Have you noticed how many types of popular entertainment embrace the apocalypse these days? It is the second wave of this in recent history, although the advance of technology and the lowering of standards regarding sex and violence have made modern times far bleaker than ever before.
It is the weekend and I have decided to discuss nominally lighter issues in these posts (unless the real world intervenes), so I have decided to focus on callousness in an apocalyptic age. Of course this is still very serious, but we are also an age of cynicism, a time of profound doubt. We usually just shrug our shoulders at the daily history of terror and either laugh it off or mumble ‘what can ya do?’ In the end we wind up blaming the wrong people.
In the 1950s, at the dawn of the cold war, after the Soviet Union detonated their own atom bomb in 1949, fear of the end times detonated in America (and, I presume, nearly every other place in the world). Cut to several years later and Sputnik is launched into outer space. Suddenly a missile could reach us. We needed a missile capable of reaching them. The arms race began in earnest (a deeper element of this same theme can go all the way back to the time when one tribe figured out how to sharpen a rock). The world was, once again, divided into teams to root for. The number of missiles became the key statistic. There was put into place the idea of ‘mutually assured destruction,’ which meant that if they dare to bomb us, we’ll do them one better and blow up the entire world. The whole thing, in retrospect, seems like a bar after hours outside a Northwestern logging mill, two lumberjacks ready to fight, instead slapping their cocks down on the table to see who is bigger and therefore a better man.
But let’s put the Cold War aside. It only which serves, today, as a training session for the potential end of the world, the Reds versus the Whites and the Blues and Yellows and Grays sitting on the sidelines, watching the whole thing on TV. And back home, those not engaged in the ground war, we sit and we seethe, exaggerating the enemy, seeing all those people, many facing dire oppression, as some sort of monolithic beast, spreading poison into the minds of every tolerant fool ignorant enough to ignore the danger.
The Cold War is a fascinating period of American history–the era I have done the most personal research on, going all the way back into my teenage years (over thirty years, for those of us counting). I have been working on a much larger project over the past several months, of which several pieces are available in rough drafts on this site (namely “FDR and the Dawn of American Conspiracy Culture,” “The Intervention of Humanity and The Loss of Innocence” on Warren G. Harding and, my personal favorite, point, “Greed, Corruption and Do-Gooder Liberalism,” on the amazing story of Grover Cleveland, the brief interruption of Benjamin Harrison, and then the fall of Grover Cleveland. There are numerous others on the US Presidents, which are being written in order. I have the first 32 Presidents roughly completed and am presently working on Harry S. Truman, which intersects with the early Cold War age). But that is the end of self-referential advertising. Let’s get to the point:
Today we sit around and watch the world burning around us. Literally. We see wildfires devouring California, occasionally bringing hope when far-right wing and far-left wing celebrities band together to save animals, and where particularly noble celebrities flock to help in any way they can. We watch this on TV. We see life and death on the precipice, like all those raging hurricanes and tornadoes that eat up whole towns, leaving uncounted corpses floating in the polluted swamps that drowned every house. We sit there and flick the channels–another school shooting; a crazy person with a gun; some leftist asshole going after some right-wing asshole Senator–all this political division not representing an ideology, but more the notion that there is nothing left to hope for. We are at war with each other. If one of those lunatics were to survive, and the radical side they represent were to win the war they so desperately wish to fight, they will no longer be madmen and madwomen, but heroes, future political leaders. Occasionally you can get a martyr for a brand new religion.
And we watch. We change the channel. What do we have to choose from? Zombies, that cagey parallel to the growing mindlessness of society. A zombie is single-minded. Zombies are selfish. Zombies only seek the personal fulfillment of their most basic instincts. We see this trend raging out, just like George Romero’s now primitive comedies Night of the Living and Dawn of the Dead, inspiring thinly metaphoric criticism of the growing cult-like nature of people the whole world over.
Zombies today are creatures of heart-rending (sometimes literally) violence and absolute terror. The whole world is after us and the threat keeps on growing. We try to huddle, to find a safe space, and only lash out when we believe our life is threatened, whether it is real or not. There is always a justification for murder in a world spun out of control.
Change the channel. More news. Angry political rants–name-calling and the blame game. This comes from every side. Racists blame racists for being racist. Greedy people blame greedy people for their greed. Hatred breeds hatred. No one is clean. Click-click-click. All more of the same thing.
Even if we find some far less judgmental comedy, or even the most glorious tale of romance, somehow the real world corrupts it, intervenes with the potential hopelessness of failed romance or profound humiliation. Everything goes to extremes (of which I, too, am definitely a fan), but this increased tolerance for just how awful things sometimes are, and the continual promotion of the worst things that happen in the world does make us numb to the less extreme or noteworthy acts of violence that happen everywhere.
Here is a checklist of hideous things that have happened recently, in numerous places throughout the world, stories that get buried by the more heavily tabloid crimes that causes everyone to take a side, and evade the issue of terror, resuming a cynical outlook or conspiratorial mindset that the growing insanity is somehow a plot of the other side. That it isn’t real. That any horror is meant to distract us from what is truly going on.
And this rage keeps growing. And growing. And you know what you end up with? The inspiration to commit these acts, a buzzing hopelessness so profound that we kick into a survivalist or revolutionary mode, believing that something so profound must happen in order to save the world. We are all soldiers in the good fight, we tell ourselves. And it doesn’t matter who it is we are fighting. No matter what, we know who is enemy is.
Have you heard about female genital mutilation? A savage practice out of polytheistic societies, where twelve year old girls, sold into marriage to a barbarian, have their clitoris filed off in a torture session, because, it is believed and even mandated, that females should never experience pleasure in their lives, and their only purpose is to spawn more warriors to make way for the coming of the messiah.
Or what about a shoot out in the inner-city that sees a little boy on a bicycle, and an infant in a stroller gunned down because the savages randomly firing bullets up and down the street, lost in perpetual nihilism with visions of video games and hatred of the unfair world, do not think about the consequences of their actions. They do not care whatsoever about human life. We may see a passing reference to something like this on the local news, before the next crime against humanity overwhelms us.
There are so many things that happen that are not interesting enough to watch on TV. Financial crimes. Click. Spousal abuse. Terrible–click. A teacher fucking their student. This tends to lead to sarcastic comments before the outrage, reported on briefly before being turned–Click!– into a moralizing TV movie, only existing for the enjoyment of lonely housewives and husbands. Click.
Incidents such as these even become the focus of parody, let’s laugh away the misery so we can handle it day after day after day. One of my favorite authors, Joseph Conrad, (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?cm_sp=SearchF-_-topnav-_-Results&kn=joseph+conrad&sts=t) in known for writing miserable, horrendous tragedies about the corruption and failures of humanity. Some of his stories (and I will in particular note The Secret Agent [https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9781853260650&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used]) are so sad, so absolutely hopeless, that there reaches a point in the tragedy where all you can do is laugh, shake your head, and at least feel better about yourself that your life will never be quite as bad as these characters. Then we turn the page, perhaps stop reading and wait the movie on TV. Click.
And we spread this out to the world: the news a brutal satire of a life you will hopefully never lead. Everything on TV is some form of miserable comedy, all about lost hopes and crushed dreams and unfulfilled desires. Click. Click. Click. Click. Oh no! My favorite football player just tore his ACL. The best pitcher needs Tommy John surgery. The best hitter has been suspended for taking performance enhancing drugs. My kid struck out three times at his little league game, or fumbled the ball twice or even missed the one shot he took in the basketball game that his team lost by a single point. Everything is broken. Everything is dead. We watch this and see all of this happening on TV. We are comfortable. We are horrified, morally indignant, or just amused. Most of all we are frustrated. Will things ever get better?
So we click to a new channel, this time to watch an asteroid plummeting towards the earth, something that is bound to kill everyone. Everything is panic, even the Cartoon Network has interrupted its regular programming to broadcast the end of the world.
Is there anything left to do other than watch it from the comfort of our homes?