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Empire and the Denial of Death


I was so taken by James Howard Kunstler’s book The Long Emergency back in 2005 that I immediately invited him to be the keynote speaker for the Vermont Independence Convention that year in the Vermont State House in Montpelier.  After reading his compelling novel, World Made By Hand, about life in a post oil world, I invited him to speak at our 2008 convention as well.  In both appearances he made it clear that while he thought the Empire was in deep trouble, a secessionist he was not.

More recently I have been reading his blogpost bearing the quaint title Clusterfuck Nation, which is one of the most vitriolic attacks on America and Americans I have ever read.  Kunstler really does not like Americans.

With that thought in mind I wrote to him in April and asked him if he still believed that the U.S. government was fixable, and if so, how that might happen?  He essentially ducked the question and recommended that I read his forthcoming book Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and The Fate of the Nation.  Having incorrectly surmised that I might find the answer to my question there, I eagerly awaited the arrival of Kunstler’s new book.  I was sadly disappointed.

Too Much Magic is little more than a rehash of the arguments made so effectively by Kunstler in The Long Emergency and The Geography of Nowhere along with several disjointed chapters on such disparate topics as transhumanism, political parties, Wall Street corruption and climate change.  There is absolutely nothing new here.

One of the most disturbing sections of Kunstler’s book is his description of a visit to Disney World in Orlando a few years ago.  His takeaway from the death defying rides, “haunted houses, animatronic corpses, holographic ghosts, screaming mummies, ghouls, skeletons, coffins, and graveyards” was that Americans are obsessed with a yearning for death.  “Shrieking death is a payoff dispensed to Disney World guests as regularly as the reward pellets doled out to rats in experimental psych labs, so one begins to get the feeling that all those overfed Americans waddling so innocently about in their JC Penney casuals do share an intense subliminal yearning for death.”

Lest there be any doubt about Kunstler’s views on Americans, “Everything we do these days, our lust for ever more comfort, pleasure, and distraction, our refusal to engage with the mandates of reality, our fidelity to cults of technology and limitless growth, our narcissistic national exceptionalism – all of this propels us toward the realm where souls abandon all hope.”  It’s all about morbidity says Kunstler.

But anyone who has ever read cultural anthropologist Ernest Beckers’s The Denial of Death (1973) or Escape from Evil (1975) knows that Kunstler has it dead wrong.  The mortality signs prominently displayed at Disney World are not evidence of a yearning for death but rather the denial or fear of death.  He’s off by 180 degrees.

Unfortunately, Disney World is the defining metaphor for the entire book.  The demise of suburbia, the decline of cities, transhumanism, political gridlock, the Wall Street scandals, peak oil, and climate change are all examples of the effects of the denial of death – of our inability to confront our fear of nothingness.

Kunstler, above all, should have known better, since he lives in Saratoga Springs, New York, home of Skidmore College, where experimental psychologist Sheldon Solomon regularly publishes the results of his pioneering research on the behavioral effects of the denial and fear of death.  It’s hard to imagine Kunstler being unaware of this research.

However, I have a much more serious problem with Too Much Magic.  Although this book is essentially a book about the consequences of an empire gone amok, an empire which Kunstler truly despises, the author devotes little or no attention to the Empire itself, its foreign policy, or the fact that the Pentagon is arguably the largest consumer of oil in the world.  How is it possible to write about peak oil and never mention our nation’s 1,000 military bases in 153 countries, the risk of war with Iran, U.S.-Israeli hegemony in the Middle East, and the competition between China and the United States for natural resources worldwide?  It’s almost as though Kunstler has written 245 pages about the American Empire but never acknowledged that it is indeed an empire.

The most bizarre chapter in the entire book is about American computer scientist, inventor, businessman, and futurist Ray Kurzweil whom Kunstler describes as a techno narcissist.  Kurzweil is one of a new breed of scientists and pseudoscientists who believe that advances in genetics, medicine, robotics, information technology, and nano technology will allow us to improve our bodies, and even become immortal.  This new field of medicine is known as transhumanism.  What transhumanism has to do with anything is not made clear by Kunstler.

Twice Kunstler tells us that he is a registered Democrat, as though he were actually proud of that fact.  He comes dangerously close to being an apologist for Obama about whom he says, “He came along at a very difficult time in our national history.”  Continuing he adds, “I worry about what may happen to the social fabric after Obama, if the voters reject him.”  Kunstler does not comment on drones, Navy Seals, Delta Force death squads, or Obama’s kill list.  If Kunstler is to be believed, does Obama too suffer from a yearning for death?

Happily, Too Much Magic does not end with a happy chapter promising eternal bliss, if we follow the author’s policy prescriptions.  The book essentially has no ending,  it just sort of winds down.  The bottom line seems to be that Americans will gradually adapt to shortages of oil and climate change and by simply muddling through will eventually be better off than they are today.  Kunstler envisages a kind of post oil nirvana in which we will all be “working together with people we know, spending time with friends and loved ones, sharing food with people we love, and enacting the other ceremonies of daily and seasonal life in story and song.”  It sounds almost like magic to me.

Thomas H. Naylor is Founder of the Second Vermont Republic and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Duke University; co-author of AffluenzaDownsizing the U.S.A., and The Search for Meaning.


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