Omens of Collapse: A Stage and a Fence

The concert stage at the Indiana State Fair was built to impress, and to last a day or two longer than it did. Does anyone else see an omen here?

Things that are done for show don’t work well, don’t last long, and can hurt a lot of people when, inevitably,  they collapse. This lesson was demonstrated anew this past week in two widely separated — and wildly different — places: the Indiana State Fair and the Mexican border.

The performance stage for the state fair, built every year for the event and torn down every year after it, looked great. Its practical purpose, of course, was to support the hundreds of lights, the scores of enormous speakers, the giant, flat-panel monitors and the multiple stage levels that are required by any modern concert. Form follows function, and no doubt the structure grew in response to the demands of more lighting, more special effects, more sound.

Beyond that, surely, there is another intention to its enormity: to induce awe. There is something there of the purpose of the builders of cathedrals in days of yore, to induce in all who come near a reverence, a sense of wonder. Or at least to impress them. Cathedral builders, however, built for the ages, and never forgot that they were first and last buildings, subject to the same impositions of gravity, wind stress, snow load and water damage as any other building. Cathedral builders were first builders, shock and awe was left to the gilders, sculptors and painters who did the finishing touches. Ruined cathedrals stand mute around the world today from which time has erased all traces of the finishing touches, yet still they stand, and one marvels.

Stages, on the other hand, are built to thrill for a weekend, or for a few hours, here today and gone tomorrow. They are done for show, not to withstand wind gusts of 60 miles per hour. Indiana officials are describing such gusts as “rare” and “freak,” but they are part of any garden-variety thunderstorm. So it should not have been surprising, when such a gust slapped the Indiana State Fair stage, that it collapsed, killing five people and injuring 45. It was there for show, it wasn’t there to last.

Exactly the same case was made last week by a stretch of fence along Arizona’s border with Mexico. It was fence built during the Bush administration, which found advantage in first fanning fears about illegal immigrants and then appearing to do something about them. There was never any intention actually to do something about them, because many large political contributors derive their extra cash from the labors of undocumented people. So the important thing was to seem to be doing something, and for that purpose the fence was perfect.

People who knew the area — specifically, the people who take care of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where the fence is located, told the Border Patrol they were building a fence that would dam floodwaters and destroy itself. Nonsense, said the Border Patrol, we know what we’re doing. And they did. They were putting on a show, just like they were at the Indiana State Fair, and were building something that was supposed to impress, not to last. And it didn’t. Last week a big chunk of it washed away. In this case, there were no casualties.

(I cannot help but think of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, where the Chacoan people thrived for 400 years and built homes and religious structures that have lasted for a thousand years. The visitors center of the National Historical Park there, built about 40 years ago and very impressive to behold, was condemned last year as unsafe, torn down, and is being replaced.)

With these cases in mind, watch again the Iowa presidential-candidate debates, the debt-limit debates, the climate-change exchanges. Almost without exception the leaders and would-be leaders of this country are focused on dazzling us with their bumper-sticker philosophies and miracle remedies. Everything they do and say is designed to impress, not to last. Does science tell you that a garden-variety wind gust will knock down your edifice? Then deny the science. Do experts opine that your edifice will self-destruct? Attack the experts, or ignore them.

In politics and government, as in stages and fences, the inevitable outcome of showboating instead of problem-solving is collapse.

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