Our nihilist times
When I was much younger, I devoured dystopian fiction and film. I couldn't get enough of it. The bleaker the promise of the future seemed, the more I was into it. Nineteen Eighty-Four was prophecy. Brave New World was a healing balm. In the frightening days of mutually assured destruction, when Ronald Reagan joked about outlawing Russia and the missiles would be launched in five minutes, I took an odd solace from movies like The Day After, Threads, and Testament.
If you had asked me at the time why I loved dystopias, why I was steeped in nihilism, I probably would have said something about them being interesting stories, thought experiments to plot out the worst that could possibly happen.
But, really, it was the times. We were facing an out of control arms race between two powers led by old men who didn't seem to care if the world burned. It was a logical reaction to an illogical time.
However, we managed to survive the coming apocalypse. The missiles were never launched, the bombers stayed on their air bases, the submarines slipped silently through the waters, their deadly cargo never unleashed. The Cold War ended, and Western liberal democracy was the victor. The 1990s were a time when we saw something of a peace dividend. The internet exploded, and a world which had been divided seemed to be coming together.
As I grew older, as I accumulated things, as I became an adult and had both the responsibilities and rewards which came with that, my taste for dystopia waned. The end of the world was no longer a thrilling exercise, but an all-too-real possibility which we seemed to have escaped by the skin of our teeth. No nuclear holocausts, thank you very much. Let's just celebrate the end of history.
Of course, history didn't end. And the 1990s weren't a golden age for everyone. From the first World Trade Center attack to the Oklahoma City bombing, there were more than hints that segments of the world commonwealth were not satisfied with the new order. The sureties of the cold war no longer obtained, and pressures which had been kept in check by nuclear terror were starting to bubble up. The 90s would see the eruption of Europe's first general war since 1945, with the Balkans descending into barbarity, no longer bound together by a strongman. The nihilists, put down for a few years, were back.
The brief peace would be shattered by 9/11. Nihilism was met with more nihilism. War was unleashed. But it was a strange war; it was a war which asked nothing of the nation. It was war fought at a remove. The US had finally, truly, become a successor to the Roman Empire, with a professional military mostly segregated from civilian life sent around the world to fight enemies real and perceived. We were told this was a civilizational struggle, yet nothing was asked of us save to go shopping, prop up the economy, fly a few flags. It's no surprise that this war which wasn't a war would engender feelings of ennui and confusion. The protests petered out; it's hard to get worked up when a war barely touches your life, apart from having to take off your shoes at airport screenings.
But while war had barely any effect on us, the economic mismanagement of the rulers of capital would upend everything. Millions lost jobs, savings, retirements, everything. The wars we fought had no impact on us, aside from a tugging on our consciences. But the economic meltdown blared out that the stable order in which we thought we lived was a mirage. It did what the wars couldn't do: impact us, every one of us.
The Obama moment was like that of a late Roman emperor, bringing stability to a situation which was inherently unstable. He accomplished a Herculean task, which was to right a ship which had been sinking. But the damage had been done. Confidence in the system was gone, and the idea that nothing mattered any longer took hold among too many.
Then, of course, you had the backlash against Barack Obama. His ascension was the early warning that the country some people thought was theirs by birthright was slipping away. And they wouldn't go down without a fight. Because of that fear and that hatred, enough people voted to put a supremely unqualified, idiotic, unthinking, fascist in the White House. That was merely an act of the rankest nihilism: I see my life in tatters because I'm no longer top of the pile, so let's put a con-artist, a failed businessman, a reality show host into the most powerful position on the planet. This is matched by those clamoring after a failed politician from Vermont, who has no accomplishments to his name, who follow him out of the same messianic impulse which motivates their supposed ideological opponents.
What's the answer to this? What we've been seeing for the past year. A determination by people from all walks of life to not acquiesce silently to a project which is designed to cow them. People saying that they won't just accept what they've been dealt. For every Trump voter with a "fuck your feelings" T-shirt, there's an activist from ADAPT who braves being arrested to stop the Deathcare bills making their way through Congress. For every neo-Nazi saluting the false president, there are dozens who march in opposition to a regime which deserves no respect, no goodwill, no grace period.
It's easy to surrender. Resistance is the hardest path. Laying down your cares offers the least resistance. But then we may as well kiss the species goodbye. In saying no to nihilism, we affirm that which is most human. And that thing is hope.
Like what you read? Chip in, keep us going.