2 Excerpt 2: The Deception of Surfaces
The President in 2012 had been re-elected by adroitly using well honed phrases. One of them was a re-tread: “This is a defining moment.” Over the course of his campaign, America listened as that phrase swayed from the hopeful optimism it was born from, to something altogether more grave. It had been a Presidential campaign unlike any other, as the three candidates reacted to a new crisis each week. By the summer of that year, the President essentially suspended his campaign in order to keep the country from falling apart at the seams. Watching politicians take each other down began to seem obscene to the electorate, and by October the election was virtually over and his four more years insured. In the midst of the greatest challenge America had faced since the Civil War, changing Presidents mid-nightmare seemed unwise.
Modern conservatism had sought to destroy the federal government by borrowing it to death, and 2012 saw their victory. Having run up massive international debt, America was then hammered by a sequence of catastrophes. The clichés are apropos, take your pick: perfect storm, domino effect, snowball rolling downhill. The one that stuck was meltdown. In order to pay it debts, the country had to raise taxes and reduce spending. So as everything became more expensive, there were fewer government services. The slow dismantling of the bloated military had an unintended consequence which off-set the money saved: millions lost their military jobs, or jobs related to military contracts, and the green economy hadn’t ramped up fast enough to keep them employed. That combined with the death of the Generals – Motors, Electric and Mills – saw unemployment reached 19% of the population in March 2012.
Then there was the oil, or lack of it. Having alienated virtually every oil-rich country in the world, from Russia to Columbia, America found itself like a man dying of thirst, mouth agape, beneath a faucet ever tightening. The hand of the faucet belonged neither to a friend nor enemy, but rather to something more frightening. The hand belonged to the stockholder – the foreign stockholder – who had learned that there was no place for sympathy in business. You took your product to the market that offered the highest price for it. And so the caramel fuel followed the money elsewhere, because the thirsty Yank under the tap was broke. There were calls for military strikes, and one hawkish senator proposed taking over Columbia. But given a much stronger War Powers Act, and with the military fiascos of the early 21st century still fresh, America was less aggressive. And anyway, all those machines of war ran on . . . oil. Even military intervention, America’s tried and true solution to doldrums of one kind or another, seemed too expensive on a variety of levels.
Several natural disasters related to global warming primed the U.S. for civil unrest. In the late summer of 2011, six category 4 and 5 hurricanes followed a new pattern, laying waste to the eastern seaboard from Savannah to Atlantic City, while another tore across southern Florida hitting Miami. The summer of that year had seen draught across the mid-west and California, and wildfires burned out of control west of Rockies from July through November. In September, just as he announced his re-election campaign, the President declared 153 counties in seven states disaster areas. Normally, this would have released millions of dollars in federal aid, but nothing was normal anymore and the money wasn’t there. So the country borrowed more. Although no one liked to talk about it this way, the truth was that China, Korea and India were taking care of the people in those disaster areas, and making 5% in return.
So when the food riots started in the summer of 2012, no one was really surprised. Beginning in the counties hardest hit by disaster, or deepest in unemployment, or plagued by years of economic marginalization, vigilantes took over shopping centers and food distributors by force, singing hosannas to the second amendment. America watched televised scenes from Georgia, Florida and Nevada that they were accustomed to seeing beamed into their homes from Somalia, Indonesia, Pakistan – scenes of desperate Americans crowded around trucks, reaching up with looks of panic in their faces as armed men threw boxes of breakfast cereal and bags of rice into the crowd. It was then that America heard that phrase with a dark orchestral drone beneath it: we are at a defining moment.
And as with other eras of crisis, America chose to define itself by what was best about itself. When essentials become the priority, it has a bracing way of clarifying things. Suddenly, life in America, which had once seemed complex to the point of madness, simplified. Everyone bent their efforts to making sure they and their neighbors had what was needed just to get to the next week. Governments, from municipalities on up, threw their entire effort behind things like food, security, water, education and healthcare. It was either that or fall into chaos. Media outlets ran endless cheer-up stories about corporations with massive empty office buildings donating those rooms, once full with the hum of capitalism, to homeless families; about the self-regulating communities those converted buildings became; about the conversion of abandoned lots and public parks into community vegetable gardens; about the government programs created to pay people subsistence wages to re-build infrastructure, teach in temporary schools, assist in over-crowded hospitals.
Realizing that different regions had different challenges, and that (with the exception of California and to some extent, New York) states couldn’t meet those challenges alone, the end of the great domestic economic entity once known as the federal government gave birth to the Balkanization of America. Ten Economic Redevelopment Area (ERAs) were created by legislative action in 2015 and signed into law later that year: Northeast, New York Metro, Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, Midwest, Texas Plains, Mountain Plains, Southwest, Northwest and California. Companies and government agencies were to focus on the regions they were affiliated with, and seek business practices and services designed to meet the needs and abilities of those specific populations. The states in those regions formed interstate councils of one kind or another, which monitored and negotiated redevelopment activities in those regions.
As Gene Henderson explained to his acting class in 2020, the entertainment industry followed suit, and began to focus the work of generating programming around these ten markets. The meltdown brought the big media companies to point of bankruptcy, but the ERAs provided a way forward. In the years following 2012, a variety of mergers and realignments occurred between the vestiges of the old monolithic T.V. companies, cable networks and movie studios. These resulted in the ten media networks Gene described, each producing video, music, news, internet services, telecommunications, sports broadcasting and feature films. Consumers paid a flat fee for all the services and programming the local network provided, and paid extra for content from other ERAs. The one cross-ERA genre was feature film, with each network producing four or five a year, which were marketed and shown in theaters in selected ERAs where the particular film was thought to have “legs”. The occasional blockbuster, of course, was shown nationwide.
And although one might have wished for a tad more nostalgia in his voice, Gene was also correct about theatre. When a government focuses all it resources on maintaining its very survival, supporting artists becomes a kind of uncomfortable joke. Not only did all government support for artists vanish, but so too did most foundation support, as former artistic benefactors found that supporting theatre companies and art galleries when people in the ‘burbs were starving made sleeping at night difficult. Millions of dollars that had once gone to propping up art institutions of all kinds suddenly got redirected to the essential needs described before: food, water, healthcare, education. Almost overnight, every non-profit arts organization folded, vanished, ceased to exist. The only ones left charging admission were the biggies, the ones that could make some kind of claim to “national historic significance” – major museums, for instance, and one or two orchestras per ERA. The rest was silence.
The commercial theatre was folded into the formation of the ERA networks like an after-dinner mint one eats simply because it’s there, rather than out of an appetite for it. And while the theatres and dance companies ceased to exist, the actors and dancers certainly didn’t, nor did the population’s intense desire for entertainment, stimulation and distraction. And so the networks gathered all these eager, mostly young and out of work performers and began to train them for careers in this new, stripped down, localized, computerized entertainment industry. In the aftermath of the meltdown, institutions which formally trained students in quaint notions like “Acting Styles: Shakespeare to Beckett” or “Advanced Realism for the Stage” or “Ballet Two” or “Contemporary Dance Composition”, these institution now had to bow to necessity, to focus on what was essential, what was true. And the truth was, they could not exist by training students for careers in dead art forms. And so the networks invested in the schools and changed them, and grand digital training grounds were born, like the one Petey has been studying in for four years.
But the theater buildings remained: grand palaces of communal experience filled with the kind of ornate flourishes which represented the expense and privilege of a foregone era. For years, they were empty monuments to a ritual hardly anyone remembered anymore, a ritual which involved getting dressed up, spending money and “making an evening of it” – whatever that meant. In the bitter months that followed the riots, the theatres were vandalized, as if their vacant grandness was an affront to the desperation of a country in the midst of agonizing transformation. People cannibalized the seats, the fixtures, the plumbing, the cable: anything which could be consumed in those lean and terrible times. But then things began to improve, yet the buildings remained, and the question was – what to do with them.
Once the networks had stabilized in their new configurations, they looked at these great empty theaters and concert halls and sensed an opportunity. Since people were not traveling great distances anymore (by 2018 only a third of the population owned gas powered cars), and the need for the kind of adult conviviality once provided by the pub, the bar, the dance club remained, the networks bought up these great empty spaces from their recently destitute owners for next to nothing and rehabilitated them. They took the former function of these buildings and extended it exponentially. They became Fantasy Palaces. Exhale, the palace where Petey worked periodically, had once been the Forrest Theatre owned by the Shubert family and named after one of the 19th century’s great stage actors and Philadelphia’s native son, Edward Forrest. The irony was lost, just like the art Forrest had excelled in.
Now the Forrest was a fantastic warren of different rooms, all designed to appeal to a variety of different escapist fantasies. In 2020, there was no longer something called “pornography”, at least not with the attendant moral disapproval. Like all other attempts to legislate morality, prohibitions against sexual conduct between adults had finally collapsed. Under the demands of the meltdown and fueled by a youth culture inured to graphic depictions of sex, worries about who was getting off with what seemed silly, and by 2020 sex had finally become fully mainstream. It was called erotic entertainment, and it was controlled by the networks and produced mostly in the Fantasy Palaces – especially the ones in the more liberal ERAs.
Petey and many other young people with suitable physical attributes engaged in a variety of sexual encounters in cushioned and air conditioned rooms, filmed by discreet, remote control cameras, and available for live viewing at a price. The rooms had themes (Western, Jungle, Biker, Old Paris and one of the more bizarre, Igloo – a remarkable illusion which made everyone and everything look icy). Patrons could witness the goings on from a variety of distances: remotely on their computers (which is why Chi told Petey she was big in Korea, the networks kept track of these things), from behind one-way mirrors in private viewing rooms, or in the rooms themselves but without participation. The closer you were to the action, the more it cost you. Universal healthcare had provided the performers with “cleancards”: medical proof that you had been checked within the past month and were not carrying any diseases. Mainstreaming brought with it government oversight, and instances of human trafficking to feed the sex industry were greatly reduced. Thus, the market claimed an odd moral high-ground, pointing to the health and well-being of the highly compensated workers employed in the Palaces. Not to mention the tax income. Finally, lust was generating a legitimate revenue stream.