I have a photograph of Timbuktu hanging on the wall beside my television. It is large (30” by 10”) and uniquely printed on aluminum as sort of a prize for my having achieved the unattainable – arriving as I did once at the end of the world. Not many people go to Timbuktu these days. Why would you? Terrorism, sand, heat. No electricity, one crappy hotel. Only the occasional ‘adventure tourist’ willing to brave the danger to say they’d made it to ‘nowhere’. To gaze upon some ancient manuscripts from times when that city had power and purpose and think about the shifting of the dunes around that ancient desert town.
Timbuktu hasn’t always been ‘nowhere’. Back 800 years ago, when king Mansa Musa (the richest man who ever lived) was wandering through the Sahara on his way to the Hajj, Timbuktu was the epicenter of a great West African empire. Gold, slaves, salt. Knowledge; books rescued from the sacking of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad and traded for solid bricks of gold. A population larger than London and wealthier than Paris. A university with 20,000 students.
That was then.
How do things fall away? When was the moment that Timbuktu stopped being wealthy and powerful – was it when the university stopped growing, started instead losing students and teachers? Did the libraries cease to inspire thought? Why did the philosophers and teachers stop making the perilous sandy trek? The Moroccan invasion – as the historians say? Or was that event simply the burying of an already rotting corpse? Do you think they recognized it was happening – Musa’s court? His children’s, or their children’s? Did they remember when their father, grandfather had commanded armies and power and wisdom? I mean the gold is still there, as is the salt. The libraries are there – 500,000 old books rotting away, gathering dust. What changed? And at what point did they admit to the carnage that was their collapsed civilization?
Carnage – it’s the word of the day, isn’t it?
My guess is, either they didn’t – or when they did, as eventually they must have, it was too late.
“Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge and the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” These very well could end up being some of the most powerful words in American history. Because they represent a reality check. Honest reflection. Straightforward words. A wake-up alarm; a clarion call for change.
Each year on January 20th – which every four years is taken up by inauguration day – the President delivers the State of the Union Address. It is American political tradition to say “the state of our union is strong.” Even despite what those of us who have watched her decline know; that it’s fiction. Not this year. On January 20th, 2017 the President of the United States stood in front of all Americans to say boldly to the nation “The state of our union is not strong.”
Just let that sink in for a second.
To be sure, the state of Washington DC is strong. “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have born the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs and, while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.”
So when was it that the state of our union stopped being strong; sacrificed as it has been to feed the obesity of a capital which exists as a ‘dark power the market does not control’? We certainly were strong when we defeated the Nazis; the communists. When we freed the slaves through an awful bloody war, when we integrated our schools, when we stood stoically together as violent Muslim terrorists knocked down buildings and bombed our embassies.
I don’t know.
And how did this happen, America’s greatness seeping through the cracks in the sidewalks that are no longer repaired by civil servants too keen on their new jobs replacing the ‘girls’ sign above a bathroom door? “It happened because you banned super-size sodas. And smoking in parks. And offensive ideas on campus. Because you branded people who oppose gay marriage ‘homophobic’, and people unsure about immigration ‘racist’.” Says Brendan O’Neill in a remarkably poignant post, “Because you thought correcting people’s attitudes was more important than finding them jobs. Because you turned ‘white man’ from a description into an insult. (…) Because you policed people’s language, rubbished their parenting skills, took the piss out of their beliefs. Because you turned politics from something done by and for people to something done to them (…) Because you kept telling people, ‘You can’t think that, you can’t say that, you can’t do that.’”
Because of “you didn’t build that” and “voting’s the best revenge”, I suppose.
And as we bizarrely focused our debate and policy on the dramatic shuttering of the American mind, we ignored that the world was changing. And we closed for business. Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba reflected on this issue at the Davos conference; “In the past 30 years, America had 13 wars spending $14.2 trillion … no matter how good your strategy is you’re supposed to spend money on your own people,” Ma said. “The money goes to Wall Street. Then what happened? Year 2008. The financial crisis wiped out $19.2 trillion in US income … What if the money was spent on the Midwest of the United States, developing industry there?” The problem, Ma went on, is that US strategy has been that we “just want the IP, the technology, and the brand, and we’ll leave the other jobs (to Mexico and China).”
“We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon.”
So is it too late? I don’t know. The terrified passengers of Flight 93 have rushed the cockpit and seized the controls; on the coattails of the only candidate who promised to fight for them – a fight that he did not back down from on January 20th. “And whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit or the windswept plains of Nebraska, they look up at the same night sky. They fill their heart with the same dreams and they are infused with the breath of life by the same almighty creator. So, to all Americans in every city near and far, small and large, from mountain to mountain, from ocean to ocean, hear these words: You will never be ignored again.”
Peggy Noonan lamented in her most recent article the aloneness of the President; “Mr. Trump in comparison has almost nothing (…) He really has no one but those who voted for him.”
I don’t think that’s true – or at least I don’t think it’s the right emphasis. Because, as the President has said, there is an army of people who are ready to put our shoulders to the grindstone – who in fact have been quietly striving for sanity all along. Who have loved America, who have worked for her and fought for her and bled for her even when our leaders were bowing to dictators, selling out our politics to the UN and our values to Europe; but no more; “We are one nation and their (and I almost wish he would have said here ‘the deplorables’) pain is our pain. Their dreams are our dreams and their success will be our success. We share one heart, one home and one glorious destiny. The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans. (…) The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when god’s people live together in unity. We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity. When America is united, America is totally unstoppable.”
We should all wish success for our nation – by dissenting when we must, arguing when it is opportune and being rebellious and belligerent and feisty as Americans must be, in order to sharpen, hone and polish our ‘more perfect union’ – but always with the eye to rebuilding, reconstructing and reunifying. Because I refuse to surrender to the idea that 800 years in the future somebody will be looking upon their wall at a picture of a dusty village as they write a column in a foreign language about what happened to America.