The Wall Street Journal has a regular column summarizing the day's news in snarky fashion. One of their running gags is a sub-headline that reads "Everything is seemingly spinning out of control." Then they quote some ridiculous story.
But these days, the joke isn't quite so funny. For many of us, everything does seem to be spinning out of control. We have beheadings on YouTube, wars and rumors of wars everywhere, massive numbers of undocumented aliens crossing the border and being dispersed throughout our population, urban riots, sectarian genocide, modern-day pirates on the high seas, outbreaks of treatment-resistant turberculosis and other formerly tamed diseases, a resumption of Cold War tensions as Russia threatens the Ukraine and other former Soviet satellites, a stagnant economy, general dyspepsia and malaise, and a growing lack of confidence in the trustworthiness and competence of our elected officials and government in general. Now, to top it all off, we have Ebola in America - just one case (so far), but there's a strong possibility of more to come, and the official response has been lackluster at best and inept at worst.
It all brings to mind the famous Yeats poem "The Second Coming," which is increasingly cited in these troubled times:
Turning and turning in the widening gyreThe falcon cannot hear the falconer;Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhereThe ceremony of innocence is drowned;The best lack all conviction, while the worstAre full of passionate intensity.
The poem, written in 1919, was inspired by the angst and anomie of the postwar world, but it seems no less relevant - maybe even more relevant - today.
What are we to make of all this? The comforting explanation is that things are no worse than before, and in many ways better; we are simply more aware of the world's woes because we live in an interconnected age, when any tragedy anywhere on earth can be playing live on our TV sets and computer screens within seconds. No doubt there's some truth to this. But I'm not sure it's the whole truth.
The less comforting explanation is that the very interconnectedness of our age, with its high-tech complexity, has created an inherently unstable situation. In the global village, any brush fire can burn out of control. Viruses that were once confined to remote villages can now travel anywhere on earth in a few hours via intercontinental flights. Medieval slaughter is no longer restricted to undeveloped countries; it, too, can travel at will, and beheadings and other barbarous acts can take place in the most cosmopolitan venues. Governments, overwhelmed by the pace of change and the number of real or perceived threats coming from all directions, seek to impose control by using technology to monitor their own citizens, via drones, cameras, interception of phone calls and emails, etc. Police departments seek to stay ahead of increasingly plugged-in criminals (often organized and funded by foreign cartels, whose agents cross the porous border unmolested) by arming themselves with paramilitary gear, giving urban neighborhoods the feel of occupied territory in a war zone. The self-styled political and social "elites," viewing the general public as a herd of dangerously ignorant yokels, feel less and less inclined to share information, abide by the rule of law, or tell the truth. In response, a good part of the public - its outrage fed by real abuses but also by paranoid conspiracy theories encouraged by social media and Hollywood entertainment - starts chattering restively about revolution, secession, civil war. It's just talk, of course ... for now.
Speaking of Hollywood, our entire entertainment industry now seems to exist in order to promote a nihilistic and dystopian outlook. The term "post-apocalyptic wasteland" has become a cliche, having been the basis for countless grim, ugly, violent sci-fi outings. I remember when The Road Warrior caused a sensation because it was something new and different. After having been imitated ad nauseam, it doesn't feel new anymore.
When the future isn't depicted as a savage struggle for survival amid the ruins, it's a super-technocratic dictatorship policed by armored storm troopers, puppets of a global cabal. If there's been a positive view of humanity's future in any recent big-budget movie, I've missed it. The Star Trek films are perhaps the only ones within the last twenty years to have a basically upbeat message (a legacy of the series' 1960s origins), and even that franchise has gotten darker in its spinoffs and reboots. (The latest entry was even subtitled Into Darkness.)
Whether they follow the news or just go to the movies (or listen to pop music, or read the latest "literary" bestseller about the meaninglessness of it all), many people cannot escape the growing sense that the center really is not going to hold, that things are falling apart, that mere anarchy has been loosed or is about to be loosed upon the world. And they may be right.
What are we to make of all this? I'll throw out one notion.
Back in the middle of the 19th century, in the decades leading up to the mass carnage of the American Civil War, the Spiritualist movement began. In the ensuing eighty years or so, it went through various phases of evolution, but its basic message remained constant: humanity was facing a crisis and desperately needed to eschew materialism in favor of a more spiritual outlook.
This warning, needless to say, was largely ignored, even as the country suffered through civil war, repeated depressions, and two world wars. As materialism waxed in the post-WWII era, Spiritualism waned, reduced to a discredited rump movement associated (in the pubic mind) with cranks and charlatans. At the same time, immediately following WWII, ordinary people began reporting "flying saucers," which were taken to be super-advanced spacecraft piloted by beings with possibly hostile intentions. War of the Worlds fantasies stood in for the looming prospect of global nuclear war. Schoolchildren learned to duck and cover when the Bomb went off. Fears were ratcheted higher and higher.
By the late 20th century, people in the developed world were increasingly pessimistic and dispirited, worried about all manner of approaching apocalypses: not only world war, but climate change, overpopulation, environmental collapse, Peak Oil and other energy shortages, pandemics, biological and chemical warfare, genetically modified crops, EMP attacks, conspiracies of all kinds. The more hopeful among them placed their trust in something called the Singularity, a promised epiphany in which machine intelligence would outstrip human consciousness, leading to an unimaginable new world of hyper-technological miracles (or nightmares - no one could say). Both the pessimists and the optimists seemed agreed on one point: humanity as such had no future; either we would perish, or we would mutate into something other than human.
It appears, then, that the overall message of the spirits has been vindicated. While their specific predictions rarely panned out (usually proving too optimistic, presumably embodying the narrative that they hoped would take shape), their basic point that we must abandon or at least modify materialism in order to avoid losing our civilization and/or our humanity seems to be proving true.
Now, one of my basic assumptions about human nature is that our conscious mind is only a small fragment of our total consciousness, and that much of our life is played out subliminally. Moreover, I think there is a certain collective quality to subliminal experience - that is, I think there's a great deal of overlap between the subconscious imagery and ideas of different people. And this subconscious imagery and ideation, if it becomes sufficiently vivid and intense, will find a means of expression in the physical world.
So let's sketch out a scenario:
The spirits, representing in part our higher selves or total consciousness, try to bring the dangers of materialism to our conscious attention. Throughout eight decades, they hammer at the walls of our resistance, experimenting with various strategies: raps, table tiltings, materializations, direct voice communications, automatic writing, trance mediumship, etc. The mass of humanity, however, remains unmoved; the stubborn ego (like its authoritative official and quasi-official spokesmen) persists in finding ways to ignore or explain away all such anomalies, treating the whole subject as an embarrassment or a joke. Eventually the phenomena start to dry up; the spirits cannot get through, and have given up trying. A few persevere, but most do not.
Aware at an unconscious level that we have failed to get the message, we start to dream our world differently than before. At the very moment when materialism is triumphant and Spiritualism lies trampled in the dust, our skies become crowded with alien saucers, avatars of a super-technology that may destroy us. Our movie screens become radioactive deserts haunted by ragged survivalists, or Orwellian technocracies that crush the human spirit. Fears multiply. Disasters are seen in all directions. Optimism begins to seem unreal. Confidence unravels. Malaise spreads. Utopias are forgotten. Only dsytopia can be taken seriously. And we come, finally, to a point where "everything is seemingly spinning out of control."
Either these signs and portents are one last-ditch attempt by our higher selves to get us to pay attention and correct course ... or they are simply an indication that the course is now set, and no correction is possible.
One way or the other, it seems to me that the spirits were right - and that we have ignored them at our cost.