Everyone’s hometown is haunted with memories, and walking through the streets of your childhood means accepting their company. Here is the place you first learned to swim, kissed a girl, fell and got that scar. All around are the shadows of the people you knew, and were, and perhaps could have been.
I spent almost six weeks in my hometown this autumn, talking with old friends, neighbors, and random people on the street or in the store: black and white, men and women, both political parties, mostly working class. When I told people I’d spent almost two decades in rural Ireland and wanted to see how America has changed in my absence, most people were happy to give me an earful.
The town feels much the same as it did when I was growing up: same post-war housing, drive-throughs, and cavernous supermarkets. Only occasionally do I see something that reminds me I’m in the future now, like the supermarket robot that rolls up and asks what I want. “That thing just replaced a few elderly workers,” said the old trucker next to me, who feared his profession would be next.
The effect of being back in childhood was undoubtedly helped by the same 1980s music out the store speakers, with advertisements for Star Wars, Top Gun, and Batman. Even many new pop songs, I’m told, are simply remixes of songs made popular by teenagers who are now grandparents. Hollywood pop culture crushed American folk culture a century ago, and now has itself run out of ideas.
The good news is that everyone was friendly in that American way that you only appreciate after living elsewhere; they held doors open, gave directions, chatted on front lawns and in the supermarket checkout, and shared openly with a stranger. Everyone had opinions, and the culture war had reshuffled some old loyalties; long-time Republican friends quit over Trump, and blue-collar Democrats left over gender ideology and defunding the police. Yet nowhere did I get the unhinged venom I see after a few moments on the internet. In fact, most lamented how violent political rhetoric has become in the last few years, and how dangerous that could become.
People here learned about that first-hand several years ago, when the name of Ferguson, Missouri, became famous for all the wrong reasons. European news channels tend to look at their own problems through a telescope and America’s through a microscope, so the protests became a top global story for weeks, and from across an ocean I could see riots and fires consume streets I recognized. Very few reporters mentioned that many of the rioters had traveled to Missouri from far away to smash and burn, or that some of the local protesters were helping police protect business from the rioters. The real story was more complicated, but also more hopeful, than the caricature.
The brief riots did not change the area much, except that property values sank and homicides skyrocketed; I was relaxing with friends in their backyard and we heard gunfire not far away. They signaled a remarkable change, however, in online media culture, and in the attitudes of many of my friends. Americans had been polarized for a long time, of course; I remember all the post-2000 analyses saying that we had split into two cultures of red and blue, retro and metro, grits and polenta. As high as tensions were back then, though, I was still able to make friends across the political map and cordially hash out differences. In the years after Ferguson, though, all that started to change.
An early ominous sign was the flood of “inspirational” memes circulating on social media that urged everyone to purge their lives of those “toxic” people who disagreed with them. Over the next few years, many of my acquaintances—mostly from college, now in the laptop class—did just that, amputating more and more friends and family in endless purity spirals. When new crusades appeared—gay marriage, transgenderism, race apologies, pronouns—the same people jumped on board and spoke as though they’d always been a believer, condemning anyone with the attitudes they’d had yesterday. Living on the internet isolates us in an eternal present, cut off not only from the wisdom of tradition but from the people we were.
My social circles began to hemorrhage. One old friendship ended when I mentioned that men are murdered more often than women. Another old friend accused me on social media of supporting slavery and white supremacy, because I had made a reference to the Ancient Greeks. One began calling all our mutual acquaintances and urging them to cut ties with me. My politics hadn’t changed much, but everyone’s reactions to them had, and I was coming home to fewer friends than before.
While I saw this mostly among Democratic-leaning friends who went “woke,” longtime Republican friends told me similar stories about Donald Trump-inspired zealots in their circles. I cannot speak to their experience, but some on both ends have embraced the same maximalism, the same gleeful spite, even similar conspiracy theories. Rarely were their loyalties based on any evidence, for almost no one can name any bill that, say, Donald Trump or AOC has backed, much less heard logical arguments for and against said bills at the local Elks Lodge. As Oswald Spengler predicted would happen as our civilization declines, politics has become less about policies and more about personalities; our leaders today are self-promoting brands, receptacles for our fantasies.
Many people I talked to back home had seen a similar culling of their own circles of loved ones, decimating the relationships we need to give our lives meaning. It wasn’t a war or a plague, but a lot of people were casualties.
Why this all happened as it did, at just this time, is not easy to answer. Was it the invention of smart phones and social media, with their ability to seal already-divided subcultures into echo chambers? Was it a coddled generation born to helicopter parents? Was it Russia or China creating a color revolution? Was it a reaction to Occupy Wall Street, as elites realized that a race and gender war was a good way to avoid a class war?
Or was it the realization that the space-age future we were led to expect would never happen, that the USA was a country in decline, and a cascade of online quasi-revolutionary social movements allowed everyone to maintain the illusion of progress?
For it is a country in decline, and you see it if you are away for a while: more homeless on highway off-ramps, more stores boarded up, more stressed and unhealthy-looking people coping with legal and illegal chemicals. I don’t mean we are headed for a pseudo-religious action-movie apocalypse, after which the prepared are saved and everyone else wished they had listened. No, I mean a baseline that shifts over generations, until no one remembers what normal used to look like.
Most people recognize some of this and make practical adjustments. They drive around town in golf carts for a fraction the cost of a car. They form multi-generational homes, reverting to the sensible historical norm. More people are buying guns. I look around at people my age, and a surprising number never got married or had children, for the risks and costs of both have increased. Not all good things, but understandable.
There are still two Americas, but the most important division might not be left and right, but of the Twitter class and the working class. When you see your countrymen tear each other apart online—and from across the ocean you have no other points of reference—it is easy to forget that is happening in a sliver of the population. Most people I talked to don’t spend all day on Twitter; they are too busy working, trying to keep their finances and sanity together. They don’t feel like crusaders in a war so much as bystanders in a Godzilla movie, trying to dodge the fallout from the battle overhead. And some don’t make it.
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Russian writers who lived through the Soviet Union’s decline described how, one day, they looked at old photos and realized half their friends were dead; some drank, others committed suicide, others got sick, but all were thought of as personal tragedies, not as a national emergency. The working class in the USA—what one blogger called the “unneccessariat”—is in a similar situation now, struggling and coping, or not. I realize I know a lot of people who died younger than you’d expect.
All around me were the people who quietly keep the world running. They care for invalid loved ones, fix the sewers, check on their elderly neighbors, run local businesses, and try to raise their children to be decent men and women. Yet they all live in an increasingly fragile situation, dependent on a long list of things—the electrical grid, cheap gasoline, piped-in water—that have become more expensive and less reliable. If so many Americans are on the edge now, what happens when any of these go down for long?
Decline doesn’t have to be terrible; we all decline over time, but have a choice how, and how quickly. We could realize we are getting older, rein in the excesses of our national adolescence, and aim for a stable and responsible maturity. Or we can think of it as the necessary contraction part of an expansion-contraction cycle. However you frame it, I’m hoping that the next national emergency—for there will be one—will inspire millions to put aside the crusades and see the real people around them, and all the things that need fixing. Or, such an event could be the final straw for millions of Americans with guns and little to lose, and the hatred we’ve seen on screens could spill into hometown streets you recognize, too.