American Idiocy

From Story Act 1, 2017

Civilisations and nation states rise and fall, their fortunes riding as much on their cultures as their economic capacity, military domination, environmental good fortune or benevolent leadership. They don’t grow and prosper indefinitely. Think the Roman Empire, Mayan civilisation, Soviet Union and now perhaps modern day United States.

More than a decade ago US band Green Day produced American Idiot, a concept album railing against what they saw as a myopic and self-obsessed culture and government. For author and commentator Guy Rundle, last year’s presidential election might yet prove to be the pinnacle of American idiocy.

Behind the car park where the bus pulls in, there it is, towering, extraordinary, the sheer walls and boxy buildings, the glass frontage, and the faded department store signs, Kohl’s, Shoprite, Petco. Half of one corner of the main block has been demolished, but then they stopped. The roof was taken off another part, and is gaping. Against the chill grey sky, the place has the air of a sentinel, a fort guarding against some disaster which has long since occurred. It was magnificent. Taken me two trains and a bus to get here, but it was worth it.

This was Owings Mills Mall in Maryland, just outside Baltimore. Owings was one of the last of 'deadmalls'; one of the thousands of shopping malls across the country that had gone broke, been deserted and which, for a time, were left undemolished, unredeveloped. From around 2003 to 2010, you could tour the country hopping from deadmall to deadmall, and thousands did, glorying in the poignant and epic spectacle of places that had once hosted shoppers in their millions, and were now ghastly and deserted, signs left above shopfronts, movies still listed on the top floor cinemas, escalators rusted and buckling out of shape. They were all the same, but they were all different (the photographer Seph Lawless has created several deadmall collections), portraits of the innumerable ramifications of what happens when something suddenly stops.

By the time I got into them, the great age of the deadmall was dying itself. Some lay dormant for a decade, until a municipality yoked together enough interested parties to rezone and rebuild. The malls not only came down, they disappeared from memory. They were usually the old 'atrium' mall style, four storeys or so organised around a central well, product of a German designer named Victor Gruen, who had built them in Minnesota and Canada, reproducing the central court style of mitteleuropean towns for the American west. Gruen wanted the mall to be a town centre, with municipal offices, libraries, schools etc. Instead it became a private space, for big box stores, draining life from town centres. Nevertheless, for a quarter century or so, the mall was the place, the arena for meeting up, especially for kids. As the Reagan era turned into the Clinton era, America enjoyed a two decade consumer boom, one which disguised decay and decline with a great party.

The shopping mall didn't die in 2005, but a certain style of it did. Marketers no longer wanted a place where everybody would hang out – they wanted sleeker, more focused places which emphasised luxury content. Sure, some of what killed 'the mall' was the rise of online shopping, and social media. But what also did it was... more malls, built beside the old ones, malls which effortlessly shuttled people from one high-end brand store to the next. Having damned the old atrium mall for its destruction of the town square, we were now shedding a tear at its passing. Me especially.

Since getting on the deadmall kick I’d become obsessed, detouring thousands of kilometres in the states, while covering US presidential campaigns, to find the last of them. They were a ruin-porn fetishists dream come true, brick and cement archives of every failed hope and forlorn dream of the past era. Whether they were deserted, chained up (easily broken), preserved intact or crumbling into mounds, or, occasionally, still running with no tenants left (to stop vandalism), the escalators whirring up and down in the deep silence, the deadmall never disappointed. Occasionally, I'd run into other deadmallers, spelunkers of the great cultural abyss. There was an etiquette of sorts; brief greetings, an exchange of remarks, but no hanging out together, no joining up. The deadmall was a private experience, a trip back into oneself, as much as it was into the vastness of America.

That mattered all the more because we were doing different things, American deadmallers, and I, looking in on it from the outside, an Australian for whom the 'American mall' had been something mythical and faraway, the realm of fantasy. Americans probing the deadmall – and the vast landscape of abandonment which was the rustbelt Midwest – were trying to work out who they were, where they'd come from, and how their country had come to be in this place. I was trying to work out the strangeness of being Australian, of the weird positionality of it, coming from a place whose popular culture had come to be dominated by America for a period of decades – yet which was irrecoverably distanced from it. Australia had had malls after all. But they had come later, and lesser, they were more provisional and partial, did not sit at the centre of our youth culture.

The mall, like the high school prom, graduation, the big game, and a hundred other things, were part of the fantastical place, America, made out of music and movies and sitcoms, and games, and celebrity.

Americans had grown up with America, after all, they knew it before they knew themselves, and so the fantasy was mixed up with the dun reality of it all – the miles of suburban tract homes, the dull strips of shops, the decayed downtowns.

For Australians, it was different – especially in the days before the web/internet collapsed the time and distance between. We were the place the most like America, but we weren't it. So it remained a land of the pure other, a place of impossible intensity. Years ago, the US culture industry realised that Australian actors and singers, were a perfect talent source – not only capable of hitting the accent, but trained by a well-funded state education talent system – and set up a veritable pipeline for them to come over. Prior to that, every Australian success overseas, every star making it, or band with a number one was a source of national celebration. Other than that, we were off the side of the earth. The idea that America was a place someone could just be in, by an act of will, was, for most people, an absurdity.

That transfer of culture, that parallax, left us in a strange position. We were impossibly separated from America, but more American than the Americans. When McDonalds landed in the 1970s, in a country which had only just become accustomed to the char-grilled hamburger, the sweet, melty taste of a Big Mac, somewhere between a burger and a dessert, jacked straight into the brain. When 7-Eleven started opening, around the same time, amid a sea of milk bars, they were like alien pods landing among us, with their fluoro lit shops, their perfect uniformity.

Now, the convenience stores represent the plague of uniformity, while the milk bars, then seen as dusty and old and tired, are now chic and retro and emblematic of a freer time, when we were more ourselves. At the time, it was possible to believe that America did not exist at all – that the off-sync US reports inserted into news bulletins (the TV systems didn’t match, so the footage looked like overexposed polaroids) were dodged up in house, as was the breakfast Today show, which Australian TV began running off a live feed at 1am in the morning, sometime in the 80s.

Today really was a revelation to millions, because it gave you a window into something really new – American stupid, the thing itself. The movies were either spectacular or deep, the music was polished, the sitcoms were witty and sardonic. But Today – breakfast TV at midnight before we had breakfast TV – was an hours-long American stream-of-consciousness, the country talking to itself, and us listening in. And what we heard was a discourse so many rungs below average Australian exchanges – we have since caught up – that one could only marvel that these people were running the world. As Reagan's new cold war raged across the face of the earth, pushing us towards 'winnable' nuclear war, the Today team talked about how now that summer was coming on it was getting warmer, that in winter it had been colder, spent ten minutes on heating breakfast oats before or after you added the milk, marvelled at the inexplicable habits of foreigners ('so the Queen is like the President of Britain, right?') and on it went. It was a foretaste of what one found when finally visiting: a country so wrapped up in itself, so enclosed, that it had no reality-testing device.

In the years before Asian cinema, British TV, or Japanese cuisine was known in the place, Americans simply had no presence of the outside world in their empyrean. America, for them, wasn't America. It was simply being, 'is'-ness, what was. That is the paradox that goes to the heart of the notion of an 'American Idiot' – it is simultaneously a lament at that sequestration, and a triumphant celebration of it. And that was alright for a while, for decades. Now, as an Asian century dawns, and billions demand the lives that others have lived, American idiocy has reached its apex, with the election of Donald Trump, the man who promises that the rustbelt will be revived, the deadmalls will live again, and the iPhone will be made in California. This will not last overlong, either, and what comes after this, no-one can say. In the vacant malls, in the empty downtowns, in the tangle of freeways, the country is dreaming afresh of what it might become.


Join the conversation - #QPACcreatory

Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle is currently Crikey's correspondent-at-large, and a regular contributor to The Sunday Age. He was an editor of Arena Magazine for fifteen years, and is a frequent contributor to a wide range of publications in Australia and the UK.