Thursday, March 29, 2018

Long read: Where did the world go?

Don Draper from Mad Men.

I don't recognize the world anymore.

Before anyone hauls out the true but tired axiom of "the only constant is change," I know and I'll get to it later.

Much of this unease...and that's actually a mild adjective for it...originates in my personal world going through such upheaval in the past year. It goes beyond that however.

Recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education, a professor of English wrote an article called "Facing My Own Extinction." Her university is eliminating the English major. Others are following suit. For people like her and me, people who have devoted our professional lives to the study and teaching of writing, literature, history, and philosophy, these are dour times. Colleges and universities have been gradually becoming vo-tech trade schools for years now and we seem to be near a culmination point. As one historian I interviewed pointed out, this is strikingly similar to the old Soviet method of education. We'll churn out crowds of skilled laborers who know all about how but are unable to ask why.

Don't think for a minute that's an accident.

No use knowing how to write when no one reads. To my shock and dismay, everything I've been taught to value both in and out of school is now viewed as superfluous. The world has essentially looked at me and said, "You aren't needed." It's quite something to learn you no longer belong in the world and that you've been discarded. I don't recommend the experience to anyone.

In so-called "market-driven education", every school is a corporation.

If anyone is about to call me a Luddite, then this is obviously the first time you've ever read ESE. I'm a transhumanist, for God's sake. I advocate replacing and augmenting the human body through technology, but I fail to see how that translates to abandoning entire bodies of knowledge. Our creations are meant to compliment and boost our pursuit of knowledge, not define it.

Anti-intellectualism is nothing new, I suppose. It just seems to have hit its zenith in the Trump era.

Speaking of which, I no longer recognize my government. Every day there's something new and disturbing coming from the clown car that is the Trump White House and I ask myself, "How can people think this is all right?" A trillion dollar unfunded tax cut is about to send us into the economic equivalent of a Mad Max movie. Evidence is mounting that the Trump campaign was assisted by a foreign power. Read that again please, a foreign power. And if that is so and if Trump is indeed playing by the tyrant's playbook as described in Plato's Republic, he will soon need a war to solidify his position. With his appointment of John Bolton, a man proven to have a masturbatory zeal for the use of military force, to the position of National Security Adviser, Trump may very will get the distraction he wants.

Nuclear war. I'm used to worrying about that. It is, however, beyond the good ol' existential, world-ending threat of the Cold War. Russia is the only nation capable of ending us and nothing will come to pass with them. Instead it may very well be a limited exchange with North Korea. Unlike the ulcer-inducing days of my Cold War youth, it's not the nukes that scare me this time. It's biowarfare. As I said before, the North Korean doctrine is likely to be one of first use if struck. Even if they don't do it, another rogue state or a terrorist organization is bound to acquire their own biowarfare methods and it's next to impossible to put that genie back in the bottle once released. If you think it can't reach us here in the good ol' U.S. of A., think again.

You might also want to watch 28 Days Later to bone up for it.

Now that's something else, isn't it? I have never hid my tepid views of the zombie subgenre, again placing me in the position of "outsider looking in and with no small amount of puzzlement," but there is no denying the popularity of these stories. The Walking Dead, World War Z, and 28 Days Later have all been big hits. Why? Since few people think about biowarfare as much as I do, I doubt its collective unease and anxiety over such a threat. Maybe its a general dread of the idea that we may slide into a lawless, post-apocalyptic existence. More likely still, we might all deep down fear that we're zombies. Like mindless drones, we shuffle back and forth from our places of work in order to earn our existence. Trite, I know, but we may also be zombies in another way.

After reading what I just wrote about Trump, many in our nation would likely accuse me of being a "a Hillary supporter, whining because I lost." Such a charge would be born of ignorance because I actually have a fair amount of disdain for the Democratic Party as well. In our current climate, however, one can only be one or the other. A Pew Research poll found that people increasingly express their political party affiliation as core components of their identity. What's more, they view the other side with suspicion and contempt, even reporting they would oppose one of their family members if they chose to marry someone of the other party. This thinking, if you can call it that, leaves no room for nuance or complexity.

It's zombie thinking. In the not too distant future, we'll shamble up to one another and ask, "Democrat or Republican?", the answer determining how the rest of the encounter plays out. We seem to love putting people into neat little boxes more than ever before because that's the most thinking we can handle. My friend Suzi Parker wrote a very good blog post on this subject called, "Zombie Politics." 

When did it get this way?

"Change is the only constant," though. True, I suppose.
"Change is always good," I've also heard someone say. I'm sorry, but that strikes me as utterly ridiculous. Are we to hold hands while doing yoga and singing "Kumbaya" and simultaneously shrugging every catastrophe as "change is good"? Changes are on their way that you likely will not enjoy.

The world has passed a number of tipping points with climate change. One of just the most recent examples is how much warmer Alaska is getting. Imagine Alaska without a winter. Polar ice is melting. Sea levels are rising. To think, Waterworld was once just a bad Kevin Kostner movie. Not that we care or even notice. If we did, maybe we'd give more consideration to that patch of plastic garbage in the Pacific Ocean that's three times the size of France.  Before leaving us, Stephen Hawking gave it another thousand years before humanity goes extinct. Others, no less informed, have given us considerably less time, maybe even a mere 100 years.

If this is how things are going to go, I wouldn't mind an alien invasion. I keep hoping a massive shadow will fall over me, I'll look up, and I'll see one of the motherships from Independence Day hovering above the city. "Finally," I'd say. "Just end it."

It's easy for me to think I'm alone in feeling like this, being horrified in the face of this world I no longer recognize. I don't think that's true, though. I also suspect apathy is not the default reaction in most people. I think the changes and the sheer magnitude of the issues, are just too much to consider. It becomes so easy to see oneself as powerless in their shadows. Out of a sense of mental self preservation, the path of least resistance is to just switch off. When mass shootings happen on the regular, such a response is not only understandable, but enviable. It's no wonder so many turn to drugs. 

And before I'm accosted by another rando Facebook hag, I'm well aware that America does not have the market cornered on drug use. I do, however, see its presence in my life every day. Whenever I speak to health professionals about these feelings, the invariable response is "pills...pills...pills" ("Ask your doctor about...") At least three people close to me are on anti-anxiety drugs. One of them just told me, "I'm popping Xanax like Pez." When do we ask ourselves why?

In a way, we have already been asking it. Notice how many film references I've made in this post. I believe that is the writer at work in our contemporary situation. That I've cited more film examples than books, well...I'm embarrassed at what that says about me. But I digress...
Writers see these changes and speculate on the outcomes. Sometimes these outcomes are exaggerated (Waterworld) as a means of holding the issue at arm's length, as a gestalt to make it more fictional than fiction even and thereby a bit more palatable. The underlying questions remain, however.

To be sure, things in many regards are better than at any other point in history. Think of all the modern conveniences we have and the extension of life expectancy for the average American. Also, this is not the first era of history where people like myself have wondered what the hell is happening. I'm certain people asked it during World War II and as the Black Death swept across Europe. And before anyone points it out, I'm aware of my moments here on ESE where I have mocked beliefs in the "End Times."

And yet...

And yet...

I really do feel like this is different. I have no data to support that assertion, only intuition. That and the sense of how alienated I feel. I'm reminded of Colin Wilson writing The Outsider alone in his room on Christmas Day, cut off from the rest of the world for reasons of and not of his own choosing. I feel the added dimension of seeing what's coming and rendered a passive observer.

If you thrive on change, I think you're about to get it in spades. Hope you enjoy it. I'm not so sure many people will. Of the many things I've learned in this past, hellish year, one of them is that the future doesn't need me. It doesn't need you, either.

In fact, it doesn't need any of us. 

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

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