The other night I was sitting having a beer in a friend’s house trailer, making conversation about the fate of the world, occasionally casting a glance at the flat screen television mounted near the ceiling. Not being a regular television watcher, the idea of having the image factory going constantly, even with the sound off is a bit disconcerting. I couldn’t bring myself to ignore the cavalcade of images that drew my attention as we talked.
The screen was tuned to the Discovery Channel and the program being broadcast was a two hour special called “Zombie Apocalypse.” This is apparently a guide to survival at the end of civilization. The documentary footage features grade B actors playing survivalists, ER physicians, college professors and various “experts” in the defense against attacking zombies. In past decades this would’ve been considered a satirical “mockumentary” approach to an obviously fictional scenario, but in the hallucinogenic culture of today I’m convinced that a large part of the population can no longer distinguish fantasy from truth.
In our America the true is no longer woven out of facts. The truth is merely a matter of belief. One can believe in virtually anything and make it real, turn it into a subculture, a reality show, or a political movement.
A couple of weeks ago in a great circling of the wagons that took place in Houston, Texas, somewhere around 70,000 people gathered for the annual convention of the National Rifle Association. The complexion and makeup of those who gathered most likely resembled those seen at a Republican National Convention, including a large contingent of conspiracy theorists, militia enthusiasts and (I’m sure) zombie fighters . The motto of this year’s convention was “Stand and Fight.”
An obvious question is, “Fight who?”
The answer no doubt includes criminals, liberals, the government, immigrants, zombies and all that the media so successfully markets as objects to fear. A recent poll found that 44% of Americans think that we are headed for an “armed rebellion.” Mostly folks wrapped in a belief that “freedom” is somehow synonymous with the right to arm themselves against all others.
I can actually understand their motivations and perhaps even sympathize with their fears, knowing that underneath all the various projections and fantasies of “the enemy” is the growing certainty of an entire culture being overcome and vanishing, as surely as have all the extinct tribes that have gone before. The pathetic irony is that nothing threatening this culture’s survival can be defended against with armaments, no matter how lethal or quickly loaded.
The foundations of what we once called “freedom” are vanishing as quickly as pond ice on a warm spring day. What remains of the American Dream of individual autonomy is confined to images cooked up in the fantasy world of theme parks and television. Nearly every community and every city, large and small, has turned itself into an artificial construct, where identity is constructed out of slogans and corporate logos. We are what we watch. New York and Paris and Shanghai are rapidly becoming collections of interchangeable parts as each city replicates a well oiled machine interface that balances a shrinking quotient of local novelty with the familiarity of recognizable brands. What we look for as we travel is the nearest Wi-Fi connection at Starbucks or MacDonalds.
I remember a time when I was very young and it appeared that civilization had a direction and my country had a sense of common purpose. I now realize that this perceived reality was a manufactured illusion, but now even that level of commonly accepted artifice is gone away. It went to Las Vegas, where all traces of human purpose are absorbed by our continual response to the demands of automated mechanisms of reward.
A recent statistic indicates that suicides among middle aged males has risen by 48% since 2010. Most of the gun deaths in this country are the result of suicide. Could it be that the relationship of the gun owner to his or her gun resembles that of the bulemic to food? In both cases the object of obsession is perceived as a shield from despair. In either case beneath the shield is a hidden death wish and it brings one ever closer to the very thing feared. Is it any surprise that the zombies we fight in our fantasy scenarios are the reanimated corpses of the very people with whom we are familiar?
Thus we have this sad gathering of the paranoid deep in Texas defending what no longer exists in any meaningful way; the “American Dream” of “the home of the brave and the land of the free, with liberty and justice for all.” What in our era do any of these words mean? What freedoms do we have beyond the freedom to shop? We can choose the 30 round magazine over the 15 round magazine or the 42 inch television over the 36 inch. We can navigate to our favorite web site to stoke our preconceptions or paranoid daydreams. We can decide who to cheer for or who to blame. We can switch channels, but we’ve given up almost every freedom but the freedom to be entertained.
“Daily skirmishes were now being fought, no longer for territory or commodities but for electro-magnetic information, in an international race to measure and map most accurately the field-coefficients at each point of that mysterious mathematical lattice-work which was by then known to surround the Earth. As the Era of Sail had depended upon the mapping of seas and sea coasts of the globe and winds of the wind-rose, so upon the measurement of newer variables would depend the history that was to pass up here, among reefs of magnetic anomaly, channels of least impedance, storms of rays yet unnamed lashing out of the sun.”
– Against The Day by Thomas Pynchon
I don’t want to leave us with a feeling of despair. Despair doesn’t do anyone any good. Although nostalgia for the “loss” of individual freedoms can perhaps justify our desperate response, we may also consider that aspects of our loss may be part of a necessary evolutionary advance.
In 1800 only 3% of the world’s population lived in cities. At the beginning of the last century that number had grown to 14% and by 1950 it was 30%. It is now projected that by 2050 more than 70% of the global population will live in urban areas. The population of the world’s cities is growing at the rate of a million and a half people every week. Can anyone realistically project that the values by which we navigated the past will not have to change substantially as we enter the future? (Sources: United Nations and Geoffrey West)
I once studied the ideas and architecture of Paolo Soleri, who proposed that humanity must structurally adapt in order to survive, just as life has always adapted to changing conditions and environmental pressures. As our population increases our lives have entered a new stage of complexity in which we must evolve a more flexible organism, one that is more compact and efficient and requires less energy to maintain. As the age of dinosaurs gave way to the age of mammals, so our sprawling urban landscapes must find ways to consolidate services and resources so that more people can inhabit less space while generating less waste. Soleri (who died on April 9th of this year) proposed a radical redesign of the urban environment that envisioned densely populated cities as single structures, called Arcologies, which functioned as integrated and tightly managed outgrowths of the natural landscape.
His view is controversial, because in order to conceive of such a project one has to envision a humanity as radically altered from what it is now as are mammals a radical departure from the life of giant lizards. How do we get from a world filled with religious warfare and ethnic hatred to one where diverse populations can live in ever closer quarters without civilization self-destructing?
That appears to be what we are seeing right now, as institutions appear to collapse under their own weight and complexity. Having left a century dominated by massive world wars we appear to have entered one where regional warfare is almost constant, waged within cultures even more than between them. Our politics are shaped by the struggles of rural versus urban, tradition versus technology, global versus national and a shrinking population of the privileged versus a growing culture of poverty.
Meanwhile the movies and television and the Internet fill with imagined apocalyptic scenarios of government conspiracies, environmental extinction, alien invasions, wars against machines and zombie attacks. I’ve come to realize that these are the nightmares of a culture that in fact faces very real extinction. And so it must, as a prelude to what Arthur C. Clarke would have called “Childhood’s End.” The new human being is being born at the same time that the old perishes. Rather than mourning what is passing I choose to search for indications of what’s to come.
(to be continued…)
You Can’t Stop The Signal