The irony is not lost on me that I, a card-carrying member of Generation X, did not expect the world to get this bad.
GenX: latch-key kids; the last generation before helicopter parenting; the digital transition cohort who have had to leapfrog into new technologies at least every 5 years as we’ve straddled the entire shift from analog to fully online during our prime adult years; the generation who in popular understanding often “raised ourselves” (though this was not my experience).
More germane: the generation raised on nuclear war, the impending death by fire, fallout, nuclear winter. Mutually Assured Destruction was the watchword of the 80s; essentially, “don’t worry too much, kids, the Russians probably want to live on this planet too!” Three minutes to midnight on the Doomsday Clock in 1983.
My school didn’t run nuclear bomb drills, that I can remember, but my husband’s did – he remembers thinking as a kid, “Getting under this desk isn’t going to make a difference at all.” I do remember noticing the nuclear fallout shelter signs on the government buildings in my small town – “shelter here” was the concept I guess, but as an adult I know there would have been room only for the select few already working at the courthouse.
The wider world was bifurcated: the Iron Curtain or the Powers of Democracy; the East vs the West; the USSR vs the USA. Rocky IV, shadow wars in Vietnam and Korea and Latin America and the Middle East. My dad yelling about pinko commies if he got worked up about something that came on the news.
We all wrote reports on global warming and greenhouse gasses and acid rain in middle school and learned about nuclear disarmament. We gaped in amazement at our televisions in 1989 when the Wall fell in Berlin, that ugly gash through a city that was the only way we knew the world before suddenly it wasn’t.
Of course we celebrated Reagan’s hand in it; everyone around me loved Reagan; he was Jesus wrapped in American red white and blue and made us feel strong and powerful again instead of limpid and weak under the stagflation and malaise of the 1970s (which I cannot at all remember, but it was in the air all around me, breathed in and out by the adults who shaped the world I inherited). Morning in America and all that.
Now, of course, I can see the con – the great trade that Reagan was elected to enact, of destroying public institutions and public money (rolling back the tax rate on the richest people) and loosing the chains that regulated skeevy financial deals so people could extract wealth from the lower and middle classes. The neoliberal bargain: that the free market could and should handle everything from education to health care to regulation, thank you very much.
The hollowed-out America I’m living in today was imagined long before Reagan but he was their tool to sell it to the nation, and boy, did Americans see dollar signs and buy up all the trickle-down economics bullshit.
I was struck, looking at that Doomsday Clock image above, at the optimism of 1991 – the USSR had essentially folded, the Wall was down, the East Bloc nations were crawling toward the light. The USA was about to enter the wild 90s rush of bringing the World Wide Web to the masses (hello, Netscape Navigator!) and the dot-com rush and quite a bit of money in people’s pockets. I was graduating college by mid-90s, married by late 90s. Whole life ahead of us.
Blink and 20 years are gone; it’s the way of the world. 9/11 broke the world; the War on Terror has never ended. The policies of Reagan led to corporate democrats like Clinton and the happy alliance of both parties with money from our oligarchs. I refuse to call them billionaires or venture capitalists or inventors or the tech class — they are oligarchs, people who think their lucky successes give them a justified reason to put their thumbs on the scales of government and ensure it tips their way, all the time, every time.
I did not expect the second half of my life, yet to be lived I hope, to be worse than the first half. I’m not surprised – for my GenX DNA has imbued me with the dual powers of cynicism and nihilism and a hefty dose of “we deserve whatever’s coming to us.” But I did not expect that it would be this bad.
…That we would watch white supremacy unite in the face of Obama’s election (hello, Tea Party of 2010) and make this much progress against democracy in just 10 years.
…That open fascism would be a key party plank in the platform of the GOP from 2016 forward.
…That Roe v Wade would be on the chopping block this summer – again, I’m not surprised, as this is what evangelical rhetoric has been asking for since the 1980s.
…That American institutions we thought were robust enough to serve as checks and balances on wealth and power are actually powerless against evil people hell-bent on stripping the nation and sacking its wealth while they ride its carcass down. That news outlets would not be bought by the same 6 oligarchs and that journalism would not be eaten away by clickbait headlines and a revenue model that leaves them begging for nothing and thus vulnerable to everyone.
…That we would successfully close the hole in the ozone layer in the 1990s only to cook the planet in the 2000s without any real interest in avoiding a planet-wide ecological collapse.
The Doomsday Clock now stands at 100 seconds to midnight. We are literally on “doom’s doorstep,” according to the Atomic Scientists thanks to climate change, the war in Ukraine, rising East/West tensions (like China vs the US), and the failing of democracies in the West – with America in the lead.
A boring dystopia
I commented to someone in the midst of the Trump administration that I never expected the dystopia to be this boring.
Breathless headlines aside, my day-to-day life remains unchanged and in many ways far better than it was in the 90s. I am richer, get paid more, have more education, and live a stable life. Not saying there aren’t a lot of shitty things about it – inflation is deflating my salary at a shocking rate; a close relative has dementia; Covid 19 and the pandemic absolutely sucked.
It’s easy to think that nothing matters — until wildfire or tornadoes eat my home, or until the next “global supply chain crisis” hits something that’s integral to my life instead of someone else’s (like baby formula).
The looming failure of the 20th Century democratic experiment and possibly the collapse of our planet’s ecology (the mass extinctions of species have been going on for years and no one is listening to the scientists as they sound the alarms) leaves me stunned.
I really am an adult handing a planet literally on fire to the kids in the next generations, and this breaks me. They yell at us for ruining their lives. (I’d argue it’s the Boomers, not me; I have had pretty close to nothing – no power, no money, no influence – until maybe 5 years ago after the generation ahead of us made all the money, robbed everyone blind, hoarded all their wealth, refuse to leave positions of power so anyone else could move up, and broke all the public institutions) but in the end it doesn’t matter whose fault it is. Either we fix it or lots of people die by the end of the century. That kind of doomsday has a way of shutting you down — mentally, emotionally, spiritually.
I am very much a Christian, but I have divested myself of Evangelicalism entirely and haven’t been to church since 2016. I may rejoin a community of believers at some point, but for the moment, I appreciate the clarity I get from not living under a reality distortion field that assumes God will solve everything if we just ask Him, like he’s some cosmic wizard.
It makes religious people mad to hear “religion is the opiate of the masses,” and I get that, but consider that Marx was not wrong. Allowing the cosmic wizard to clean up for human messes is a core tenet of American Evangelical Christianity – I know, I was there to hear it constantly in sermons for my entire life.
Christian nationalism is linked to authoritarianism. “Biblical” Christians laugh at science and cannot tell a fact from the fever dreams in their own minds. Understand that I’m going after the Trump Christo-fascists here, the God-And-Country fundamentalists (they lurk happily in Evangelicalism) who want a White America for Christians. And they fucking suck as humans, as their unbelievable lack of empathy for other people emerged during the pandemic:
Analyzing panel data collected in the thick of the COVID-19 crisis, we find Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior like eating in restaurants, visiting family/friends, or gathering with 10+ persons (though not attending church), and was the second strongest predictor that Americans took fewer precautions like wearing a mask or sanitizing/washing one’s hands. Religiosity, in contrast, was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in more frequent precautionary behaviors. Findings document that Christian nationalism, not religious commitment per se, undergirded the far-right response to COVID-19 that disregarded precautionary recommendations, thus potentially worsening the pandemic.Perry, Whitehead, & Grubbs, 2020 – article
I will say that my belief in the overall arc of redemption – that mankind is deeply broken apart from a Savior who must fundamentally alter human nature- is far more solidified in my mind, post 2016. We are a race of horrible people – taken as a group. I watch Star Trek to be reminded that some folks are actually optimistic about humanity. If I wrote science fiction, it would be far, far darker.
My point here is that the shocking downturn in our national and international outlook just since 2015 has left me in some kind of stupor. Maybe it was the pandemic too; what is time even, anymore?
How does an ant turn a boulder?
Yes, yes, I know, all of us “together” can force change; viva la revolution and all that. I’m a tiny blue dot in the middle of a blood-red Southern state. There aren’t enough of “us” to push back climate change, absolute dumb-fuck ignorance, and purposeful gerrymandering and voter suppression all at the same time.
There never was an American Dream. We stole this land from the people here before us, brought in slaves to strip the wealth, and then built parking lots over most of it.
Whatever comes next in America, as a people, we had it coming.
For the individuals involved, I’m sorry for all the young’uns who will have to ride the beast down into the pit. As a nation, we deserve to have our asses beaten. If there’s any justice in the universe, the native peoples will dance on the carcass of our plutocracy as the indigenous people restore the land. But I don’t expect this to be a just apocalypse. Marginalized people always suffer earliest and longest.
Going somewhere from here
I’m definitely an “Ok, so now what” kind of person, which was the whole point of this post in the first place. For the one or two people foolish enough to read this far, here you go.
My theistic response: The Great Commandments, to love God fully and to love others as you love yourself, are even more vital now than they ever were. There are whole universes tucked into those commands; even a non-theist can get behind the second one. I wrote more about loving one’s neighbor awhile back; I think that post might be relevant.
My human response: Nothing matters except loving and caring for one another – individuals whom we know as well as the larger body of humanity, whether they realize they need it or not. Do good in the world, and love one another. That’s it.
My philosophical response: I’m solidly a theist, but I deeply appreciate the optimistic nihilism espoused by Kurzgesagt (a group of Germans who run a lovely YouTube channel that I highly recommend). Plenty of religious people work on behalf of their beliefs to care for the planet and humanity and animals. But you don’t have to use God to justify being a decent person who doesn’t suck everything dry around you. I like a double-pronged approach of a hope in a benevolent creator as well as a healthy realization that I’m not expected to know how it’s all going to turn out. I hope in God, but I cannot prove He’s real or that Heaven will be my outcome. We must wrestle with the immense weight of living only 70 years (ish) on this planet. Whatever comes next, it’s worth trying to do the best with what we have right now. See “do good and love others,” above.
My scientific response: I will do what I can to mitigate my impact on the environment. I shop at companies who strive for sustainability. If you’re burned out on climate disaster news, this Kurzgesagt video is worth your time:
My political response: I will never again vote for a Republican in any office, ever. Period. I got to this point more or less by 2008 but 2016-2020 put the “never again” into that sentence.
My American response: I will vote for and advocate for policies like paid family leave, subsidized child care for children under 5, fully funded public education available to all and free of gag bills (“don’t say gay” or the anti-CRT foolishness) and free of mandated testing, a federally protected right to abortion, subsidies for renewable energy technologies to move the global systems away from coal and oil, marginal and progressive tax rates that tip the balance of money back toward investing in a public commons with strong public institutions and a social safety net including universal health care and a universal basic income. We will continue to be a major player on the world stage even if America declines overall, and it is our responsibility to do no harm with our military might and cultural influence. (Also, metaphorically, let’s punch Putin in the balls.)
I have no answers to the big institutional and structural and systemic problems. But I have promised myself that I will not look away. The more I’ve learned about the world, the more I am aware of behaviors and beliefs that I need to change. As long as humans are alive, they have the potential to change and grow. I don’t really think the Trump army will go away, but they are on the losing side of demographics, if we survive the fascist assaults of the 2020s.
As a woman in my 40s, I feel myself coming into my power and wisdom in ways that I never expected twenty years ago. Yes, I’m getting older; yes, I have gray hairs (at the moment, they’re pink and purple, which helps). I won’t be healthy forever (mental note to exercise today). But I feel like I’m finally just now getting started on the second half of my life, and that there are people for me to love and good for me to accomplish.