Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Disaster and Apocalypse

The car is on fire, and there's no driver at the wheel
And the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides
And a cold wind blows
--Godspeed You! Black Emperor, "Dead Flag Blues"

We Modern Americans love our disasters. We adore movies featuring asteroids bearing down on us, zombies trying to eat us, Mayan prophecies trying to Cusack us to death.

There’s also a strong argument to be made that we love actual disasters: killer storms, tsunamis, tornadoes, lunatic shooters. There are primal, visceral notes within us that are evoked when trouble occurs, when the world looks apocalyptic for a moment. 

It’s rubbernecking on a grand scale. It’s seeing a live performance of an edgy, confrontational play or band. It’s riding a roller coaster: we realize we’re not in any actual danger ourselves, but we get to feel as though we are. From a place of safety, we empathize with the victims and vicariously become them. It’s the uncertainty of life, the “That could have been me,” moment where--and no shame or judgment--but we get a perverse, voyeuristic thrill deep in our bowels.

We do. Deal with it. We just do, as much as we might like to deny it. We do, because we are creatures of imagination and empathy. We are smart enough to realize that life does end. Or maybe it’s that we are still so deeply connected with our animal selves, the ancestral place where we are forever on the knife-edge of life and death.

This uncertainty is what perks up our ears at the sound of impending doom, even if it’s someone else’s doom--or better yet, the doom of the species or even the planet as a whole.

And it’s uncertainty that I think is at the heart of why modern Americans are so enamored of disaster, whether in movie form or reality. As random as the world is, we humans want and crave order, even when it comes to the apocalypse. When things are going to shit, we want proof positive that this is so. We want to be certain that it’s time to hole up in the hills with cases of Ensure and bottled water and take multiple wives and shoot interlopers on sight. That’s not something you want to do prematurely.

But the collapse of civilization doesn’t necessarily have to be apocalyptic. Maybe it can be more uncertain than that, more incremental and insidious. Maybe it can be more like the unmoving frog in a pan of water slowly brought to a boil. Maybe if things get bad enough slowly enough, we don’t necessarily get to see the moment when civilized society ended.

We are given a date in A.D. 476--September 4, to be precise--when the Roman Empire is purported to have “fallen.” But modern scholars agree that there was a period possibly as long as hundreds of years prior to this during which things got steadily worse for the general populace in terms of foreign invasions, loss of territory, and reduction in creature comforts. In the meantime, the elites increasingly holed up in their villas in the country with their servants and the trappings of their wealth and avoided the mess their misrule had created.

Sound familiar?

The collapse of civilization may very well look like the weeds growing from the cracks in the pavement on the shoulder of US 36 to Boulder. It may look like unrepaired bridges and crumbling schools and hospitals shutting down. It may look like the angry and beaten-down faces of the people at the bus stop waiting to go to their second or third or fourth job. It may look like foreclosed houses and broken windows and shuttered factories and glass on the sidewalk that never gets cleaned up.

What if apocalypse is gradual, not, well, apocalyptic?

I’m not the first to say it, and I won't be the last: The end of civilization may look like today. It may look like right now.

The government is corrupt
And we're on so many drugs
With the radio on and the curtains drawn
--Godspeed You! Black Emperor, "Dead Flag Blues"

So, Obama and Romney bicker for our amusement over who makes for a bigger bogeyman, an out-of-touch, robotic billionaire corporate raider with unknowable offshore wealth, or a socialist/communist/nazi/Kenyan-Hawaiian. And while they distract a deeply troubled nation with fatuous prophecies about who would more quickly destroy the republic, I would argue that it’s too late. The republic is already gone.

Romney and Obama are flip sides of the same coin, just as the people who run things want them to be. Not even flip sides; they’re both heads, because heads always wins these days: heads they win, tails you lose. Romney and Obama are like a Janus head, one facing forward, one backward, but both part of the same entity. (This may be an especially apt metaphor in that Janus was considered to have “two faces,” although between them Obama and Romney have four, at least...but never mind.)

The entity both these men represent is the machine that is stealing not only this country, and our freedoms and our future, but also the future of the entire planet, all in the name of making those with the most wealth even wealthier.

As Chris Hedges puts it in an excellent article found on Alternet
Those who exploit do so through layers of deceit. They hire charming and eloquent interlocutors. How many more times do you want to be lied to by Barack Obama? What is this penchant for self-delusion that makes us unable to see that we are being sold into bondage? Why do we trust those who do not deserve our trust? Why are we repeatedly seduced? The promised closure of Guantanamo. The public option in health care. Reforming the Patriot Act. Environmental protection. Restoring habeas corpus. Regulating Wall Street. Ending the wars. Jobs. Defending labor rights. I could go on.

Oh, let me: the continued and useless drug war, stepped up to include legal marijuana dispensaries; the knee-jerk law and order reaction to Occupy, during which the administration either stood by and watched silently or actively abetted the crackdown; the continued expansion of NSA spying on US citizens; the shameful prosecution of Wikileaks whistle-blower Bradley Manning; and giving torturers and war criminals from the Bush Administration a free pass.

Hedges touches it with a needle. The thing is, Obama too is a tool of the corporations. And the corporations for all intents and purposes are now firmly in control of the levers of government. All of the levers. Our votes are bought and sold on a scale unprecedented. We are propagandized so thoroughly and ubiquitously that there is no escape; Hitler, Stalin and Mao couldn’t even conceive of the level of control of information currently held by the elites in this country. And not just by Fox News; the thin slices of the far left and right that actually ask the right questions, questions outside of the strict parameters and framing laid down by corporate power are marginalized at best, if not outright destroyed.

Our court decisions have become products like any other in this commodified system, to be packaged and purchased by those who can afford them. (“Here’s that Bush v. Gore you ordered, sir--would you like to super-size with a Citizens United?”) Our justice system is neither just nor really a system any longer, certainly not one that operates by any logic or fairness.

America as it was meant to be is pretty much over. We are just watching the slow crumbling of what public edifices remain as the rest of the nation’s wealth is sliced and diced and distributed upward to the puppet-masters in charge.

Obama and his cohort in Congress may publicly plea for consensus and admonish the other side for blocking legislation, but the fact is, Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi have gotten done exactly as much as they wanted to get done. With Obama’s political capital in 2008, he could easily have gotten a better healthcare plan through, one that didn't cater so massively to big pharma and the insurance giants. And the rest of the laundry list Hedges cited--Guantanamo, the Patriot Act, habeus corpus, the environment, labor laws, Iraq, Afghanistan--all of these are hideous crimes of omission and commission for which we should all be holding the administration’s feet to the fire, not congratulating them because they are not quite as blatantly pro-business and pro-money and pro-power as Daddy ‘Mittens’ Warbucks.

The left in this country today is like a victim of domestic abuse. The beatings continue apace, but when they do stop for a second, and Obama says something hopeful about gay marriage or vague promises of other reforms, we applaud and say, "See? He really does love us!"

But the one crime that we cannot forgive is that Obama did nothing to reform Wall Street after the crash in 2008. With some effort--any effort--he could have passed some new re-cobbling of Glass-Steagall with judicious use of the bully pulpit and the properly stirred-up ire of the populace, outraged as each new malfeasance of the banks came to light. With the carrot of billions of dollars in bailouts and the stick of an irate public, it could have been done. Easily.

But he didn’t want to. And that’s because he owes his presidency and the possibility of a second term--not to mention a very wealthy post-presidential life indeed; just ask Bill Clinton--to the same bankers and financiers who are today right back at the same tricks they pulled prior to 2008.

And what this should illustrate is that democracy in America is essentially finished. Justice as a broad concept that encompasses all Americans is over. The banks and bankers--and just as importantly, the people who own a great deal of the money in those banks, which is all of the wealthy class, essentially--are thoroughly in charge. They are above the law, because they make the law. They are the law. There is no oversight, there is no counterweight to their control.

There is no one left who has the power or even inclination to slap down big money. What this means in terms of our day-to-day reality should be apparent: weeds on the side of the highway, unemployment with no end in sight, crumbling infrastructure, environmental catastrophes unpunished, financial ruin for all but the very top while the entire house of cards crumbles and crushes us all.

We're all trapped in the belly of this horrible machine
And the machine is bleeding to death
--Godspeed You! Black Emperor, "Dead Flag Blues" 

But even with the propaganda machine firing on all cylinders, cracks begin to show. We can see the system is a not a fair or just system. We can see that no one got punished for Wall Street’s crimes. We can see the oil companies continuing to get taxpayer dollars even as they poison our water and land and air and children. We can see through the increasingly obvious and blatant lies the politicians and the media throw at us as they cease to really give a shit whether we believe them anymore.

This is where the angry faces originate. This is where petty crime and nasty discourse in the street and irate traffic and selfishness and a thousand irritated slights between people come from. We want to blame someone, and we are frustrated enough sometimes to take it out on someone nearby. But people aren’t stupid, not completely. Even us rubes walking down the midway of America, reaching into our empty pockets having just thrown three rings in exchange for our last dollar can sense when something about the game isn’t quite right.

We can see that things are getting shittier and shittier around us. We can also see that those who are to blame go unpunished, while petty, minor criminals--that is, the poor--go to prison at unprecedented rates.

And what is becoming increasingly clear is that part of the game right now includes expanding the police state apparatus as quickly and quietly as possible, because those at the top realize that people won’t tolerate this forever. As the mass of people are squeezed into ever more untenable positions, the machine cracks down on the tools and means of protest that a free people should and always have been able to use--by right, not by fiat. Remember that: these tools of protest--free speech, freedom of assembly--are not gifts to be taken away on a whim by any president, not even one you kind of like. That’s why they are called “inalienable rights.”

Even as they slowly strangle us and our children and destroy any kind of chance at a decent future, along with the means to live and survive on the only planet on which anyone now living will ever reside, they simultaneously take away our means to fight back against the crush of corporate power and wealth.

The sun has fallen down
And the billboards are all leering
And the flags are all dead
--Godspeed You! Black Emperor, "Dead Flag Blues"

What’s hilarious is that the Teabaggers had it right, sort of. There is indeed a plan in place to take our country away from us and rob us of our freedoms--only it’s coming from the same corporate power structure that financed and built the Tea Party.

Perhaps this is what the end of civilization looks like: the end of civilized discourse between the leaders of a nation and its people. Leaders who no longer have to bother listening to their people. In our case, this is not only because of the influence of money in our elections, but also because the real leaders of our nation are no longer the ones we elect. Rather, the true leaders are a select few who have never been answerable to voters, but who nonetheless control the future. And the ones we do elect are easily bought off with flattery and trinkets and a taste of wealth of their own. It is too easy to incorporate them into part of the machine that is devouring the world. Far from offering even token resistance, they are downright eager to be assimilated.

I'm not the first to say it, and I won't be the last. Every generation has had people crying out that they were witnessing the end--of the world, humankind, civilization, something. We are a dramatic species.

But for the first time we can see an endgame, a place where there is unchecked--and ultimately uncheckable--power in the hands of a very few very powerful people, people who have shown no inclination to give up any of that power, not without a fight.

And we've seen very few people with the means to fight stepping up to do so.

I'm not saying the world's going to end on our watch, or even that America will. But I think we're seeing the beginning of the end of something.

Maybe civilization ends because humans, when given enough unchecked power over one another, are, in the final analysis, incapable of behaving in a civilized manner.


Here's the song in full:

Here is some further reading, just a few articles I've run across lately, not all of which directly correspond to what I've written here, but which I find relevant nonetheless.

"Rules of American Justice," Glenn Greenwald, Salon

"How America's Surveillance State Breeds Conformity and Fear," Glenn Greenwald, Alternet

"How Whole Regions of America Have Been Destroyed in the Name of Quarterly Profits" Bill Moyers and Chris Hedges, Alternet

And here's a piece in New York magazine by one of my favorite writers, Frank  Rich, "Mayberry, R.I.P.," in which he notes that people from all points on the political spectrum are crying that it's all over.

EDIT: I trimmed and altered parts of the opening this morning, a few hours after I posted this, to try to clarify and home in on what I was going after a bit more clearly.

And here's another Moyers piece.

No comments: