Friday, February 10, 2012

Essay: Why is the end of the world so American?

Despite my far-left politics, I feel the strange allure of American survivalism. Post-apocalyptic movies like Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, The Road Warrior, Waterworld, The Postman or The Book of Eli, wasteland lit. like The Road, or even zombie movies (my favorite) like 28 Days Later, Resident Evil: Apocalypse and Dawn of the Dead, not to mention the top-rated AMC television series The Walking Dead, instruct us that those who are hardened and prepared, psychologically and materially, stand a better chance of survival. Part of me -- I'm not sure which part -- warns me to ignore this instruction at my own peril.

There is something primal and basic in survivalism that seems so true due to its harsh black-and-white morality, its whittling down of priorities, and its focus on saving loved ones and treasured ideals. And there is something so manly about it, let's face it. (I don't have a very good feeling how popular all this stuff is with girls, I admit. Survivalism -- and my lack of it -- is not something I'm keen to talk about with most guys, much less the ladies.)

But why in America is survivalism suddenly so popular? And why are we churning out all this pop disaster that makes it feel necessary? (To be sure, the Brits are catching up). More concretely, why do we also have so many real-life American Redobuts, ready and waiting for God knows what and when? As alluded to, it must have something to do with our culture, starting with our fear of nuclear war in the 1950s with our fully stocked bomb shelters all the way up to our fear of flu epidemics, Big Government collapse, and resource shortages from global supply chain shocks. And to be sure, there are those who yearn for the terrible, black day that proves that America's love affair with firearms, so deadly in the short run, is supremely justified in the long run.

But that doesn't explain it all. No, I suspect it partly has to do with a sense of foreboding, a subconscious resignation to an imminent Day of Reckoning for us in the West, and America in particular*, for how good we've had it in a world that is so violent and unequal. And perhaps retribution for our sins. And our sins, depending who you talk to, are myriad and profound.

(* And New York in particular. I often recall the hilarious yet insightful question of a very dear non-American: "Why is Hollywood so obsessed with destroying New York City?" Indeed, why? Is it Los Angeles's way of getting back at its coastal rival? Is it because Wall Street assholes deserve it? Or is it jealousy because they are cleverer, richer and win more pennants? Anyhow, I feel sorry for New York and New Yorkers already, both pre- and post-9/11. Give it a rest, guys. Why not let Boise, Branson, Lubbock or Fargo take one on the chin for America for once, huh, Hollywood?)

On the Right, they say the Reckoning will come when we can't pay our profligate debts, or the digital currency collapses and Big Government turns violent and despotic, or even when we become so self-centered, decadent and idolatrous that an angry God "raptures" the good souls to heaven while leaving the sinful dregs to fight over the smoking remains while being hounded by the armies of the Anti-Christ. And Randroids have been threatening us with retribution for our sins since Atlas Shrugged in 1957.

On the Left, they say the Reckoning will come when we have depleted all the planet's resources, or genetically modified crops suddenly collapse and we forget how to feed ourselves and by extension, the world, or when climate change deprives the U.S. and many other places of the necessary conditions for industrial agriculture.

Both sides still fear the spectre of nuclear war -- from an errant Russian nuke, a burgeoning China, a jihadist's dirty bomb, or a crazy Iranian missile attack. Strangely (?), the end of the Cold War has done little to calm our fear of, and fascination with, the nuclear end times.

Then there is sci-fi pop culture which terrifies us with hordes of flesh-eating zombies, rapacious or blood-drinking aliens, planet-killing meteors, and super-diseases engineered by the government -- ours or another's -- leaked into the general population.

There is a pretty well-accepted psychological theory that argues we humans love horror stories because they help us to imagine and prepare for the worst: we can thus live out the worst case scenarios in our minds, and anticipate how we would deal with them, without actually suffering them. If that is the case, then the growing popularity of apocalyptic tales means that we are giving tremendous thought to such what-if scenarios. Does that mean such scenarios are becoming increasingly more likely?

Another well-accepted psychological theory states that we humans evolved in an environment of ever-present danger; and when danger is absent, we don't quite believe our eyes; so we seek to invent or imagine it, for example, through extreme sports. If so, then one could argue that the growing peacefulness in the West and America in particular is causing a corresponding psychological backlash, a secret yearning for an equal measure of danger to balance the scales. And it doesn't get any more dangerous than the end of the world.

Then there is the explanation that with technological progress we have become so psychologically and physically flabby and self-unreliant that we subconsciously yearn for the ultimate workout, the ultimate test of self to weld six-pack abs and Jim Brown's chest on our manliness. I mean, we don't know how to hunt or grow food anymore. We don't recognize any of the plants around us, even in our backyards. Most of us don't even know first-aid, CPR, or basic wilderness survival skills taught in Boy Scouts. This is not to mention the social epidemic of U.S. obesity, especially among the poor, and Southerners.

I find some evidence for this explanation in the growing popularity of survival shows on TV, which allow us to sit on our couches munching chips while "learning" something about taming -- or rather, bonding with -- those dwindling oases of wild nature. There is more evidence for this theory in the popularity of figures like James Wesley Rawles, best-selling author of Survivors: A Novel of the Coming Collapse and How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It. I mean, what kind of pathetic nerd learns how to survive from a book? It sounds like something I'd do*. (Both books are available on MP3 and Kindle for all you hardcore woodsmen.)

(* I admit I read The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead by visionary survivalist Max Brooks, but only because there are no real-life zombies to practice on (yet), not even in the woods.)

But I think the vogue of contemporary Western survivalism is best explained by something else: our modern sense of helplessness in the face of unstoppable globalization and the towering power of mechanistic, bureaucratic de-humanizing corporations and governments. The West -- that is, its diplomats and business cabals -- presently rules the world; but as individuals we Westerners, and especially we Americans, seem to matter less and less. And that doesn't feel right. It doesn't sit well with our myth of ourselves as ruggedly self-reliant cowboys riding life's range of possibilities.

And now it's time to return to my more familiar political-moralistic tone. The Tea Parties -- may they fail miserably -- and the Occupy movements -- may God bless them -- are looked down upon by a majority as malcontents trying to impose their fringe worldview on the rest of us, but at least they're trying to change something. Most of us, despite our vague dissatisfaction, have given up. Organizing, protesting, questioning authority, grassroots campaigning to pass a law or Constitutional amendment -- these are looked down upon as naive pursuits at best, and anti-American at worst. Labor unions -- who traditionally gave voice to the voiceless and balanced normal people's concerns with the national-industrial plans of commerce and government -- at least in the private sector, are nearly dead in America.

Compounding our sense of helplessness, the Left-Right consensus that impersonal "free markets" and "the invisible hand" solve most problems better than a group of actual human beings with a singular purpose leaves most of us convinced that nothing we do matters (except in the statistical, mystical aggregate), and even worse, we nowadays believe that interfering with those impersonal forces is tantamount to a political and economic crime, a la apocryphal capitalist "wrecker" spies in the Soviet Union who managed to throw a monkey wrench into otherwise humming factories churning out a better life for the masses.

In the face of perceived unstoppable, impending collapse, some choose to wall themselves off from it, and/or to create something new and pure in its place. You don't have to be a flower child to recognize the similarities between a rural survivalist practicing sustainable agriculture and pursuing renewable energy and water supplies with hippy communes starting in the '60s. These loose networks of survivalists formed by social networks, radio programs, shared books and films, and even their common choice of redoubt (Idaho-Wyoming-Montana) points to a yearning for their own like-minded community, albeit separated by hills, woods and fences. They don't want to be alone alone.

So modern American survivalism cannot be dismissed as silly, fringe, or just good fun. It's serious business. We ignore this phenomenon at our own peril. Moreover, we ignore what they're feeling -- and our inexplicable commiseration with them -- at our own peril.

The antidote to impotent rugged individualism (expressed through survivalism) is organization. Not building another party, NGO, or corporation -- but organizing actual groups of human beings with a singular purpose around common goals and then acting resolutely. Those people in the Tea Parties and Occupy movements who have tasted what such gatherings of like-minded, everyday people feel like know it is intoxicating -- and eye-opening. They want more and more of it. Regardless of their politics, they are acknowledging their individual powerlessness yet exercising their individual will to voluntarily join a powerful collective. Heck, even survivalist communities, conventions and social networks are an ironical cry for "Community!" by neglected, rejected, and self-exiled loners.

Don't get me wrong, I'll keep enjoying my Walking Dead, Max Brooks and Bear Grylls. I even enjoyed Atlas Shrugged... when I was a teenager. But I am not under any illusions as to the power of the rugged individual survivalist. Rather, in him I see my own fears and shortcomings... and the failure of globalization to preserve a sense of community and individual security even for many Americans.

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