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The New New World (Part 1)

I've been thinking about some stuff. I don't know quite where I am with it yet. But it's kind of big and unwieldy and it's pretty much way more than I can cram into a couple of posts to my blog. And maybe it doesn't lead anywhere, in particular. Or maybe it leads to a bunch of stuff that just plain isn't worth the effort. But the thing is, I don't know unless I doodle around with it for a while. And so I think this post will serve as a kind of introduction to what might end up being a series of posts exploring this stuff I'm thinking about. Or maybe things won't work out that way. I don't know any better than you do, at this point. If you want to come along for the ride, be my guest, but I ain't making any promises.

So let me start with a way of thinking, generally, about some stuff I've been thinking about specifically. I want a sort of "encompassing image" that at least strains toward describing what I'm getting at. I'm an American, a child of the New World, born and bred. That's all I really know, and so that's where I have to start.

My ancestors, like the ancestors of most Americans, fled from a world of rigid formalities, stifling social structures, circumscribed possibilities, intellectual and spiritual persecutions. They fled across an ocean, an abyss the rest of the Old World could not bring itself to cross (which, for our American ancestors, was pretty much the whole point).

A wild and open land awaited those who survived the crossing. It was a new world where even if those who crossed with you turned into petty bastards who started giving you too much grief, you could head still further west, into an even wilder and more open land -- a land that promised you the space you needed to become the kind of human being you imagined yourself being. Surviving it would be a hard go, and, of course, you would have to avert your eyes from the fact that this new world you were entering and occupying already, inconveniently, belonged to other people. But still, if you could make that apparently too easy adjustment to your moral worldview, if you could bring yourself to think of the original owners of this land as savages, as heathens, as subhumans undeserving of the gifts that the Great Spirit had bestowed upon them, then the way to your fulfillment lay open to you.

And so we flowed west, first splashing up against the far western barrier of the Pacific, then slopping back eastward again to fill up the middle. Life was grand and free. This was the land of milk and honey and opportunity and a couple of chickens in every pot. Every morning when you got up and checked, the world was still new. How 'bout that? You hadn't used it up yet. There was more hard work to be done, some of it necessary just to survive, but sometimes some of it was in the name of turning yourself into someone new, or of coming up with something that gave your life a new and completely unexpected meaning. This was America. The land of opportunity.

All right, so… maybe some, or most, or maybe even all of that was myth. Then again, maybe it wasn't. It was certainly true for some people -- enough, it seems, to give life to certain notions in our minds about what sort of people we were. We were Americans. We believed in unlimited possibilities. We believed in the value of new things. Why? Because we came here for the new. New was by definition good -- defined as such by our national character, that shared ambition that brought us here. Old was bad. Old was what we had fled.

And so for a long time, things went along just fine. The American basin filled slowly. Room for everybody. Room for all sorts of ideas and beliefs. If your neighbors thought you were a weirdo, you could pick up and move, or you could gather enough of your fellow weirdoes around you until your crabby neighbors got sick of it and picked themselves up and departed for parts unknown.

But in time even a slowly filling basin -- even one the size of America -- eventually overflows. I'm not talking about the ratio of people to physical space, here. It's true we are getting more crowded but still there is an almost unimaginable amount of space left. The great western deserts of this continent are astonishing in their emptiness. There are stretches of highway where you can travel for hundreds of miles and still see few signs of civilization. So, no, I'm not talking about physical space. I'm talking about a kind of mind space.

I look around at the New World, here and now in 2005, and I see a land slowly filling up with a new kind of oldness. There are, increasingly, certain ways to be a New Worlder. Certain rigid formalities that must be observed. Possibilities are increasingly circumscribed. You are born into a particular class and it is harder and harder to work your way out of it. The tax system is designed to keep you where you are. Laws are written to trick you into thinking you are still living in a New World, a world still full of promise for everyone. But these systems and laws have the effect of not only blinding you to the dangers inherent in the rise of a new New Worldian aristocracy, they encourage you to glorify it. Astonishingly, you do. 

In short, we are making ourselves into that which our ancestors once fled.

I propose, or predict, or imagine, or maybe just long for... a new age of discovery, a new sort of journey to a new sort of New World.

I hear talk on the Rialto of another New World out there, across some other ocean. They say it is wide open and dangerous but full of promise too, just like the old New World was. The sort of place where you can make something valuable of yourself, where you can find a kind of fulfillment that you could never find here in this increasingly decrepit New World.

I've glimpsed maps of this new place. They are marked with dragons and places where you might drop off the ends of the earth, but that's all right. No matter where you live, there is always danger, and so the only question is what sort of danger you want to risk dying of. There are some of us, as in the old days, who would prefer to die on the way to finding a new place to be, a new kind of person to be, rather than stay and be suffocated here.

Obviously, this new New World cannot be an unoccupied continent. There aren't any, unless you consider Antarctica a place you'd want to live. (I hear even the summers are crappy.) And we can't go to space yet, at least not in any way even roughly equivalent to the way our ancestors came here.

So that means this new New World has to be someplace else. I think it’s right here, in our heads. But I think the ocean that divides us from it is there too, which is quite a problem. We can't even see in which direction the ocean we have to travel across lies.

But still. It can't be helped. How much do you want this thing? That's how much of yourself you are going to have to put into getting it. That much, and a great deal more, I'll bet. That's the thing about New Worlds. They wouldn't still be there and still be new if they were easy to get to.

And the better news is I believe this voyage of discovery can begin right now. We don't even need to build ships to get started. We don't have to petition Ferdinand and Isabel for the bucks to pay our way. I'll bet you won't even have to sell the house, unless of course, upon consideration, you think that might be the best way to go.

I think we can just set sail for this new New World and the ocean we have to travel over will thereupon take form beneath us. I think just by setting out for these new shores we will find ourselves walking on them. But don’t be fooled. The new New World will take shape slowly. Maps of it will be vague at first, half-imagined, full of myths and inaccuracies, and maybe even some lies -- just like the ancient maps of the old New World that showed California as an island, or that showed Colorado dotted with legendary cities of gold.

The old New World (i.e., the new Old World) is dying and I don't know that it can be saved. Maybe it isn't worth saving. Maybe it isn't our job to save it. Maybe it's our job to replace it. The new New World is in your head right now, just like it's in mine. So what do you say? Let's book.


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