I’ve been indulging my late-night craving for schlock by watching the entire series of “Walking Dead” episodes that aired over the last two years.
It’s fairly highbrow stuff for a soap opera about survivors of a zombie apocalypse, which means that it’s the perfect lens for looking at the state of American culture.
We have just emerged from a vitriolic fiscal cliff debate and are about to descend into a debt ceiling debate.
On the one hand, we have activists declaring the end times because of climate change and the mass extinction of wildlife species.
On the other hand, we have zealots preoccupied by the notion that Iran or North Korea could threaten world peace, or the notion that creeping socialism and national debt could trigger a massive societal meltdown.
Whether you listen to “Democracy Now” or read “Atlas Shrugged” or subscribe to the latest interpretation of the Mayan calendar, it’s hard to avoid the idea that we’re living in the end times.
And yes, being Americans, a lot of us are cashing in.
Gun manufacturers are getting filthy stinking rich by selling sleek assault rifles to suburbanites, worried that Barack Obama may just be a tyrant-in-waiting, or the Anti-Christ.
And Hollywood is getting filthy stinking rich by pumping out a constant stream of doom-fare. The last couple of years, there have even been a spate of end-of-world comedies.
Mass human extinction. What a chuckle.
This is the culture that politicians in Washington are pandering to — particularly, politicians on the right, who have boxed themselves into corner after corner by pretending that this vote, this decision, this stand will make or break America.
Tune in to conservative talk radio and you’ll find the Glenn Becks of the world selling survival kits, gold, and fear. (Did I mention gold? Lots and lots of gold.)
Lurking just behind the alarmist headlines and loudspeaker klaxons are some home truths that are often lost because they are, well, sort of boring.
The truth is that we live in the most peaceful, safe, fair, prosperous, and upward trending world ever witnessed in the long, sordid history of Mankind. Our golden age makes the Pax Romana look trivial by contrast.
And just at present, there is no evidence that any of the problems we face are large or thorny enough that we can’t sort through them.
The national debt? I’ll take that over Nazis or Spanish flu pandemics or the imminent threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union any day.
Climate change? Dangerous and real, but also incremental and hardly likely to be civilization busting.
North Korea? Please.
Set against these very real challenges are the many, many points of astonishing progress. Humans are living far longer, with far more quality of life. War has faded sharply, and beautifully, as a significant force in our lives.
Democracies are spreading with remarkable speed throughout the world and many of them are proving to be highly nimble, tough and enduring.
Yes, much of the Islamic world is still trapped in something of an ugly feedback loop. But the remarkable thing isn’t that those countries are still backward in their political and social structures.
No, the remarkable thing is that so many countries have moved forward so rapidly, leaving nations like Saudi Arabia and Syria behind. From South America to eastern Europe to Asia, a vast human renaissance is underway.
So why do we do it? Why do we inflate a picayune political dispute in Washington DC — or the 2012 elections, for that matter — to the level of DefCon 3?
And why do we look for our entertainment to programs like the “Walking Dead” or Glenn Beck’s histrionics?
It’s not very original, but I suspect it has something to do with how we’re wired. Humans evolved as a species that lived right on the border between predator and prey.
We feel good — or at least, we think we’ll feel good — when problems are immediate, simple and subject to “fight or flight” solutions. We also enjoy narratives where more traditional roles and social structures are re-enforced.
In times of conflict, the complex choices, freedoms and uncertainties of modern life are replaced by a narrowing band of rules and options. For many people, that’s comforting. That feels “normal.”
The worry, of course, is that this kind of yearning for cataclysm can be self-fulfilling.
In the years before World War I, a largely peaceful and stable European civilization scrambled eagerly toward devastating conflict with a kind of suicidal zeal, which in hindsight smacks of sheer boredom and ennui.
The intellectuals of the day were intrigued by the idea that their “soft” and “effeminate” culture would be tested by fire and iron.
What they got, of course, was mud and death and disease. It wasn’t romantic or heroic at all.
The point, really, is that the morning after the fiscal cliff deal — or after the late-night zombie-pocalypse marathon — we all have to brush ourselves off and get back to the mundane work of making things a little bitter day by day.
Most of us will contribute in small, incremental ways to the remarkable progress that Mankind is making. The chances are very strong that none of us will ever get to be the heroes in a last stand against anything. (Sorry, Glenn Beck.)
The good news is that there’s also very little chance that any of us will be turned into zombies.