What undergirds Russell’s narrative of Florida is despair as invisible, dark, and pervasive as the limestone bedrock that sits beneath the state. To me, this feels like both the real and the true story of Florida. In recent years, the diminishment of the aquifer through climate change and agricultural use, the slow and terrifying death of the Everglades’ enormous filtration system, the pressure of salinated waters from the rising sea, the stupidly unconstrained construction and development are all creating an epidemic of sinkholes. When a sinkhole develops, the fragile karst suddenly gives way under the weight of the earth; in a moment, houses and cars and people are swallowed up.
Read: Why are there so many sinkholes in Florida?
I write this from the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had a similarly collapsing effect on Florida. A huge number of the state’s jobs are in the service sector: tourism, restaurant work, elder care, the gig economy—the realm of employment that thrives more than any other on ideas of predatory short-term growth and lax worker protection. Disney World, that great burbling morass of capitalism, announced it would furlough more than 43,000 of its workers, a move whose effects will ripple into employees’ families, both here and abroad; into school systems and food banks; into the very lowest and most fundamental reaches of the social safety net. What a small wind it takes for hedonism to tip into precarity!
This is not a flaw in the system. This has been, all along, the shifty, lying, scam-artist libertarian narrative at Florida’s core, from the conquistadores who trudged through the malarial swamps; to the Ponzi schemes of Gulf American, the real-estate company that sent flocks of salesmen to the Midwest and Northeast in the late 1950s to lure suckers into buying worthless plots of land in the swamp; to Walt Disney himself, who created an oligarchic capitalist microstate (like Satan’s Vatican) in the very heart of Florida; to the massive narcissistic baby in the White House who uses his Mar-a-Lago resort as a way to milk money out of patsies eager to buy influence.
The state has been built on promises of an eternal present, on blithe and deliberate disregard for the past so as not to have to learn from it—on a refusal to give a single naked whit about the future. Like people who don’t protest their fleecing in order to watch other people be swindled, we continue to perpetuate this corrosive narrative. In most elections, Florida votes for precisely the people trying to strip necessary life-giving protections from our neighbors and from the glorious natural environment that we are dependent on. Which is to say, of course, that the story of Florida is a story, in microcosm, of the United States of America.
Does this idea fill you with despondency? Does the thought of Florida make you want to laugh and cry at the same time? I, too, laugh at the capers of Florida Man, at the stupid beautiful bodies of sun-blistered spring-breakers, at the tourists who drunkenly wander too close to retention ponds and tempt the hunger of the gators. But if I’m laughing, it’s only through a quietly devastating despair. As Russell puts it in his hilarious gut punch of a book—a book that anyone who is interested in not only Florida, but the whole country, should read—“How long before a society of atomized individuals rightfully following only their desires, heedless of what they owe others, destroys itself?”
This article appears in the July/August 2020 print edition with the headline “Florida, Man.”