class of college graduates (my class) arriving in New York to a condition of almost absolute joblessness, is pretty similar to the kind of stories we will shortly again be reading plenty of. Then, as now, all the entitlement and enthusiasm turned out to deflate so easily, so pitiably—a boom, it seems, is built on very fragile egos. All those would-be world-beaters are back living at home. It’s just a good economy, it turns out, that makes the difference between ambition and pathos. (The middle-aged parents I know talk not only about how their own children can’t get jobs but about how the children of celebrities whom their children know can’t get jobs, either, which is the ultimate sign of despair. What is New York when even connections don’t help? You can’t get colder than that.)

And this mayor, like the mayor then (the similarly hapless and unphotogenic Abe Beame), is once again embarrassingly hat-in-hand. GOVERNOR TO CITY: DROP DEAD. It’s 1977, or surely seems soon to be, when the lights went out.

This is, too, as the seventies were, a bleary, guilty, hung-over time.

The aimless, anxious seventies followed, like some retribution, that ever-so-brief sixties baby-boom heaven on earth.

Likewise, little more than three years ago, we were deep in yuppie Jerusalem. Let us recall: Jobs were fungible, new careers transformative—and available to all; every idea was a plausible one; the money flowed.

Now, obviously, all gone. Over with. Kaput.

In May 2000, sitting on a panel (there are a lot fewer panels now, too)—a month after the market had taken its first dive—I got into an argument with Kara Swisher, the “Boom Town” columnist for the Wall Street Journal. It seemed clear to me then, because I had passed this way before, and because I am, by nature, a believer in the worst, that we were leaving our sixties. But Kara’s defense was heated and convincing: Innovation was real and catalyzing, capital was plentiful and needed to be invested, fundamental positive economic changes had occurred—what’s more, nobody was going to go back to the old way of working and doing business (top-down, centralized, hierarchical, slow, dull).

The funny thing is that the logic was firmly on Kara’s side (why should everything have gone bust—what happened to all those big productivity gains?). Whereas I had only superstition, bad vibes, and a perennial glum outlook on mine. And yet, of course, I was entirely right—and strident, optimistic Kara all wrong. And it was not just the excesses of the dear departed decade that would go. Rather, all memory—or at least all positive memory—of that time has been revised, even expelled. Those were unreal, illogical, irrationally exuberant, apparently crooked times—best gone, we think now.

If the madness of crowds was a plausible explanation for what happened then, is the depression of crowds an equally valid explanation for what is happening now?

Surely, we think, September 11 is a legitimate fork in the psychological road.

The casus belli for an age of anxiety.

Or is there, in some sense, with or without the 11th, always the impulse to do penance for an age of excess? Is there always, necessarily, a reversal? (Is cyclical capitalism a psychological as well as an economic condition? After all those millennia of scarcity, Saul Bellow notes, it’s hard for human beings to accept all this affluence.)

Fear Factor NYC
Neither terror nor war nor sputtering economy keeps New Yorkers–for long–from their appointed rounds.

NYPD officers patrol Grand Central in response to raised terror alert status.Photo: AP/Wide World

Here’s an unasked question: To what extent have we made a choice to live in a terrified and compromised world?

The president, for instance, it seems fair to argue, had two fundamentally opposite roles to choose from:

To be a cheerleader for normalcy and recovery.

Or to be a sentinel for vigilance and vengeance.

In the former, the job would have been to devote great energy to preserving the confidence and optimism that good economic times are made of—to reassure, to boost, to talk us through the troubles (an orange alert would have been precautionary instead of anticipatory). Why punish ourselves? It’s a therapeutic approach. But in the latter, you go with the view that everything has changed, or must change, that personal, social, and economic well-being must and should take a backseat to larger moral, mortal concerns. Your job is to get people to accept an amount of bleakness and fatalism. Put on the hair shirt. It’s a religious approach (it is possible yet that this president will be seen as having much in common with Jimmy Carter, our born-again seventies president).

The president, of course, chose the latter view and was followed by the media and—at least temporarily—by the electorate.

It does not seem churlish to point out that this grim, determined, one-dimensional view fits the president’s sober, evangelical self (interesting to speculate that the good-timer in him might have led to a different sort of recovery). Nor does it seem too partisan to point out the obvious: The former era, this free-floating, transformative, polymorphous brainiac-kids-in-T-shirts nonstop throw-out-the-old-in-with-the-new party, was not good for the Republicans.

As it happens, war exhortations not only mobilize media and troops but restore the old, hierarchical, paternal model. Information comes from above; it’s doled out by information regulators; it’s interpreted by the information interpreters; and, mostly, it’s uncritically accepted by the information receivers. The new information free will dissolves. The man talks; we listen.

It’s security (con-fidence, fearlessness, expansiveness) that’s been lost, or been replaced by some new, quaking state of anxiousness.

In some ways, that was the startling, amazing accomplishment of the lost nineties. There was not only economic security—pick your job, count your money as it grew—but physical safety. No crime! Hello? No risk—danger had dwindled down to virtually none at all. One day in the mid-nineties, we woke up to find that New York had become a gentle town (along with the gentleness there were, too, the new amenities, the scrubbed quality, the shine, the flowers—everywhere some spit and polish). This was, of course, in weird and stunning contrast to those earlier decades of everyday terror.

The terror, albeit of a different order, is back. The subways, which, if you want to terrify someone, have always been among the most effective places to do it (I remember a man with a knife in my car on the F train, in 1976, disemboweling another man), are once again a stage set for nightmares. A suicide bomber (as radically discordant as it is to transpose the bomber on a Hebron bus to New York) on a Times Square platform would, even as much as 9/11, alter the future of the city.

There is, too, not just fear of random acts but, back to prior decades, the prospect of the nuclear big one (the nineties, for the first time in 40 years, also briefly expunged this possibility).

One Manhattan school that I know of now has a health-and-safety manual that spells out how to seal a room to make it airtight in the event of nuclear or chemical attack, how to build up radiation-shield tables in the room, and the emergency supplies that are now kept on hand, including a backpack with flashlights, ropes, first-aid kit, water, and extra batteries, along with a day’s supply of Iosat pills for every child and faculty member, which, the manual says, prevent the absorption of radiation.

The fact that these threats—dirty bombs, suicide bombers, poison gas, airborne antigens, “packages” (and these are the devils we know)—are theoretical ones in some sense makes them more psychologically complex and anxiety-producing.

Even though we have seen virtually no evidence of domestic terror beyond September 11 (except the odd, and most always unconvincing, arrests), we cannot breathe ever easier. It is not socially acceptable to deny the fear of terrorism. Terror is our totem—we believe in it.

Indeed, not having had another domestic attack since September 11 (even though they have been so vividly promised) seems, however counterintuitively, only to increase the statistical probability that one will come. Metaphorically, the air, the moment, the time and place, are pregnant with danger—and at some point, the terror must be delivered.

Then, too, it is hard not to consider, and harder still to rationalize (although we are forced to), that the war process itself could bring this thing on. The steps we are taking to lessen the threat of terror increase the threat of terror. That is, almost everyone would agree, too complicated to parse out—it’s existential, French (ugh). We’re not smart enough to deal with that one. And yet, of course, not parsing it increases that sense of dependency, and of being infantilized—our only hope is that they know what they’re doing.

This is further anxiety-producing because most New Yorkers do not at all believe that Bush and his cabal have much idea about what they’re doing.

Which means we are really on our own.

Of course, this is all obviously ridiculous, too. Or anyway, the likelihood—as well as the best-case scenario—is that almost everybody will be rolling on the floor laughing about the duct tape soon. (The school’s terror manual will—one hopes—resurface years from now as terror kitsch.) We’re close to being back in Dr. Strangelove territory. It’s terrifying and depressing, but a surreal comedy too.

Rising hysteria brings out the foolishness in everyone; rumors of terror separate the truly off-the-wall from the only mildly addled.

We enter now an age of cheap and desperate distraction (arguably, we just came from an age of expensive distractions—the great, mad lust for money may soon seem like a form of high culture). Reality-TV shows in the ‘00s are perhaps a seventies-disco equivalent. Certainly something will be.

Where before, the workaday life was the thing—the career the central experience (all those great, galvanizing, theatrical, sexy Wall Street and media careers)—that won’t be true anymore. Working, having lost its transformative rewards, will be the boring thing, the forgotten thing, the irritating thing. A take-this-job-and-shove-it thing.

The seventies were a private, solipsistic time (the true age of vast amounts of mindless drugs and sex). It was almost impossible to imagine an energetic future. Similarly now, with war and its long aftermath, rising deficits, and deep consumer ennui (even the age of consumerism may now be ending), there will be no Next Big Thing on the horizon—no tech, no financial schemes, no 401(k)’s, no big media plays (but for reality TV). It’s personal, beyond politics, economics, technology, culture—it’s back to dealing with things by yourself. Back to your own neurotic condition—no hiding from your own neediness, or passiveness, or fearfulness. Embrace it. Zen and the art of war and recession.

Self-loathing soon gets to self-parody.

My daughter called from college the other day to report the old canard currently circulating as new epiphany on campus that her generation would be the first to fall behind its parents’ generation—to be less prosperous, less secure, to have fewer opportunities. This was a seventies thing, too (it was also big, as I recall, in the slacker early nineties). We used to say this with great resignation and existential dread (and, more modestly, simply feeling sorry for ourselves). It implied a sense of loss, of something being taken, of promises not kept, of disappointment and apprehension in the air, of the world having turned, abruptly, capriciously, cruelly, from another livelier, richer, more hopeful course.

This is, it seems to me, exactly the present feeling—which will last until, in fact, a great new catastrophe overwhelms us, or we get too bored with it all and cycle on.

What, Us Worry? Yes, Us Worry