America’s first official 2016 presidential contender, Texas Republican Ted Cruz, went viral a couple of weeks ago with a video where he told audiences, “The whole world’s on fire. The world is on fire, yes. Your world is on fire.”
That video caught my eye same time that another clip was spreading fast on Facebook. It turns out Hollywood is preparing to release yet another end-times movie, this one a blockbuster treatment of a nation-destroying earthquake originating on the San Andreas fault in California.
“We will get hit again,” a wild-eyed actor promises. “And it’s going to be a bigger monster.”
I’ve thought a lot and written a fair bit about this phenomenon before. Humans tend to be drawn to narratives about threat, disaster, and apocalypse. Whether it’s zombies or ebola plagues or Obamacare, there’s something in our reptiles brains that sparks in exciting ways when we’re confronted with the idea of primal threats to life and limb.
But I think it’s important for Americans living in an increasingly saturated media world to be aware of this gloomy zeitgeist. Whether it’s our friends sharing Facebook messages about the deadly, imminent peril of terrorism or politicians hoping to link their fortunes to our fears, the end-times are in vogue right now.
I think it’s also worth paying attention to the fact that, increasingly, a constant sense of overwhelming menace is big business for a lot of people. It’s unclear whether Senator Cruz will ever be president of the United States, but there’s no doubt but that the constant, pulse-pounding, the fuse-on-the-bomb-is-lit rhetoric has pushed him very close to the pinnacle of American politics.
He’s not alone. Republicans who’ve struggled to articulate clear policy ideas that might provide an alternative to Barack Obama’s leadership instead default to what amounts to a breathless invitation to panic. How can we possibly talk about ideas or policies or practical alternatives when the sky is falling? How can you ask us to talk about the fine details of Social Security when we’re trying to save the world?
Hollywood can hardly go wrong with a film about an asteroid or a Biblical flood or an ice age or zombies or the sun going supernova
It is, sadly, mostly a waste of time to cite facts showing that most of this fear-baiting is utter nonsense. By every metric, the world is a safer, less war-like more stable place than at any time in history. Fewer people are dying in military conflicts. Fewer people are dying in plagues. Fewer people are dying of hunger, thirst or dire poverty.
We have institutions capable of dealing with most of the threats we confront, including the truly dire ones. Ebola was really scary. But using modern science and by devoting global resources to the problem, it was contained. Roughly 10,000 people have died from the epidemic so far. That’s half as many people as die every year in the US after catching the flu.
The truth is that even those threats anchored in scientific fact — yes, the San Andreas fault is real and so is climate change — aren’t going to produce the kind of devastating end-times that sometimes worm their way into our imaginations.
Meanwhile, here in the US, we continue to enjoy an astonishingly high standard of living. We’ve bounced back from a terrifying recession. Things aren’t perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. But neither are we being stalked by the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
It’s not just conservatives or mindless Hollywood types trafficking in fear
But we can’t just single out jingoistic souls like Senator Cruz for trying to keep us all hiding under our beds. This zeitgeist is more powerful, more pervasive than that.
Some of our most interesting writers and thinkers have devoted themselves in recent years to visions of global horror. Margaret Atwood’s novelistic treatments of a post-climate change world make Cruz’s rhetoric look downright tame. Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven” draw their narrative power in large measure from the idea that everything’s gone to hell in a hand basket.
So why do so many people, from so many different political and cultural persuasions, want you to think your world is on fire?
Part of it is simple greed. That stuff sells. But I think it’s also a lack of imagination and rigor. It’s easier to make spittle fly about the end-times than it is to actually govern or balance a budget. And artists who can’t figure out anything new to say about our complex, muddled, modern world find it much less troublesome to imagine a world thrown back into a state of primitive, dog-eat-dog turmoil.
Yes, McCarthy’s “The Road” offers a wrenching portrait of a father trying to keep his son alive. But does it say anything about what it means to actually be a father in the modern world? Not really. For the vast majority of us, the challenge these days isn’t keeping our children alive. It’s finding ways to help them connect and be good people. That is a much harder story to tell.
So those two videos — Ted Cruz’s sermon and the trailer for “San Andreas” — got me thinking about all this. But I want to add one more video to the conversation, the one that actually convinced me to wrestle with all this doom-saying one more time.
It’s all still here!
A new Netflix sitcom called “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” actually grapples with America’s apocalypse fixation. It tells the story of a young woman who’s been living in a bunker her whole life, convinced that the world has ended. She emerges to find that the world is still chugging along just fine, and it’s actually still pretty darn great.
“It’s all still here!” Kimmy gushes. And she sets off to explore all the complicated, messy, weird, hard and beautiful things that are out there. I know it’s naive to pin my hopes on one screwball comedy, but the message here strikes me as kind of weirdly, happily subversive. “Life beats you up. You can either curl up in a ball and die or you can stand up and say ‘We’re different and you can’t break us.'”
Cheesy, I know. But if I have to choose between a world on fire and a world where people refuse to live in bunkers — mental and otherwise — I’m with Kimmy.