There are things I do not understand about the world.
Yesterday, the local news reported a series of thefts in a Silicon Valley town full of unlocked mansions. The owners never locked their doors out of pride in their lovely neighborhood. A crook pretending to be a deliveryman happily walked in and helped himself, again and again.
I begin with this example because it is easier to deal with than the monster from Manchester. I wonder often about the culture of refusing to lock one’s doors while going out. It is an early American tradition, I understand. It is a part of honoring small town culture, or trust in one’s neighbors. It sounds noble. You believe you are making a statement, you are taking a stand, although what you are doing is not quite practical, or safe.
Now, to the monster.
The bizarre obsession with insisting on life going on as normal when there is a relentless war being waged against civilians, including children, is perhaps the modern (or postmodern) equivalent of leaving your doors unlocked because you wish to make a statement about something.
Yesterday, it wasn’t just the news channels, but the daytime talk shows like Wendy Williams talking about terrorism. The war has come home after Manchester. It was Ariana Grande, and the world of little girls and the innocent. The talk show hosts I heard were of two views. A few of them expressed their fears and hesitation about sending their children out to concerts; but this, they said with an apologetic tone. The dominant view was the sort of bravura one can see with only an extreme form of flight from reality. One host showed a clip of a large crowd that had gathered in public somewhere admiringly. Take that, terrorists, we will go on as we always have!
On the face of it, it’s brave. But in reality, it only means there has been a cultural, intellectual, and indeed perhaps even a biological breakdown of a catastrophic nature. That’s why I call this essay Latte Trumps Hate. It is about the frothy commodification of one’s intellect, conscience, and life itself (Chai-T is the new Che-G, read more here). People are not responding to the very real threat of bodily pain and harm, familial loss, destruction, and the end of freedom, the way a normal living being should. Instead, they are caught in an ever deepening performance of commodified, calculated, pre-packaged outrage about something they have been taught to think they should be outraged about.
All this was already in play soon after the elections. If one political campaign played to some real fears among people about terrorism and economic insecurity by stooping to xenophobia, another campaign piled onto a much wider consumer culture anchored to a superficial reductive identity-based activism as the biggest advertising strategy after babies, puppies, and bikinis, as the old saying goes. The confusion about something as obviously dangerous as a violent global force unleashing destruction on innocents again and again is of course only getting exacerbated with the communication-polarization of our times. The supposed Right, worldwide, is increasingly the only space talking about a lethal threat as a lethal threat. The mainstream intellectual and cultural establishment, which has an overwhelming monopoly through education and pop culture on the imagination of the young, has very successfully turned an attitude of suicidal disdain for one’s own life and limb into a fashionable norm.
I am not blaming the young people of the world, or at least the global consumer class, who want to enjoy their lives, go to concerts, parties and have fun. I am concerned enormously though that many of them perhaps no longer see danger as danger, or worse, have been heartlessly (and mindlessly) brainwashed by a clueless intellectual-cultural class into believing that somehow it is their destiny, and that of anyone on the planet, to accept the slaughter of innocents as no big deal really in comparison to the oh, so-uncool, thing to do of speaking against it.
Bloodshed does not outrage many well-meaning people today, as much as a word or thought that suggests unequal judgment of even what may well be very different things in reality.
This is a crisis, and this is a crisis especially of the West. Its popular culture, its intellectual paradigms, its worldview has been so colonized by the contingencies of the present that a large part of it no longer sees its bodies, bodily integrity, indeed its own lives, as important. I do not know who it will blame, its heartless leaders who wage war for no reason and sell out their young, or its endless abyss of meaninglessness torn between an old apocalyptic mythology and a newer nihilistic one of, well, nothing at all. It has its clichés, brewed in college classrooms, perfected in advertising and consumer culture, and let loose ultimately into the world of real human beings. The children of the Western world are being taught, I am sorry to say, not to value life but a cliché about it (read about this especially strained example here).
As I said, I do not know why they leave their doors open, or their fates. I grasp for theories and possible solutions.
I am reminded suddenly of all the horror movies that depicted vulnerable children sleeping alone and far from their parents while the monsters came down on them, and think about how only later did we learn about how the horror genre was used to scare people into religion. I think the opposite has happened now. If the media sold religion as a solution to fear, it is now selling suicidal bravado as the answer to danger. There is no normal, or new normal, when monsters lurk freely with deathly devices. It may well be the case that people will go on with their lives despite the threat, as people have done around the world for a long time now. But to insist that there is something glorious about living with the threat as if it were just normal, or worse, that there is something inglorious or incorrect in saying this is wrong, is as wretched as this species can get with itself.
The days and years ahead are an especially fraught time for humanity. We have to recognize the cultural forces that are driving whole lives over the edge. I do not mean any one particular religious or political ideology even. Confronting that alone will not solve anything. We have to understand a deeper disconnect, a deeper delusion, that has rendered reality and truth so far apart that all we have are the seemingly secure eggshell citadels of our accepted clichés and positions. That delusion is simply one of causality, and of knowing what the effect of a particular cause might be, especially if we see that hurtling down upon us, undeniably. If we see a car coming at us on the wrong side of the road, do we turn away to avoid being hit, or do we stay the course because somehow if we veer away we are being mean and judgmental to all the other drivers driving safely? Most arguments today about safety are unfortunately as unhelpful as this.
We have to recognize that the delusion that is upon us is not a natural one. It is a constructed phenomenon. Speculating on its origins and interests would divert us here so I will say nothing more on that for now. But we have to recognize that there are precedents we can learn from. Thirty or forty years ago, the culture was full of messages that told you it was perfectly normal to smoke, and to blow smoke everywhere. Today, we do not see tobacco advertising on the reckless scale that existed once. Similarly, we have to understand that the message we are being sold everywhere in the culture that it is perfectly normal to go on pretending that an organized ideological force for mass violence isn’t that is an enormously phony one. If the world survives, someday students of cultural history will look upon the tragedies and discourses of our time with the same unbelievable curiosity and disbelief as we do now at snake-oil, tobacco and red meat ads from an earlier time. If the world survives.