« July 20, 2014 - July 26, 2014 | Main | August 3, 2014 - August 9, 2014 »

July 30, 2014

the golden age of we're all gonna die

[OK, this is the longish piece I was referring to in the previous post. I had high hopes for it, but after talking it out, it's a little too grim and unfocused for the general public. But enough of my friends have been arguing that they think it's pretty good, so I'm putting it here, where no one is going to click on it by accident. And keep in mind that it was intended for publication last week, so date references will be a little bit off.]

We survived the Cold War and Y2K and 9-11 and SARS and a Kenyan socialist in the White House. Passed with flying colors. But the tenor of recent current events (capped by a real doozy of a last week) have given us the unique opportunity to freak the fuck out about soooo many things all at the same time, so come on, let's get scared.

It's like Schroedinger's Cat, but when you open the box both the live cat and the dead cat are boobytrapped with poison gas that squirts at you and melts your face off.

It's a new Golden Age of We're All Gonna Die. So let's roll around in it like it was a giant pile of money and we're all Scrooge McDuck.


There are obvious candidates that are burned into everyone's consciousness, but let's start with a nice, spooky subtle threat to humanity: the giant hole in Siberia. Helicopter pilots flying over the Yamal peninsula noticed a hundred foot wide, seemingly bottomless sinkhole. Now where could have that come from? A meteorite? Weapons testing? Mole men? And wherever it did come from, how creepy is that, grainy footage of an enormous landscape altering anomaly, from a remote land? It is the pre-title sequence of a monster movie. Some scientists are pretty sure that the giant hole is actually just a geological phenomenon called a pingo , but we still cannot discount that there is a kaiju or two lurking down there so we should probably start making giant robots stat. If we're gonna go down, we might as well go down inside of giant robots.

And then there are ominous events that are not so easy to laugh off, the real biggies.

Last Wednesday seemed it was going to be a real red letter day for feeling shitty, as the ongoing conflict over the Gaza Strip culminated in four Palestinian kids being killed by Israeli shelling in front of a bunch of journalists, including one of the best photojournalists alive. Obviously this is not the first (or the last) tragedy of this ongoing monkey trap of a geopolitical situation, but the immediacy and the reporting knocked the breath clean out of us. It did not exactly reframe the — let's call it a "conversation" — concerning relations among Israel and her neighbors, and that is exactly where the dread lies. As we sit there watching the coverage of this explode on our feeds, it becomes increasingly clear that not only is there no light at the end of the tunnel, we can't even agree which tunnel we're in.

Let's backdrop this against the current state of the rest of the region. Egypt is currently led by an installed military regime that was unhappy with the popularly elected Muslim Brotherhood. Libya has not been stable since Qaddafi was deposed (well, captured and murdered, actually), and when not spiraling into sectarian violence likes to divert herself with incursions into Egypt. Syria is an utter shitshow with a years-long civil war in which it grows more and more murky if there are any good guys at all, and next door in Iraq, the profits of American labor has led to yet another Sunni/Shiite conflict/full-blown civil war. About the only people who could possibly be happy with any of this are the people who make the bullets.

And in the middle of this roiling is the impossible divisive situation in Israel, a problem so intractable that we are reduced to arguing about the tone of the coverage by the New York Times and the Washington Post as some sort of proxy war between the sides. At some point we get light-headed wondering what's the tinder that's going to turn this into a replay of WWI but with warmer weather, but then we realize that it's all tinder, and it's all actually already burning.


Wednesday was bad. Thursday was worse. There's yet another actual shooting war taking place in the region, in Ukraine, and by lunchtime we received news of the latest collateral damage, Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. The 777 broke up at 30,000 feet and fell to earth. (If there was anything better/more harrowing than Sabrina Tavernise describing the debris field I'd like to know what it is.) And as we all know the flight was hit by a surface-to-air missile, most likely the result of Russian-sponsored separatists thinking that 17 was a Ukrainian military flight.

So while we are still reeling from the enormity of the Israeli actions against Gaza, this whole other ongoing terribleness results in a most horrific bungle that cost scores of civilian lives. Russia and the West have been brinksmanshipping each other over the Ukraine for more than half a year, like a bunch of power-mad Model UNers, and meanwhile, on the ground, the mess is turning into some Catch 22 written on a larger scale. There has to be something about this that's not gonna put snakes in your head, right? Well, turns out that the entire conflict has basically sprung from the imagination of a bunch of Eastern European sci-fi writers. Warfare was the final frontier for nerd ascendancy.

And as this is just seeping in, and well before the jarring awfulness of the separatists taking liberties with the crash site (which is in the middle of a war zone), Israel decides the time is right to actually invade the Gaza Strip instead of just shelling it to pieces. It was a series of escalating unimaginably bad things, and by bedtime Thursday, hope was really hard to find.

In case you are one of those placid types who is uninterested in all this, or thinks that this is just the way things go, North Korea also says hi.


I'd like to think that in this segmented and media-saturated present there is a finite amount of dread, just as there is a finite amount of attention to spare. Not so! Our dread reserves are deep and replenish quickly. Our capacity for dread is as vast as our self-regard. But for once, the variety of dread-inducing events actually matches the outer limits of our cringing.

Just because these very scary events dominated the front pages, that does not mean that there are all sorts of other things to make you wonder if you should bother picking up your dry cleaning. In fact there are even more armed conflicts! Let's pan down to Nigeria, where Boko Haram, kidnappers of teenage girls and more extreme than Al Qaida, has an alarming propensity for simply killing people for whatever reason. A clear and present global danger? Maybe not. But the fact that a renegade sect is conducting random massacres of civilians with impunity is not exactly reassuring.

At least we can take solace in the internet, right? Fritter a couple of hours away cracking jokes, selfie-ing? Of course we can't! The internet is a very complex technological marvel, and accordingly about as secure as a wet piece of cheesecloth, even the parts that aren't suborned by the National Security Agency. Stories of credit card info being hacked are so jejune now as to be hardly noticed, and last week the story broke of how Russian concerns (oh great, them again) basically pwned the NASDAQ a few years back. The forensic internet guys have not yet figured out exactly which Russians, or if the target was to hamstring the NASDAQ or just to acquire information (the Order Flow!), but if the systems of a company at the very heart of international finance isn't safe, then what is? It's time to stop thinking of the internet as a rainbow/unicorn array of digital magic bringing giggles and smiles to an information-hungry world, and instead as a unilaterally tempting target for millions and millions of criminals all across the face of the planet. It may be a bitcoin future, but the goldbugs may have a point, because the hordes of black hat hackers are going to have a hard time pilfering the gold bars you have hidden in your closet with their silly computers.

Maybe it's not going to be us that's going to kill us all. Maybe it's going to be the planet that kills us, or all those little tiny micro-organisms that we share the biosphere with. We're all familiar with the impending threat of climate change, ever more verified, but a thousand clicks or so west of Boku Haram's killing fields a genuine epidemic is raging. as of last week, in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, there have been 982 confirmed cases and 613 fatalities. The epidemic is raging, and the efforts to contain it are being hampered not only by the difficulty of treating the nasty virus and the ease of transmission, but also because rumors are flying locally that contravene medical advice. Residents distrust medical authorities, and as a result the infected are sometimes escaping from medical facilities to return to their homes, and families are insisting that the bodies of those that succumb, which are basically viral tactical nukes, be returned. It concerns me enough personally that I asked a friend, a medical science professional, if we should be packing our go-bags. She was reassuring, saying something along the lines of, "If someone on a flight out of that area starts vomiting blood then no one's getting off that plane until the authorities arrive," but I was less than comforted. People fuck up.

So then maybe it's not the bug that will be to blame, but rather some genial idiot who missed a sign. I wish I could go back in time and unwatch Twelve Monkeys. Sure, the world is on fire, generally speaking, but the ebola outbreak is the closest thing to an extinction freaking event as we have right now. Hot wars are fun, but hot zones infinitely moreso.


So are we all gonna die? Yup. That is what is intended by your God or your gods or, ultimately, biology. But are we at a peak moment of paranoia and hysteria? That's a question of whether paranoia and hysteria ever really go away. My generation got to come of age in the waning days of the Cold War, which were no doubt a lot less terrifying than say the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the entire country turned off Johnny Carson, in the first month of his stint on "The Tonight Show," and went to sleep wondering if we were all going to wake up dead, but still, it was pretty disruptive of our little kid sleep patterns. The grown-ups pounded it into our heads that it was more of a question of when not if, no matter what Sting was singing about. And the early years of this century were no cakewalk either, walking around waiting for another plane to fly into another skyscraper.

We have been given the gift of the latest version of eschatological anxiety, a death by a thousand cuts as opposed to waiting for the man-made version of a comet T-boning Earth.

But is any of this really likely to blow up into the actual end? Obviously, no one knows (or if someone does, speak up.) But we've been a pretty resilient species so far, as horrendously as we treat each other and the planet we live in. I hate to be the one to stick my neck out and counsel optimism, but hey, there are still limitless appetizers to eat, and TV series to bingewatch. Let's put the fires out where we can and hope for the best. Let's be optimistic.

[That's it! And to update, pretty much everything referenced has gotten worse except for the Russians hacking websites (though that kind of news usually breaks a year later). But I'm still optimistic! It's my true failing.]

Posted by mrbrent at 4:18 PM

July 28, 2014

michael tomasky on the maelstrom

So I wrote this thing that was intended for commercial publication and all parties decided that it was, among other things, a little to glib in dealing with the bleakness that is the world these days.

So while I am pondering whether I should put it here (in the interest of wasting no part of the animal), read this Michael Tomasky piece on the bleakness that is the world these days:

But: Am I the only one to whom things right now feel a little... different? By which I of course mean worse. This Israel-Hamas war feels different, neither turtle nor scorpion even pretending anymore about seeking peace. What's happening in Syria, where hundreds die every week now with almost no notice in Washington, is certainly different. Lebanon teems with Palestinian and now Syrian refugees--imagine if you lived in a country of 4.5 million people that was being asked to house a number of refugees that equaled 20 percent of your population--and every effort at normalization is pulverized by the thugs of Hezbollah, which in effect governs the country and which is helping Bashar al-Assad murder civilians while limning Hamas' glorious contributions to "the resistance," as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah did in a bellicose speech Friday.

Good day to you all.

Posted by mrbrent at 1:50 PM