Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Enjoy Your Stuff

I find it useful to imagine that there are two Christmases: the religious holiday in which Christians celebrate the birth of Christ, symbolized by nativity scenes and the baby Jesus, and the secular holiday in which the public at large celebrates mass consumption, represented by Santa Claus and decorated trees. In the spirit of the latter, more widely celebrated version of the Christmas holiday, here is George Carlin’s famous rant about “stuff:”

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Life’s Ravenous Appetite

Last week’s school shooting in Connecticut has the nation gripped in mourning.  A useful barometer of the culture’s demeanor after such a tragedy is found in the talking heads of cable news. When even the most carnival barking clowns tone down their rhetoric, literally speaking softly as to avoid startling their audience, it’s clear that this shooting has touched a cultural nerve in a way that similar incidents have not.

There is something quietly totalitarian about community grief. In the aftermath of a calamity, a consensus emerges out of the sorrow that calcifies how we talk about the event and, more importantly, what that event is taken to mean. Any suggestion contrary to the popular understanding is ignored, ridiculed, or criticized. This was certainly the case following the 9/11 attack, as it was (and in some ways still is) considered rude to ask serious questions about what happened or why. It may be too early to say what the Connecticut shooting “means” although the keywords are already disseminating through the airwaves and creating a frame work. At the very least media figures and politicians have declared that a rubicon has been crossed, and that in the aftermath our perspectives and priorities have somehow been irrevocably altered. 

In all circumstances, but especially the tragic and the unexpected, we want death to mean something. After all, funerals are not about honoring the dead. They provide comfort for the living. When someone dies we are confronted by our own mortality. The thought that death is the end of our existence is too terrible for our egos to handle. The world couldn’t possibly go on without us, could it? The denial is evident in all levels of culture. We build monuments and print stickers proclaiming “We will never forget,” acknowledging that forgotteness is the equivalent of death. We invent fantasies of afterlives in which our loved ones live on and eventually we with them. One of the most popular motifs in our stories is the martyr, someone whose deathly circumstances have a meaning that ensures him or her a historical or ideological immortality. This isn’t about compassion. It’s panic in the face of sand slipping through the hourglass.

This egoism is at the heart of obsessions about the end of the world. There has been a minor hysteria going around about tomorrow’s supposed Mayan apocalypse. Set against public panic over other end-of-the-world rumors like the Y2K scare or the May 2011 rapture, the reaction to the Mayan calendar is comparatively staid. It may be that after so many false alarms and a glut of apocalypse movies like 2012, The Road, and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World that we’re just Armageddoned-out. Or it could be that the concrete horrors of actual disasters like last week’s shooting and the impact of Hurricane Sandy eclipse abstract ideas of global destruction.

News stories about atrocities in a far off land always invite a degree of distance. The shooting in Connecticut, with its suburban school setting, is disturbing because it traverses that distance.  But further disturbing is how the details of the case amplify the underlying fear of oblivion. The randomness of the murders emphasizes the callousness, chaos, and bloodlust that define much of life. That the victims were children makes that reminder harder to take.  Just as natural death highlights our own impermanence, the death of the young reveals the futility of our attempts to create a legacy. Children represent the future and we ascribe onto them our hopes and dreams. We seek to protect them from the savagery of the world and keep them “innocent.” Failing to do that and seeing them slaughtered in such pointless circumstances does not upset us just because of the loss life. The wanton murder of children is the destruction of the future and ultimately the annihilation of ourselves.

In the throes of grief it is important to remember that whatever explanations we accept or social reforms we adopt are ultimately self-serving attempts to impose meaning on a meaningless event. In the past week there has been talk about violent media, gun control, and mental health. In the coming weeks and months there will be more talk and perhaps legislation. There is even the off chance that something constructive may come of it. But whatever explanation we settle on and whatever measures we impart as a result will ultimately be about restoring the illusory matrix of security.

It is also important to remember that our grief is really about ourselves. Aside from the survivors directly impacted, the tears shed over the Connecticut shooting are not really about the dead of Sandy Hook Elementary school. The tears are shed for the idea of them. We cannot feel love or empathy for those we do not know and pretending as though we can is mere arrogance. Even if we could experience this kind of wide ranging empathy it would make the world, with all of its catastrophes, injustice, suffering, and madness, unbearable.

This is at the heart of our passionate reaction to stories like the Connecticut shootings. It isn’t just the murder of children. That much happens every day in some corner of the world, sometimes at the hands of our own government, but the culture does not keel over in grief. It’s the way this story confounds our ability to rationalize it, thereby obliterating illusions of security, cutting through fantasies of everlasting life, and dissolving hope, that makes it so traumatizing. Moments like this reveal our own powerlessness against life’s ravenous appetite for its own destruction no matter how many guns we buy or ban.