An interview with Scott Erickson on Mommy, Why Did America Collapse?

Scott Erickson is an award-winning writer of humor and satire who last appeared on Compulsive Reader in 2018 shortly after his book The History of the Decline and Fall of America was released. His new book is also a semi-satirical novel about the decline and fall of America, this time written in the form of a bedtime story. Many years after America’s collapse, a young girl asks her mother to explain why it happened. Her mother explains that the tragic story has a good side. The rest of the world was spared America’s fate by learning from America’s example what changes needed to be made.

Why write about the collapse of America as a bedtime story?

My main inspiration was George Orwell’s Animal Farm. I’d been trying to figure out a context for how to communicate a lot of serious ideas about the decline and impending fall of America. Rather than a serious academic-type approach—which I’m not qualified for—I was looking for something entertaining and easy to read. I experimented with a few fictional approaches. Such as using a group of kids stranded at a summer camp as a microcosm of America—something like what William Golding did with Lord of the Flies. I also tried a story about a family on a road trip across America as they attempted to survive America’s collapse.

Neither of these approaches worked?

They felt strained. It was important to me to explain the reasons behind America’s decline, and that was very difficult to do without a lot of expository digressions that felt forced. I was less interested in showing America’s collapse than in explaining the reasons why. And of course, one of the rules in fiction is “show, don’t tell.” 

But the bedtime story approached solved this?

Yes. Because explaining “why” is totally natural in that context. When explaining things to kids, they continually ask “why.” And having a mom explain “why” to her child forced me to explain everything in very simple, straightforward way. Which was kind of a “reality check” for me.

How do you mean?

By having to explain things in a way a child can understand, there were times when I had to admit that I didn’t understand something as well as I thought I did. We have an unfortunate tendency to talk about things without realizing we don’t totally know what we’re talking about. We’ll use terms like addiction or co-dependent and assume we know what they mean. But when a kid asks “What does co-dependent mean?” we might realize that we don’t quite know. Which is exactly what happened to me while I was writing, and I had to do a little research into co-dependence. Which proved to be very helpful, since it helped illustrate a lot of what’s happening to America’s political parties. And it wasn’t just explaining things that kids don’t understand. In the course of the story, I had to attempt to explain some things that adults have trouble understanding.

Such as?

Such as the importance of cultural paradigms. Such as how our individual and collective lives are largely determined by our ideas. And economic concepts such as the externalization of costs, selling debt via Treasury Bonds, and—most importantly—our addiction to economic growth. Which is directly related to the “iron law of wages” that requires a percentage of a population to live in poverty.

Which is an important thing to know.

Yes, but unfortunately only a tiny percentage of the population is aware of it. Economists and business leaders are well aware of it, and surely some politicians are aware of it, but for obvious reasons it’s something they’d rather not advertise.

So what you’re attempting to do with the book is actually quite subversive.

Yes, the context of a bedtime story is a deceptively simple way to communicate something that’s quite ambitious. This goes back to the example of Animal Farm. Orwell’s message was subversive at the time. A lot of people believed in the idea of a socialist revolution, but their idealism blinded them to the reality of what was actually happening in Russia. Orwell could have communicated his message in a straightforward, serious way. But he had the brilliant idea do it in the satirical form of a children’s fairy tale. When I tried something similar, putting my ideas into the form of a bedtime story, I realized pretty quickly that it was the right context.

Have you tried communicating your ideas in a more serious way?

Yes. But without much success. I’m a writer of humor and satire, with no “serious” credentials. But I’ve learned to see that not as a problem, but as an opportunity. Because it has freed me up to use other approaches. Such as this book, which communicates my ideas in a way that I hope readers find both informative and entertaining.

Even though what you’re conveying is quite serious.

Other people with the background and qualifications are taking the serious approach. And my attempts to write about the topic seriously were essential to what I attempted with this book.

Why is that?

For one thing, to develop the ideas in the first place. To examine the roots of our collective problems and see how they’re connected. Because for me, writing is thinking. I can’t tell you how many of my insights came as a direct result of the process of writing. But it was also directly relevant to this book, because the outline for the story—basically the “plot”—was a direct adaptation of an essay I wrote entitled It’s the Ego’s Fault.

What was it about?

It began with the premise that in psychology as well as the world’s wisdom traditions, the ego is seen as the root of all of our psychological problems. But what’s not really acknowledged is how the ego is also the root of our social problems. Because the perspective of the ego is that we’re superior to the rest of life, and we’ve based our entire society on that perspective. It was a good summary of my ideas that I felt was clear and concise. And when I began to translate that into the context of a bedtime story, it fell into place quickly and naturally. The initial draft took only six weeks. In further drafts, I was able to bring in other ideas from some of my other books. The bedtime story ended up being an ideal context for a summary of everything I’ve been thinking about for many years.

Because many of your books are about the downfall of America.

A lot of writers have one basic subject they can’t let go of. They keep coming back to it, re-examining it from different angles. For me, this is the one. Not just the collapse of America, but the collapse of Western Civilization.

Why do you think that is?

For me, it’s impossible to comprehend that the impending collapse of civilization isn’t the thing we’re all thinking about. Other issues are vitally important, of course, but to me this one trumps them all. We can work on issues such as racial justice and human rights, but without a viable civilization to support them we’ll come to a point when they won’t matter. The way I see it, we should be collectively having the kind of conversation that the mother and daughter are having in my story. We should be examining the roots of our problems and searching for solutions. Before it’s too late.

Of course, many people think it’s ridiculous to imagine that America could possibly collapse.

What they don’t realize is that throughout history, many countries have collapsed. And the idea that America could collapse is becoming more accepted. It’s not a fringe idea any more. It’s not that America is in danger of collapsing; America is collapsing. The evidence is becoming so overwhelming that it’s impossible to ignore.

But it’s an idea that few people want to consider.

Resistance to the idea is still huge. But the problem is that resisting the idea that collapse it possible is exactly what makes collapse inevitable. Because if we refuse to see a problem, then how can we ever develop solutions?

What do you hope that your book will accomplish?

That it will become one small contribution to understanding what’s happening. Also, I hope that it will provide some solace to people who think they’re going crazy—people that are observing a civilization headed toward collapse yet refuses to recognize it. To such people, my message is: It’s not you, it’s the world. The world is going crazy because it’s based on some crazy ideas. And the book offers hope.

In what way?

In the context of the story, the conversation between mother and daughter is from the context of a country that survived—that learned from America what not to do. Or to put it another way, from the context of a country that developed wisdom. And this is possible.

So it’s not a blind hope based on the idea that we will survive.

No, it’s hope based on the idea that we can survive. But it’s up to us. And if America doesn’t make it, maybe the rest of the world can learn the lessons we refused to learn.