September 28, 2014

Is the Whole World Going . . . Insane?


In recent months I can't tell you how many editorials I've seen with a headline along those lines. It isn't just bovine editorial writers who are asking that question, either. Everyone seems to be doing it. Friends, family, strangers in bodegas and on the subway are asking that question too. Oh, they phrase it in different ways (“nuts,” “crazy,” “to hell in a hand basket”) but they all have the same feeling, that the center is no longer holding, that on a global scale things are spinning dangerously, even apocalyptically out of control. And whenever I hear the question posed I always think the same thing in response: “chunkheads.”

            The operative word here is “going.” They all seem to believe the world at this particular  historical moment is in the process of going mad as never before. And what's their evidence? Well let's see. Russia is moving into the Ukraine. The Middle East is in turmoil with Israel and Palestine going at it again and a powerful Islamic militant army messing things up in Iraq and Syria and lopping off the occasional Western head for the cameras. The deadly Ebola virus is spreading across Africa killing, well, hundreds anyway. The weather's gone all topsy-turvy and we're learning all of a sudden and much to our shocked amazement that the NFL is rife with wife-beating child haters. We have a president who has not only proven he's not Jesus Christ, but who's also shown himself to be simultaneously more feeble and more coldly power-mad than his predecessor. To top things off, we're saddled with an economy that is blindly and giddily screaming toward another collapse.

            This is why whenever I hear anyone ask “is the whole world going crazy?” I know I'm dealing with a chunkhead blessed with absolutely no working knowledge of history beyond the moment they bought their last iPhone. Maybe that's where the madness lies, because if that's their evidence I'd be forced to conclude to the contrary that we're actually living in the calmest, sanest, most boring and lifeless stretch in recorded human history. When have any of the above things not been true?

            Go back 2,500 years, pick any year, any historical instant you like between then and now, take a look at what was happening, what people were doing to each other around the globe, and chances are good you'd find it all very familiar and all very horrifying. I don't think there's been a single instant when people haven't been convinced the whole damn world around them was going coocoo. Read it in history books and it's neat, it's clean, it's a pre-packaged storybook fable with conflicts between Good and Evil in which Good always eventually triumphs. But history is a messy, sloppy beast that doesn't really work that way. We're a right lot of bastards we are, and always have been. The pre-packaged, accepted history has an annoying tendency to leave out those little things that don't quite jibe with the story. And when it comes to contemporary history, well, remember the world didn't exist before 2010.

            Right now Americans are being prepped for yet another, um, “war on terror” (even after all these years I find that phrase absolutely hilarious). The equally hilariously-named ISIS has of course been called “the Embodiment of Evil,” and a dire threat to every last man, woman, child, and goldfish in America. It's easy to believe, given how creepy looking those guys are on top of the fact they speak some guttural gibberish and live in the desert with goats. Who knows what they might be capable of? That I think the whole thing is a media-born myth (created when it was understood we were no longer that terrified of al Qaeda and so needed another super-villain) is neither here nor there.

            Remember back in the late sixties and early seventies? The US and Europe alike were dotted with what were then called revolutionary groups (not terrorists) made up of rich comfortable white kids. The Weather Underground. The Angry Brigade. Baader-Meinhof. The Movement Second June. The Autonomes. The Symbionese Liberation Army, and so many others who maybe didn't lop off heads for TV, but still planted bombs, kidnapped  and assassinated people, robbed banks, did any number of nasty things. They struck in Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, even Madison, Wisconsin. But for some reason we didn't live in cowering fear of them, because they were seen by many as just a bunch of spoiled rich kids going through a phase, and most have been forgotten today. Then there were the Mongols.

            The head of the CDC says that if left unchecked, the Ebola epidemic could kill as many as 1,400,000 people. One and a half million? Oh, heaven forfend! The flu pandemic of 1918 killed how many millions? The Black Plague wiped out what percentage of the European population? And we're getting all itchy about another ugly outbreak in Africa? I'm shocked it's even making the news over here, except that we haven't had an H1N1 virus or Bird flu to panic about yet this year and so we're overdue.

            There's not much point in even bringing up Israel and Palestine, but football players are beating their wives and kids? Well guess what? So are factory workers and celebrities and lawyers and cabbies and politicians and the unemployed—and they haven't even been pumped all full of steroids and HGH for our entertainment!

            A world going mad? Well, I guess I'm a little less than impressed. I can see why people would want to believe such a thing though. As Morgan pointed out many years ago, every generation desperately wants to believe they're the last, that the world will end in their lifetime. She's right, too. Again go back through history and the species has always had an aching, apocalyptic mindset. That too is understandable. We've always been living in swirling chaos in which the rules of entropy seem to be playing themselves out quite neatly. For it all though, there's still a smugness in our attitude toward it, a feeling things could never possibly get any better (or any worse) and whiny victims that we play ourselves out to be, we (and every generation) believe we are the absolute pinnacle of civilization and that the world has no choice but to stop turning as we watch.

            But no, I don't think the world is going particularly crazy, or even any crazier than it's ever been. In fact I don't think it's nearly as crazy as it should be. I think the real problem we're facing at the moment, the real and for true historical crisis, is that people continue to grow more irrevocably stupid.


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