"We entered an era of malaise. A toxicity of our own doing."
Something happened on the trip through the 21st century. Self-centeredness became the default in relationships, at work, on crowded subways, in coach on domestic flights. A jostle became a push, then a shove. A disagreement became a bloody brawl, then a murder. Our intentions ceased to be noble. Somehow, we abandoned good reasons for doing bad things. We claimed an affront to our ego, newly dubbed our right, required a response without regard for ramification. Our burgeoning sense of victimization allowed us to super-size our protest into unintelligible rage, our revolution into ineffective riot. This anarchical trend blossomed in personal engagements, community protests and the venomous vitriol of congressional hearings. We witnessed endless attempts at regime changes that failed. We watched a hulking superpower deliver last century tyranny to a neighbor populated by distant relatives and cousins. The victims resorted to catching pigeons for dinner while their downtowns smoldered. We paid little attention to a nation conducting the largest buildup of military machinery since its People's Revolution, causing those people to reduce their standard of living to pay for its toys of war. We shrugged at an ancient Mid-Eastern country abruptly denying educational opportunity for half of its population, making gender not a choice but a liability.
None of these activities were completely condemned. Russia blamed NATO as a threat to national security. China exercised its right to protect its interests. Iran defended its resistance to western influence. The result produced death, poverty, and a subservient environment for women.
In the United States, diplomacy became impotent. Politicians meandered and conferred, spiraling themselves into a shrink wrap of conjecture and inertia. Proponents of integrity sullied its worth by denying any wrongdoing regardless of proof. Talk show bobbleheads earned millions churning up anger and twisted truths. Justice floundered in partisan payoffs which, in turn, maintained the historical inequity it set out to correct. Moral codes were compromised, and there was no new enlightenment to replace them, no manual to reset the password.
We entered an era of malaise. A toxicity of our own doing. Value measured by pecuniary worship. Commerce measured by a currency of bloodshed. Our own country’s cultural product defiled our character, humiliated our person, terminated our opinion, destroyed our individuality. Moral deterioration continued its global slide.
Uncle Sam became a toxic schizophrenic with a dual personality. Movie stars’ well-paid, shoot’em up antics onscreen did not deter from their grandstanding for gun control in the same breath. The hideous extravagance of sports contracts was the coveted success story of achievement, bested only by the outrageous wealth accumulation of princes, emirs, presidents, and politicians who could not possibly earn their exorbitant incomes.
Creativity is dead. An action star’s tribute to The Right Stuff was back in a desperate attempt to revisit a tough guy greatness that never was. The mature edition of the movie Top Gun achieved a billion-dollar gross based on a remake of the same movie made 36 years earlier. We fashion heroes in make-believe because we cannot create heroes for real anymore.
We gladly pay more to see us wear less. Rich and poor, we live paycheck to paycheck, titillation to titillation. Some of us spend our evenings in tents provided by a shortsighted and distanced compassion of a city government further solidifying economic inequality. Tents, but no living wage. Those more fortunate accentuate the divide. Just down that street of tents, another Latte Grande, an extra caramel drizzle. Make it right, or my day will be unacceptable. Do not live near me. Shut up and pump. Did I mention my right to cancel you?
We reek of privilege in one neighborhood with paucity just around the corner. Narcissism is our virtue, victimhood a rite of passage, just the way despots prefer. At a country club in our nation’s capital there are more folks of color in service positions than members. They may prefer it that way to keep the old boy tradition image at all costs. A new 21st century serfdom. Mint julep, sir?
None of this is new or specific to our time. This dilemma is only our era’s edition of the great fight for power and control. Substitute grain silos for big box stores, swords and crossbows for guns, texting for connection. Supply chain scarcity is just the side effect of a tactical strike on the economic anomaly of free enterprise taking its last gasps. There is no erudition, only clamor. We operate in a new vocabulary of Newspeak1, where connection requires approval of the prevailing directive regardless of truth.
We have lost the balance required for a republic to flourish.
We are riding an avalanche of reactionary ineloquence, bombarding every crisis with a thousand Band-Aids that will not heal the plethora of national wounds that indict our existence as a nation. We prefer to embrace the blindness that comes with the mantra, ignorance is strength2.
It will never be the same again. Cairo, Athens, Mecca, Rome. All great centers of civilization, once. We are next in the line of great empires that dissolved due to a history lesson we all have yet to learn, and that is the fact that our human nature, without an ethical construct embedded in our culture, makes us ungovernable.
John’s articles have appeared in Adelaide Literary Magazine, the San Antonio Review, and the Ravens Perch. His memoir, Just Off, Stage Right, is available at adelaidebooks.org and amazon.com. He holds an MFA in Creative and Professional Writing from Western Connecticut State University.