Red Hook, Brooklyn, NY

Ruins and American Psychosis

Architecture is my delight, and putting up, and pulling down, one of my favorite amusements. — Thomas Jefferson

For much of recent history, the West has been preoccupied with the threat of unchecked state oppression on the individual. It is not lost on the rest of the world that European and American voices are the most strident in the United Nations and on the World Court when it comes to human rights, regions with a history of violating those rights systematically, and on a grand scale.

Balanced against this fixation is our natural aversion to entropy: if nature abhors a vacuum, Westerners abhor the disordered field. That presents quite the paradox: if unfettered democracy presents us with the prospect of terrifying chaos, neatly organized dictatorships (where the blood is kept conveniently out of sight) prove ultimately unsustainable.

Perhaps that aversion holds the key to understanding the West’s fear (and fascination) with totalitarianism: we know, inherently, that our need for predictability — for homogeneity — taken to its logical conclusion ends with tyranny: a violent effort in bringing uniformity to a natural order that we must resist.

Architectural ruins are entropy: atoms, having been held in form for a fixed period of time, slowly return to formlessness. Ruins are a testament to the relationship between homo sapiens and the world; the man-made form cannot hold its shape indefinitely, but the form does not entirely disappear: man-made structures strain against nature’s imperative for diffusion, and somewhere in between the two strike a balance between decay and progress, between past and present, a fixed emblem of incessant movement.

But ours has never been a country for ruins, for stationary contemplation. For Americans, ruins are failure.

In January 2005 the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh reported that the Bush Administration was instituting a policy of possible covert military strikes against nuclear and terrorist sites in Iran (and up to ten other Middle Eastern nations). The allegations proved that the wheel of foreign policy had come full circle to the Central American policies of twenty-five years before, under President Reagan.

The year before this program was revealed Reagan had succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease, after more than a decade spent in declining health out of public view. The miserable state in which the former president’s body departed the living world — decrepit, rotting, trapped without any hope of escape — mirrored the experience dwellers of America’s cities had endured during the eight years of his presidency.

By 1989, much of New York City lay in ruins. Much of urban America lay in ruins. The urban centers of the “gleaming city on a hill” were scorched war zones. The South Bronx was emblematic of the urban decay at epidemic levels nationwide. Ours had never been a country for ruins, but we certainly had them in abundance.

Within days of Reagan’s passing, the New York Times’ Clyde Haberman noted that

Mr. Reagan will not land on any list of New Yorkers’ all-time best friends in the White House. His administration’s policies on public housing, job training, welfare, mass transit, AIDS treatment — nearly all were dealt severe blows not only to New York but also to cities across the country. […] On Mr. Reagan’s watch, federal spending for subsidized housing programs was sliced by about 75 percent […] from 1981 to 1983, federal aid to New York City fell by $560 million, or 21 percent. More than 1.1 million New Yorkers had food stamp benefits reduced or eliminated.

The great optimism that Reagan espoused for his country would remain unjustified in New York City for another decade. But the mood of New Yorkers had always been slightly off from the mood of the rest of the country; it was really only after the terrorist attacks in 2001 New Yorkers seemed to rediscover their connection to the heartland (a connection that, after a spell, grew tenuous once again).

A year after the search for survivors ceased at Ground Zero, Simon Schama asked: “is it heresy to suggest that America could use a modest dose of pessimism right now?” Perhaps so, for, as he noted, “mainstream American culture is conditioned to treat calamity … as an aberration, not the norm.”

Fort Worden State Park, Port Townsend, WA

Based upon the legend of a European “discovering” a land that was already occupied, the American mythos is a continuous cycle of creation, ruin, and restoration/rediscovery: the optimist’s unshakable faith that better times are just around the corner. The colonists appropriated the land from Native Americans, turning it over to better profit and, thus, God’s divine plan. John Rockefeller bought stocks on the cheap in 1932, showing the killer instinct that made him a captain of industry. And, by slashing away the overgrowth of government benefits to the poor that clearly did nothing but create a culture of entitlement, Ronald Reagan allowed sunlight to shine on that city on a hill.

What is missing on the cultural map (outside our prisons) is any space for the irredeemable. There is no inch of land that cannot be repurposed, refurbished, or renewed (and even prisons can be privatized, thereby making them profit-making and more productive). Such renewal can be the result of circumstance (as in a city hemmed in on all sides where is there is no new land to find), or indolence (such as rural areas where there is plenty of new land and no need to rethink the obsolescent).

This is why the sixteen acres abruptly made vacant at the tip of Manhattan, according to Schama, were so distinctive:

Ruins ha[ve] nothing to say to a culture so deeply invested in freshness. Even now, those wanting to preserve Civil War battlefields like Chancellorsville as a place of meditation are up against developers for whom golf courses and front lawns whisper the great American mantra of “move on.”

Only at Ground Zero has the instinct to build over been checked by a comparably powerful yearning for a place of lament.

At the same moment that Americans struggled to comprehend man-made horror on their soil on a scale unseen since Oklahoma City, there were many in New York who saw — flashing in their minds as brilliantly as hundreds of gallons of airplane gasoline erupting in flame — opportunity.

Those few voices that felt impelled to leave a smoking crater in the ground for years to come were the lunatic fringe blinded by grief. Those who called for restoration — a return to the behemoths so reviled upon their completion — were seen as unimaginative. The only option was bigger, better, and forward-thinking. To think otherwise was to be somehow detached from, in Schama’s words, the “American claim […] to have created a new kind of history-free citizen.”

In American thought we can best serve the past by largely ignoring it, accepting its intrusion only when it serves our present need for a precedent. Never learn from your mistakes, because we don’t make them: it’s a pervasive logic, readily apparent elsewhere in American civic thought — we end war by hyper-militarizing the economy, and help the poor by cutting their benefits. Textbooks that state the crimes and violations of human dignity that line American history are decried by provincial school boards as, at best, pessimistic, and at worst, disloyal.

Fort Worden State Park, Port Townsend, WA

The troubling aversion therapy to which we subject our collective psyche (in the interests of keeping our closets empty and our hands clean) consequently creates a condition akin to pathology. The near-hysteria that erupted when the Enola Gay was slated for exhibition at the Smithsonian became a pitched battle between proponents of the Greatest Generation and those who envisioned a cathartic release of long-denied national guilt. No one, on either side, was disputing what the plane had been used for.

This is in striking contrast to, say, German society, which has grappled very publicly for the past half-century or more over precisely the question of what happened its past, and how. Denial of the Holocaust is a crime. Protecting historical memory itself as an endangered civic resource would be unimaginable here: we need the past made manifest — something we can touch, photograph, pee on, or watch tumble down in flames.

The memory is not necessarily of time spent in the lost buildings (which no one, other than Philippe Petit, really liked anyway), or the absence of a downtown public open space destination (Tobin Plaza was widely regarded as a miserable failure in urban planning); it’s where we were when we found out about the attacks, how we felt watching people die in replays on the news (especially the deaths via suicide that were quickly effaced from all commemorations of the event). The argument is not over the event, but the event’s significance. Like the grieving family quibbling over the details of a lost relative’s internment — conflicts a lifetime in the making crammed into an argument that isn’t large enough to contain them — we would rather fight about who in our government we can be angry at for missing the warning signs, who in the world we can strike in retribution (on the cheap, though — what will it cost in dollars and lives and electoral votes?).

No one in America wants to hear about entropy; about dust to dust, ashes to ashes; about our fleeting moment on this planet. No one wants to acknowledge that the pathetic final moments of Osama Bin Laden (whose demise we were also lied to about, lies that were again uncovered by Seymour Hersh, and largely ignored) brought none of the those thousands of lives lost back.

Red Hook, Brooklyn, NY

Our geographical isolation has been the undoing of our sanity. Like a child left to grow up in a room by itself, our sense of self-importance is warped: the world is flat and ends at the horizon. We have become a diminished volk, incapable of the great sweeping world changes we accomplished in the past because we no longer know the price of a quart of milk, let alone the price of living. The question asked at the outset of any policy — be it the construction of a bridge or the invasion of a sovereign nation — is no longer What is to be done? but instead: What is the cost?

As its denizens squabbled over what was to take the place of the Twin Towers, New York City’s infrastructure hungered for titans of bygone eras who built enormous public projects by sheer will — the same infrastructure that Mayors Lindsay and Beame couldn’t afford to maintain, and Presidents Ford and Reagan and couldn’t be bothered to save.

“Ruins,” Schama tells us, “were 18th century Europe’s antidote to hubris.” This is borne out by America’s inability to even see the ruins in our midst: no ruins mean no mistakes, and no mistakes mean no revision is needed. But fetishizing death and destruction is no panacea: ruins can generate hubris as well. Pierre Ayçoberry, in The Social History of the Third Reich, 1933–1945, recalls how Nazi hardliners reacted to German society’s disintegration in the waning years of National Socialism:

The only welcome news for authorities was that the hatred felt for the British was increasing along with the violence of the air raids. ‘The bourgeois is dead and the real Community is being created in the ruins,’ one procurator general announced.

Architectural historian Ross Miller examined Americans’ “pragmatic amnesia” in the aftermath of Chicago’s Great Fire of 1871:

The brave people of Chicago were encouraged to think of themselves as safely outside of history. […] Tens of thousands of lives had been put at risk. Looking back to the near past was simply asking for trouble. So why look back at all?

President Bush’s return to covert interventionist foreign policy — a policy that permeated, and proved ruinous to, the presidencies of both Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon — is what can be expected from a country that does not live with the ruins of its ruinous past. Governments can cherry-pick the elements of history that accord with their policy objectives, since the people only remember victories anyway.

This is not to say that our defeats are very effectively hidden. The yawning abyss once occupied by the World Trade Center is the handiwork, after all, of a former cold warrior we saw fit to arm and train during our holy war with the Soviet Union. That Osama Bin Laden did not destroy himself upon impact like the smart missile or cluster bomb we took him for would be a sick punch line — were it not for the fact that this smart bomb turned itself around and struck the fatherland. Our historical self-knowledge is neatly divided into self-contained, discrete decades — it’s too complex to trace a thread from 1979 all the way to 2001. There’s simply too much going on in the meantime (bread! and circuses!). We move on.

Fort Worden State Park, Port Townsend, WA

The Freedom Tower stands proudly erect off the base of lower Manhattan now, a triumphant 1,776 feet tall (we’re not a nation for math, but we do like a number that commemorates when the slaughter began). Far underneath the new office tower, bits of the wreckage were preserved, adjacent to the gift shop. But even if we had kept the crater as a ruin, if we allowed the navel-gazers to gobble up valuable real estate with unprofitable empty space, what could we possibly learn? Caution, humility, temperance — these are not the qualities looking back at us in the mirror. This is the can-do nation, a society descended from the most daring individuals the world has ever spawned. So we do not look backward. We do not second-guess. We do not save any room for quiet reflection if that space could be put to better use turning a coin. When it suits our view of the world we send soldiers to kill without anyone being the wiser — not remembering that, yes, we’ve tried that before, and that it rarely works for long.

Centuries ago, Voltaire rebuked those who claimed to see divine providence — form a coherent narrative, as we might say today — in the 1755 earthquake that leveled Lisbon. Claiming “God’s Will,” like being willfully blind to the mistakes of one’s past, absolves the speaker of accountability — either for his own sins or for his fellow human’s suffering. (But Americans needn’t worry: if there’s one truth about ruins, it’s that history is always ready to make more.)

Oh miserable mortals! Oh wretched earth!
Oh, dreadful assembly of all mankind!
Eternal sermon of useless sufferings!
Deluded philosophers who cry, “All is well,”
Hasten, contemplate these frightful ruins
This wreck, these shreds, these wretched ashes of the dead;
These women and children heaped on one another,
These scattered members under broken marble;
One-hundred thousand unfortunates devoured by the earth
Who, bleeding, lacerated, and still alive,
Buried under their roofs without aid in their anguish,
End their sad days!
In answer to the half-formed cries of their dying voices,
At the frightful sight of their smoking ashes,
Will you say: “This is the result of eternal laws
Directing the acts of a free and good God!”
Will you say, in seeing the mass of victims:
“God is revenged, their death is the price for their crimes”?
What crime, what error did these children,
Crushed and bloody on their mothers’ breasts, commit?
Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?
In these men dance; at Lisbon yawns the abyss.
Tranquil spectators of your brothers’ wreck,
Unmoved by this repellent dance of death,
Who calmly seek the reason of such storms,
Let them but lash your own security;
Your tears will mingle freely with the flood.
Like what you read? Give Sergei Burbank a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.