Much too often I catch myself imagining current events through a pop culture prism; well, maybe more of a long pop culture lens. I came of age during the ’80s, a decade when few seismic shifts occurred. The most interesting thing happening was the Cold War, which by then was in endgame, the last couple of pieces chasing each other around the chessboard. Boring times.
In retrospect, I can see that my teen years coincided with the beginning of a new chess game that was defined by its opening gambits of deregulation, Atwater-style politics, and the unholy alliance of religious fundamentalism and government. Thirty-five years later we might be midway through that particular match. The collateral damage is adding up like pieces standing beside the board: quagmires, financial crashes, terrorism, wealth gaps — all of it traceable back to opening moves made decades ago. Most of us can do nothing but watch it all play out and wonder when the endgame is going to come, and what it will look like.
As a teenager I didn’t see any of this coming. I remember standing in my high school’s hallway and telling my friends, “Our decade is so fucking boring. I wish I would’ve been a teenager during the sixties.” My perception of the ’60s came mostly from pop culture. It was a Woodstock vision of the decade of my birth: mad, passionate, creative, and beautiful. The sixties were a pinball machine to the eighties glacial chess match.
That’s still the ’60s we see in pop culture, but it’s hardly the ’80s that’s featured in television retrospectives. In those shows the decade was action packed. It’s a narrative choice: Nobody’s going to watch a ten part series about people in brown suits driving their Chevettes between ranch houses and drab offices. Storytelling requires that the mundane Iran-Contra hearings “gripped the nation,” or that the arrival of the car phone “electrified the nation,” on and on. The Interesting Eighties are a storyteller’s construct.
As a result, I often find myself wondering how today’s earth shattering event will be represented in tomorrow’s pop documentary: “In the middle of one of the most tumultuous times in modern history, a frightened nation came together for a brief moment and laughed as one to the antics of Chewbacca Mom.” We did? I never even saw the stupid clip. “That summer you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing “One Dance” by Drake featuring WizKid and Kyla.” Yeah, never heard it.
Some of our current events seem like naturals for “Flashback to the Twenty-Teens, hosted by Gleep Glorp, this weekend on your Neural Network.” The Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando comes to mind. Can we ever forget the slaughter of so many innocents? Google “East St. Louis Massacre” before you answer that. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
This week’s candidates for the highlight reel include the House sit-in and “Brexit,” the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. In that future show, we won’t see senators crowding around steam trays, spooning up their catered lunch. No, we’ll see gripping scenes of Elizabeth Warren and John Lewis–well, sitting–while Paul Ryan pounds his gavel and Louie Gohmert shouts about Radical Islam. Voice overs will remind us that “the whole nation was gripped,” likely accompanied by footage of weeping people at candlelight vigils.
As for the Brexit segment, it will be a montage of screaming stock traders, screaming Brits, and footage of weeping people at candlelight vigils.
And then there’s Trump, our current national obsession. Will he rise to McCarthy-like heights in the collective pop culture consciousness, or will he fade into George Wallace obscurity, no more than a political trivia question on future game shows? The fact that I think about potentially seismic events in such terms demonstrates the depth of my idiocy. I don’t know what any of it means, but many of my friends do. They know what’s going to happen 10-15 chess moves ahead: prison camps, martial law, war, starvation, Thunderdome, and an inexplicable shortage of those tiny marshmallows with which people garnish their cocoa. I don’t know how my friends came to be so smart.
There’s a sort of intellectual freedom that accompanies the realization that I don’t know much about much. I don’t have answers that I feel obliged to defend, for example. I’m not beholden to the dogmatic rhetoric of a defined position. Admitting to yourself that you’re an idiot opens one up to the intellectual equivalent of improvisational comedy’s “Yes, and?” Rather than shutting down, one opens up to myriad possibilities.
Take America’s mass shootings, for example. This is perhaps the most polarizing topic of 2016, ready made for a future montage of screaming people and weepy candlelight vigils. We are told that only two solutions exist to this problem: no guns or all guns. Few people say this explicitly, but the false dichotomy is implicit in the internet rants and memes. One side demands that any regulation of firearms encroaches upon their second amendment rights, their extreme opposites insisting that all guns be banned. Rants and tears are great for the retrospective montage, but the solution to our mass shooting problem likely resides in “yes and” territory:
“The second amendment guarantees my right to bear arms.”
“I’m entitled to protect my family.”
“I like to hunt and target shoot.”
“I’m a collector. Some of these are family heirlooms.”
“Look, it’s terrible all those people died.”
“And those kindergartners, too.”
“I get it. Nobody should be afraid they’re going to get murdered in a movie theater.”
“And I guess I could support regulations that don’t infringe upon my rights to protect myself, hunt, target shoot, and keep my family heirlooms.”
So what would those regulations be? I don’t know. I told you: I’m an idiot.
I’m not, really. Like everyone, I have my areas of expertise. Referring to myself as an idiot is another example of a false dichotomy, one in which humans only have two settings: dumb, and smart. Let’s call my use of “idiot” here a rhetorical flourish, but in all honesty I’m completely ignorant regarding the long term significance of most current events. That doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions, though. I simply recognize that they are the opinions of a layman, and thus are worth precisely as much consideration as that phrase implies.
Consider Brexit’s impact on the stock price of any given company. Stock markets around the world slumped (news word: Plummeted) on news of the referendum’s outcome. Both news channels and “news channels” reported the market dips as if they were signs of a coming global depression, causing social media users to panic and share their own doomsday predictions. To my uneducated mind, the only companies exposed to significant risk are those whose incomes are significantly dependent upon trade with the UK. Phrased another way, Ford was the exact same company before the news as after. They retained the same market percentage, market capitalization, debt load, etc. There’s no “yes and” based reality that explains the dip in their stock value. (Note: This may not be the best example given that Ford actually does business in the UK, but work with me here.)
Yet there probably is a “yes and” explanation that justifies Ford’s stock taking a hit due to Brexit news, and I simply don’t know enough about either Ford or global finance to make sense of it. As a result, if asked to explain the drop in the company’s share price, I’m likely to say, “I don’t know. I’m pretty much an idiot when it comes to these things,” and then I’ll go back to trying not to drop my snow cone. That’s not how it will play on the 2016 episode of that future ten part documentary on the Neural Network, though. That episode will show a representation of me, i.e., a middle-aged, middle class white man, breaking down over the loss of his retirement savings while the narrator drones on about the mad panic and frenzy the surrounded the market dip.
Are Brexit and Trump harbingers of the end of western civilization as we know it? As an idiot with an opinion I’ll say “probably yes,” but I don’t think that means what people infer. If I’ve learned anything from cheesy television documentaries, aside from the fact that the whole world was enthralled with the “Where’s the Beef” lady, it’s that the end of western civilization as we know it happens all of the time. The abolition of slavery marked the end of western civilization as we knew it, as did the steam engine, women’s suffrage, and gasoline. We’re in a constant state of flux, where current events alter the present and transform the future. That’s just the way it is.
What people really mean when they assert that a given event spells the end of civilization as we know it is that the outcome will be negative, disastrous, apocalyptic–that when Gleep Glorp hosts that future documentary this will be the flashpoint that led to our ruin– and I don’t know, maybe those people are right.
After all, I’m just an idiot with an opinion.