Scared to Death

My Safety ‘Tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Security – Published on ZNet (first on TomDispatch), by Tom Engelhardt, Nov 25, 2013.

From the time I was little, I went to the movies. They were my escape, with one exception from which I invariably had to escape. I couldn’t sit through any movie where something or someone threatened to jump out at me with the intent to harm. In such situations, I was incapable of enjoying being scared and there seemed to be no remedy for it … //

… The Sharks, Aliens, and Snakes of Our World:  

  • This came to mind recently because I started wondering why, when we step out of those movie theaters, our American world doesn’t scare us more. Why doesn’t it make more of us want to jump out of our skins? These days, our screen lives seem an apocalyptic tinge to them, with all those zombie war movies and the like. I’m curious, though: Does what should be deeply disturbing, even apocalyptically terrifying, in the present moment strike many of us as the equivalent of so many movie-made terrors — shivers and fears produced in a world so far beyond us that we can do nothing about them?
  • I’m not talking, of course, about the things that reach directly for your throat and, in their immediacy, scare the hell out of you — not the sharks who took millions of homes in the foreclosure crisis or the aliens who ate so many jobs in recent years or even the snakes who snatched food stamps from needy Americans. It’s the overarching dystopian picture I’m wondering about. The question is: Are most Americans still in that movie house just waiting for the lights to come back on?
  • I mean, we’re living in a country that my parents would barely recognize. It has a frozen, riven, shutdown-driven Congress, professionally gerrymandered into incumbency, endlessly lobbied, and seemingly incapable of actually governing. It has a leader whose presidency appears to be imploding before our eyes and whose single accomplishment (according to most pundits), like the website that goes with it, has been unraveling as we watch. Its 1% elections, with their multi-billion dollar campaign seasons and staggering infusions of money from the upper reaches of wealth and corporate life, are less and less anybody’s definition of “democratic.”
  • And while Washington fiddles, inequality is on the rise, with so much money floating around in the 1% world that millions of dollars are left over to drive the prices of pieces of art into the stratosphere, even as poverty grows and the army of the poor multiplies. And don’t forget that the national infrastructure — all those highways, bridges, sewer systems, and tunnels that were once the unspoken pride of the country — is visibly fraying.

Up-Armoring America: … //

… A Nameless State (of Mind):

  • Still, don’t call this America a “police state,” not given what that came to mean in the previous century, nor a “totalitarian” state, given what that meant back then. The truth is that we have no appropriate name, label, or descriptive term for ourselves. Consider that a small sign of just how little we’ve come to grips with what we’re becoming. But you don’t really need a name, do you, not if you’re living it? However nameless it may be, tell me the truth: Doesn’t the direction we’re heading in leave you with the urge to jump out of your skin?
  • And by the way, what I’ve been describing so far isn’t the apocalyptic part of the story, just the everyday framework for American life in 2013. For your basic apocalypse, you need to turn to a subject that, on the whole, doesn’t much interest Washington or the mainstream media. I’m talking, of course, about climate change or what the nightly news loves to call “extreme weather,” a subject we generally prefer to put on the back burner while we’re hailing the “good news” that the U.S. may prove to be the Saudi Arabia of the twenty-first century — that is, hopped up on fossil fuels for the next 50 years; or that green energy really isn’t worth an Apollo-style program of investment and R&D; or that Arctic waters should be opened to drilling; or that it’s reasonable to bury on the inside pages of the paper with confusing headlines the latest figures on the record levels of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere and the way the use of coal, the dirtiest of the major fossil fuels, is actually expanding globally; or… but you get the idea. Rising sea levels (see ya, Florida; so long, Boston), spreading disease, intense droughts, wild floods, extreme storms, record fire seasons — I mean, you already know the tune.
  • You still wanna be scared? Imagine that someone offered you a wager, and let’s be conservative here: continue on your present path and there will be a 10%-20% chance that this planet becomes virtually uninhabitable a century or two from now. Not bad odds, right? Still, I think just about anyone would admit that only a maniac would take such a bet, no matter the odds. Actually, let me amend that: only a maniac or the people who run the planet’s major energy companies, and the governments (our own included) that help fund and advance their activities, and those governments like Russia and Saudi Arabia that are essentially giant energy companies.
  • Because, hey, realistically speaking, that’s the bet that all of us on planet Earth have taken on.
  • And just in case you were wondering whether you were still at the movies, you’re not, and the lights aren’t coming back on either.
  • Now, if that isn’t scary, what is?
  • Boo!

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(Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture (now also in a Kindle edition), runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com, where this article first appeared. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050).

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