November 5, 2017.
“‘In the new century, everyone will be insane.'”
It’s a line spoken in an early 90s play written by Tony Kushner called “Angels in America”. It’s the story of a group of gay young people coping with the AIDS crisis in 1985 New York City. The line is spoken by a homeless woman speaking to another woman who is trying to find her way home in a new city she’s just moved to. It’s a throwaway line, but it’s remained in my mind for a while now because I think it perfectly captures how I feel about everyday life nowadays.
In my narrow American view of history, there have been a couple of times when we must’ve thought the end of the world had arrived. I bet people must’ve felt that way during the Second World War, what with the rise of Hitler and open hatred, mass murder in plain sight, and a world that turned a blind eye to all of it. “How could all of this have possibly happened?” That’d be what I would be thinking if I lived then; it’s what I think about the Holocaust now. Another apocalyptic time would’ve been during the Cold War. I can’t really imagine the fear of being nuked at any moment, everything you know and love, gone, the end of life on earth. It must have been awful.
I think my generation faces a third moment like this. It’s a bizarre time to be alive; a bizarre life. I was born at the tail end of 1991. The 1990s for America were a last great decade, at least generally speaking. The Cold War was finally over, the Berlin Wall had fallen. American capitalism and democracy had won. The so-called “End of History” had arrived. We won! Everything should’ve been golden, right?
“Patriotic” by Lorne Balfe, from Genius (Original Series Soundtrack)
In the years that have followed, I’ve perceived such a sense of disillusionment and hopelessness, both on a broader scale everywhere on the planet, and in particular here in America. I think my generation faces a constellation of realities and a whole slew of truths about ourselves and this country that has shaken our belief in our own selves and futures to the core.
I was born at the end of history. I’ve grown up in the time after it. And I think I agree with the line that that homeless woman spoke. In the new century, we are all insane.
How will we find our way home?
1 : THE LAST MAN AT THE END OF HISTORY
To the topic at hand : where do we exist in the world and in history? How did we get here? And how does it all tie in to the massive existential crisis we all seem to be collectively having?
In the process of writing this essay, a lot of outrage came pouring out. So this is a caveat for you, brave traveler : this is gonna be a hurricane of anger and disillusionment.
Since the 90s ended and the millennium arrived, seems to me there’s been nothing but endless bullshit and horror to contend with.
The 9/11 attacks. The shitstorm of perpetual pointless brutality and loss of life in the wars in the Middle East. The imminent collapse of our ecosystems and environment. The destruction of our economy, which has had such a devastating impact on all our livelihoods but in particular on those who were entering the workforce when it all went down in 2008. People of color, in particular black young men and women, being killed openly in the streets and their killers being let off the hook with a lecture and a slap on the wrist for punishment. The endless, daily murders of trans folks. The election of an egomaniacal racist, sexist, whatever-ist man-child as leader of the “free” world in 2016. The rise of the same open hatred from 1930s Germany, but here in America in 2016, 2017.
The world never made a whole lot of sense to me. Lonely, quiet, queer, and way too talented at ruminating on matters no one else seemed to give the smallest shit about, I cannot pinpoint a time in my life when I felt the smallest iota of sense of belonging. I am an outsider looking in, and what I see is : arbitrary-ness. Meaninglessness. Emptiness. Whether it’s our ideals of success (Lamborghinis, objectified women on each arm, money enough to burn), our gender and social roles, the two-faced and shallow interactions we have with each other, or our soul-crushing jobs that we loathe and work in order to barely keep our heads above water in this insanely unequal society, none of this makes any sense to me. It’s almost so absurd it’s nearly hilarious.
At whatever strata you look at it, whether it’s on a personal level, or as a country and culture, or as a species, we’re at one hell of a crossroads.
What’s led up to this moment?
Well, historically speaking, quite a lot. Let’s go backwards a bit, to the so-called “discovery” of the New World. 500 years to millennium. Indigenous people, entire civilizations, had already existed here for millennia by the time the Europeans and conquistadors came to rape and pillage. They arrived, ransacked the land of its beauty and riches, and killed the helpful trusting people who were so eager to prevent their starving to death in the first few American winters. With the Europeans came the vestiges of feudalism and the seeds of homophobia and sexism that the Church innately harbored. That system of domination / subjugation, hatred, and shame that was inbred into the colonists would come to color all modes of daily life for centuries to come.
During the centuries since the colonization of the New World, the Church’s power waned and faded, tho it continued to reverberate in our social values. The Age of Enlightenment arrived, when faith in a higher power slowly gave way to the powers of human reason and logic as the most powerful forces in the universe. The “death of God” also arrived. I don’t personally think this was a negative thing. I believe faith in a higher power can be truer and more sincere in an age when it isn’t being forced on us or being used to coerce us. The death of God did however rob many people of one of the core tenets of making meaning in their lives.
With the declining influence of the Church came a freer avenue of thought and speech. Concepts like personal liberty and freedom came to the forefront. Kings, gods, absolute rulers, all of this was old hat now. After millennia of looking to a supreme authority figure for guidance on ethics and behavior, FREEDOM was espoused as the greatest human right. Paradoxically, in the same era that these concepts of human freedom were being explored, in practice in the real world one of history’s most horrendously dividing and damaging concepts was manufactured, one which continues to affect every area of daily life today : race.
In the early 17th century the social construct of race was invented by the ruling class of white Americans in order to justify the inhumanity of slavery. Holding another person as a slave was a fucking horrifying idea to “civilized” Christian people, but it could be stomached, maybe even institutionalized as a major social system that the South’s economy depended on if you convinced the majority that the people being held as slaves were NOT PEOPLE, (only 3 / 5 of a person, apparently) and also that they deserved their lot in life. This was done through religious justification (black people are black and deserve their treatment as slaves because they are descended from Noah’s son Ham or from Cain, both of whom were vile and evil and weak in character) or through scientific means (whites are just simply superior in intelligence and civility, while there is significant scientific evidence like skull size and shape to prove that blacks and other nonwhites are savage, inherently violent, lazy, stupid, and need whites to corral and marshal them, otherwise they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves! It’s the burden of the white man to show them the way, like a kindly guide).
225 years to millennium.
America is founded as a nation where “all men are created equal”. This came at a moment when at long last all these ideas of liberty and freedom and equality that had been espoused for centuries were finally being put into practice; the same was occurring in Europe, particularly in France (a fight for freedom which was violently crushed, at least initially).
All men being created equal is a heart wrenchingly beautiful ideal. It was, however, a notion that was untrue of America then and remains deeply untrue today as well.
For a time, the mercantilist colonial economy of America remained the way it had since before the nation’s founding: trading goods, using slave labor.
Less than a half-century after the birth of the nation, a massive social and technological upheaval occurred: the Industrial Revolution. It was a transitional time from an agrarian society to a more technological, mechanical, mechanized society. It provided more produce, a steadier source of labor. It was a seed for the rise of big cities and jobs. It was the birthplace of capitalism, America’s creed and guiding economic system: to set forth and work hard to get what you want. It mixed and intersected with the rugged individualism, exceptionalism, and manifest destiny that Americans had come to believe about themselves to create an attitude that I believe isn’t too far from machismo: do everything yourself, show no weakness, show no mercy, don’t settle for anything less than what you want,
It was also the nursing ground of ALIENATION. In brief, there are all sorts of forms of alienation: social alienation, economic, political, spiritual alienation. I am referring to all of these forms at once. It’s my personal belief that capitalism is a violent and unsustainable economic system. It posits that you are free to attain as much capital as you labor for and strategize to acquire, but this is untrue and a deceptive thing to say in a vastly unequal society. Not everyone has the same access to the same means. Not everyone “succeeds” even through hard work and toil. Many traits that are needed to attain success under capitalism are some of our most hated characteristics in people: callousness, indifference to the suffering of others, egomania, cruelty, greed, a willingness to sacrifice the value of life in order to make a buck.
Capitalism pits people against each other; competition is one of it’s defining mechanisms. Competition isn’t inherently a bad thing, it can often push people to perform to greater heights. But in capitalism, it is unsustainable. Capitalism involves CAPITAL (land, resources, labor, etc,) which is FINITE. Capitalism runs under the assumption that there is infinite capital to go around, enough so that everyone can consume as much they push themselves to in order to succeed. Capitalism breeds consumerism, which is a culture built on the consumption of produce, merchandise, and other vapid, ephemeral symbols of status to establish meaning and value. It’s a hugely alienating force because it separates us from what really matters: each other.
The symptoms of consumerism can be felt in our near-god-worship of social media and our veneration of greed and consumption. Bigger houses, bigger cars, more and more women with fatter asses. All we do is consume. Capitalism eats everything, and is the foundation for the loss of resources, destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity and harm to our environment that we have done.
In response to alienation, Karl Marx founded the ideas of communism, which attempted to correct the ills that capitalism inflicted on people. We can argue whether communism was an effective solution to the alienation that capitalism births. History so far has stated that it has not been a lasting solution. I’m no fan of capitalism, but I believe that communism is also fatally flawed as a concept to begin with. I’m not really sure what would serve us all better, tho.
Anyway, tangent over. Back to the history lesson.
In America in regards to slavery, the institution was overthrown in 1865 by the loss of the Confederacy at the close of the Civil War. Slavery as an established institution was over, but it could continue in many more subtle ways beneath the surface through intimidation, murder, political disenfranchisement, fraud, etc. Such inhumanity had been visited towards black Americans during the years of slavery, but it continued during the Reconstruction era after the end of the Civil War, during the years of Jim Crow laws, during the years after the Civil Rights Movement up until today. Always the dehumanization and domination of blacks and other people of color mutated with the times in order to be “acceptable” enough to be overlooked or tolerated. During Reconstruction it was the fear-mongering and murder of southern blacks by the Ku Klux Klan. In the North, it was fraudulent elections, voter disenfranchisement, marginalization, social outcasting. In the Jim Crow years it was segregation and intimidation by politicians and police. In today’s era, it’s the prison-industrial complex, the War on Drugs which disproportionately targeted people of color, the killing of innocent black young people in the streets. It’s countless, innumerable ways of propagating inhumanity and inequality that have continued for centuries.
85 years to millennium.
Science as a major guiding force in everyday life had been growing ever since the beginning of the decline of the Church, in Galileo’s and Descartes’ time. At 20th century’s dawn, science was a messianic thing.
It was going to solve all of our problems, cure all diseases, elevate all of us. This was the time of the discovery of atoms, light and sound waves, the invention of telephones and automobiles. How could science NOT help us?
In 1914 a complicated and brutal set of events ignited the First World War, which would prove to be a trauma so great as to shatter our faith in science (and in ourselves). Science was used to develop machine guns and tanks and nerve gas. The agony and brutality that was seen in the trenches in France and Germany during World War I was on a scale that had never been seen before; warfare had never been this mechanized, this highly attuned to the one goal of making the enemy less than human, making them suffer and die like an animal. And the sheer numbers of the dead. The mind couldn’t conceive of slaughter on such a massive scale.
That golden sense of optimism about the future was destroyed after World War I. From now on, the future was no longer just peaches and blue skies; it was weapons better and better at killing each year, more brutal ways of destruction, more death. So much confusion set in afterwards. The Dada artists in Europe are a personal favorite of mine; artists, some of whom had served in the war and had seen its pointless misery, made nonsense and absurd art. The outside world no longer made sense, so why would their art make any sense either? Nothing made any sense. Nothing held the meaning it once had. In America young adults growing up after the War, some of whom had served and returned home with what would decades later be known as post-traumatic stress, were known as the Silent Generation.
After every major war there is a generation that is “Silent” or “Lost”: I think Millennials are one such generation, tho we can’t even pinpoint to a single war as the root cause of our disillusionment because there hasn’t been just one war, or one single traumatic event, it’s been myriads.
50 years to millennium.
This same thing was echoed later after World War II, altho on an even huger scale. The Holocaust is such a thing to try to wrap your mind around: six millions Jews, millions of Roma people, people of color, gay people, mentally ill people, all rounded up for slaughter.
I would say that the World Wars were one of the final nails in a coffin that was being made for us all for the past half-millennium. They shook everything, faith in God, faith in the goodness of humanity, faith in any kind of inherent meaning or value to life, to their very foundation. After World War II the existentialists arrived: Camus, Sartre, de Beauvoir. They posited that that was the nature of life: without external meaning, something that must be infused with meaning by the person living that life. Camus compared it to the Greek king Sisyphus living his purgatorial afterlife: every morning, rolling a huge-ass rock up a huge-ass hill, every evening having the rock roll back down, so that the next day he would have to do it all over again. And again. And again. It was up to Sisyphus to find meaning in such pointlessness.
I want to say that the era after World War II is colored innately with the stench of death: the invention of the atomic bomb ushered in an era of profound anxiety. The human race could literally destroy itself and all life on earth many times over with the amount of nuclear weapons that were stockpiled during the Cold War following World War II. This fear and subtle balancing of life and death came to dominate the Cold War and the many proxy wars that were fought during it, like the Korean and Vietnam War.
During the 20th century there were many social movements that attempted to overturn modes of living and being that had existed for ages : the physical and mental inferiority of women to men, the social, judicial, and political subjugation across every area of life for people of color, in particular black Americans, the supposed deviancy, abnormality, and vileness of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, class struggle, stigma against people with disabilities, both physical and mental, etc. The list goes on. Each of these movements aimed to correct the hatred and stigma the groups faced and had roots far before the 20th century. The varying degrees of “success” each movement had is debatable and subjective; some things have changed for the better, some have stayed the same, some things have gotten worse.
I bring these issues up because before they were ever questioned, the systems of oppression that enforced the continued existence of these dehumanizing attitudes were ingrained in us all and taken to be what “normal” life was. Our lives were founded on the oppression and subjugation of others, consciously or not. Women were supposed to clean and cook, nurture children, hold down the home. How did the world work, what was the guiding mode of behavior for men and women, if she could also be a flight pilot, or an engineer, or a soldier? How was society supposed to function if all the races were treated equally? How would signing up to buy a house in the suburbs or getting a job work if it was accessible to all races? How would we understand ourselves and our identities if people who were not heterosexual or cisgender existed? Was sex and gender innate? Or was it learned and performed? Are men really wired completely differently from women? What causes the existence of gayness? By association, what causes straightness? What if it turned out that being straight was not default, or the norm, it simply was the majority? What does family, social and gender roles, community, faith, raising children mean with the existence of non-straight parents? With non-straight children?
I will argue that the fight for human rights and a life of dignity and equality for women, people of color, queer people, etc, has upset many of our previous notions of what constituted a normal life or an acceptable way of being, and that has only added to our collective confusion.
10 years to millennium.
The Cold War ends and the end of history arrives. When I use the term “end of history”, I’m referencing a 1992 book. “The End of History and the Last Man”, by political philosopher Francis Fukuyama. It posited that, with the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union which had fought for political control of the world since the end of World War II, it had been proven that liberal democracy and capitalism had won out as the modes of government and economy that took into account everyones needs and voices the most effectively. In short, capitalism and democracy would be the defining ways of governing ourselves as we proceeded into the future. The “end of history” was an optimistic term because it believed that many of our major conflicts surrounding how to organize ourselves as a race were more or less over. The future was golden.
Hope is a dangerous thing. It can be wrong. It’s lethal to experience such a deep kind of disappointment.
Here after the end of history we stand on the brink of collapse. Capitalism is not sustainable, not forever. Consumerism gives our lives no lasting meaning; I’d say it literally inhibits meaning, destroys our ability to connect with and empathize with others, and deeply harms the formation of our true selves. Our environment has been maimed by our unceasing hunger to consume. The alienation and loneliness fostered by these two engines of modern life is palpable; I can literally feel my breath catch in my chest, a pervasive ache of the disconnection between myself and others. The social and political changes that have occurred have further untethered us from previous modes of being (for better or worse, I think there’s zero fucking value to reverting back to subjugating women or people of color or killing gay people). Democracy and capitalism have not “won”; fundamentalism, fascism, and dictatorship have grown again in response to the loss of meaning that has occurred in our modern life. Wouldn’t you hold on for dear life to God, or faith, or anything else, if it would stop you from falling into the pit of despair that opens up when you questions the most basic foundations of our lives?
That little box that you think life fits in just is shredded, and you think that you are entirely vulnerable to anything, that anything is possible in the world, and that life is just as unusual as you would allow it to be, as you can imagine it to be. It’s a feeling of being completely adrift, with no stability, no anchor whatsoever.
America is a beautiful ideal. The myth of this country is an incredible one: that freedom can live here. That you can be who you are. That you have value, even if you are part of the “tired, huddled, unwashed masses”.
America as a reality is far different. America is violence, hatred, prejudice, murder, genocide, loneliness, separation, confusion. It is rootlessness, it is homophobia and lynchings, it’s aggression and despair. America is deceit. This is the truth that I have had to confront. I think on some level, it’s a truth all of us are facing.
We are left alone and uprooted and scrambling to find meaning in the vacuum of our abandonment.
2 : DREAMING OF THE CRASH
What does all of this do to a lonely kid who thinks too much? It makes him feel angry. Anger is a motivating emotion; anger happens when you feel something wrong or unjust has happened. When you’ve been hurt. It motivates you to fix it.
These problems tho. Can they be fixed? Maybe they can. With a collective effort maybe some dent can be made in the gulf of brokenness that has opened up beneath our feet. But if you feel powerless in fixing the problem, because it’s too big a problem to be fixed on your own, or because the problem is so insidious and so much a part of daily life that no one sees an issue, then things fall apart.
Anger, when powerless, metastasizes into depression. Like mutated bone marrow that putrifies into cancer. Depression is the same thing. Cancer of the soul, cancer of the mind, cancer of the Self.
Cancer is a thing that must be survived, as is depression, as is the constant existential questioning that I do. It just happens. I don’t choose it; it is simply what I see and what I think and feel.
It threatens to undermine everything: my hope in the future, my faith in myself and in the others around me, in the human race. It’s as insidious as vines that grow over a tree, blocking the light from view, until the tree is starved of nutrients and withers and dies, and all that’s left is the shape of a tree that once was, but now made entirely of vines.
Millennials face a constellation of realities that were not at the forefront of their forerunners’ existence. We face a future that seems much smaller than the one the previous generation faced. It seems like a lot of people from older generations feel like we are entitled, lazy, and prone to whining. Maybe that’s true. To some extent, also, Millennials are just not willing to buy into the bullshit Baby Boomers and other older people did.
I think the veil has been lifted up from our faces, the veil of blind optimism and faith, and now we see truly the scarred, deformed truth beneath. I’m sure people who are older had their own crises and periods of questioning. It’s human to be lost. But I think in particular our whole generation is undergoing this. We are all lost in the desert, freed to some degree from the slavery in Egypt but still living in fear, and still unable to find our way to the Promised Land.
So how will we find our way home?
“Home” by Hans Zimmer, from Dunkirk : Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
If you listen to this song off the Dunkirk film soundtrack, it’s all tension and apprehension for the first four minutes or so. This is where we all live now. On some level, all of us are waiting for the other shoe to drop. We’re all waiting for our family and friends to desert us, all waiting for the oceans to rise and flood over everything we know and love, all waiting for the sun to go dark and for the moon to shatter into a million blood-splattered pieces.
But there is a moment when the music turns to catharsis. The tension releases and there is a beautiful moment of grace and peace that seems to heal the trauma of the first couple of minutes. This moment is what I would call a “coming home” moment; I find it in all sorts of things besides just this song. It’s in movies, in art, in video games, in our own daily lives : the moment when everything that stopped making sense, stopped having any real meaning, at long last means something again. At long last, there is a REASON for everything. A reason to go on.
How will this generation find meaning, find the reasons to keep going, despite everything that we face, that we have faced?
I want to go home. I have a house. I have a family. I am loved. I am so grateful for everything I have. But I don’t have a home, because home is not a place out in the world, it’s more like a state maybe. You could come home to a cardboard box under a freeway, so long as it was a place where you felt loved and like you belonged.
I don’t feel at home in the world. I feel alien. I would like to be a part of the human race.
PREVIOUS : I : THE WOLVES
NEXT : III : HOPE