A Dark Tide in Human Affairs

Dark Tide copyI was thinking today about large-scale social motion in a negative direction. Not as some sort of accident, but as the result of some deeper human sociological/psychological tides.

I think of bikers and biker culture. The skull motif so penetrates biker culture that it makes its way onto everything — bikes, t-shirts, leather jackets, bandanas, helmets, face masks, even tattoos. It’s interesting to me that this nihilistic image is of such unquestionable importance, and has no positive-direction counterpoint. (For instance, you don’t see Hello Kitty biker art, with the possible exception of the very rare joke.) And I think of bikers as early-adopters of the sort of darkness the skull represents.

But following in the footsteps of those early adopters, that darkness — the studied opposite of health, respect, sanity, goodness, love — has now entered the mainstream. Politics has it. The news media has it. Style has it. Music has it. We have it as tattoos, saggy-ass pants, piercings, trashy dress, repellent physical condition, the easy bile and bullying of online commenters, the vapidity of entertainment, all sorts of other data points, all a part of a powerful counter-culture that insists whatever majority culture we have had is a hate-filled, freedom-restricting malignancy — hell, even the admonition to maintain a good healthy weight is seen as a violent attack on a helpless victim class — and that everything which is NOT majority culture is good.

Currently, there is almost no human practice, however scary, low or disgusting, that someone will not instantly leap to defend, as if some vital issue of freedom is at stake — “People should be allowed to shit in public! It’s perfectly natural! Only a bunch of hateful prudes would say otherwise!” And one of the defensive weapons is the ever-ready “You shouldn’t judge people!” — an admonition that resonates with the opposition to having social or personal standards.

I actually saw the election of George W. Bush as a signifier of something dark going on below the surface of things, and it appears to me that that whatever-it-is is spreading, solidifying its grip and influence. It was almost irrelevant that it was George W. Bush specifically who got elected; anyone of his sort — intellectually dull, pompous, grandiose, incurious, shallow, self-absorbed — could have fit the bill. Because that was what we unconsciously wanted and needed in that moment.

The hate flowing like a firehose at President Obama — a genuinely intelligent, genuinely good man who has served as a target for spitting spite from the first moment he entered the public spotlight — is another data point. This dark whatever-it-is HAS TO attack a decent person, because it can no more tolerate his existence than disease can tolerate antibiotics.

The thing is, I don’t know where this thing is coming from. Like I say, it feels like something weirdly inevitable in this moment — a necessary product of certain factors arising out a confluence of human psychology and the progression of civilization itself. I feel like we made a wrong turn at some point, or started from poisoned initial conditions, but I can’t see what that turn is or those conditions are.

I worry that this whatever-it-is would be see-able by humans slightly brighter, slightly better, and that we’re missing it because we’re just us.

It also disturbs me to think that just-us is tragically unequipped to stop it, and that it will sweep over the human world, damaging everything, as we stand by and observe in busy impotence, always convinced some less-relevant, flavor-of-the-month factor — racism, sexism, ‘the patriarchy’, teabaggers, underpaid teachers, Republicans, Fox News, liberals, video games, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton — is to blame.

The bright spot, to me — the hope — is a Venn Diagram that overlaps the several circles of atheism, reason and education, and an intelligent activism that spotlights these as the necessary foundation of any kind of real-world solution.

  • Dorothy Grasett

    Read the Science of Diskworld books – the parts written by Sir Terry Pratchett. Rincewind has the concept that a being develops a culture and a civilization [the crab people called it the great leap sideways] and then the universe throws rocks. According to Rincewind the last thing heard by members of any civilization is “incoming!”

    Frankly, I think it is because we are within reach of solving our problems – and I feel that this sets up an effective but not intellectually realized gestalt that there will be no more frontiers. The frontiers are where the louts can look good.

  • Partial Mitch

    It’s always been there. The darkness is not new. Humans have always been violent, judgmental, tribal creatures. We’ve always been intellectually dull, pompous, grandiose, incurious, shallow and self-absorbed. We’ve always followed the easy rhetoric of close-minded brutes. We’ve always had the habit of viewing the “other” as inhuman scum—whether we’re discussing the Roman opinion of the Celts, the historical Japanese opinion of Koreans or Protestant English folk’s view of English Catholics a few hundred years ago.

    Think about 1856, when Preston Brooks violently assaulted Charles Sumner with a cane in the Senate Chamber, due to rage at Sumner’s anti-slavery speech. Southern politicians actually took to wearing pieces of the cane on neck chains in celebration of the event. Ever hear about the East St. Louis Riots of 1917? Read about that sometime, if you need to feel better about modern America. We tend to think that people are more crass/violent these days, but I’m pretty sure that’s only due to modern communications technology letting us see things as they are, instead of cleaned and polished like Victorian London in a tale by Dickens.

    The darkness has always been around. Sometimes, yeah, it’s hard to handle.

    Yesterday I had to listen to my boss and his elderly mother—both extremely intelligent, kind and educated individuals—stand around discussing some right-wing conspiracy theories that no sane person should possibly believe. “Obama’s helping ISIS sneak across the Mexican border!”

    At the time, I felt crushed. I’ve always thought of those two people as “good” Republicans. Yeah, they believe all the standard conservative economic bullshit, but they aren’t racist, spiteful or uneducated. How on Earth can two, college-educated multimillionaires in Northern California believe such insanity? How do we spread knowledge when so many people embrace ignorance? How do we survive, when so many of us are intent on causing destruction?

    There are no easy answers, and I can’t justifiably end this post with positive vibes. The best that I can say is that war, racism, sexism and religious violence are generally less acceptable now than in the past … among many of us at least.

    The darkness has always been here. It always will be here. Many people (maybe even most) refuse to use their minds. Many can’t help but “follow a multitude to do evil.” That’s just part of human nature. We’re not getting worse … we’re exactly as messed up as we’ve always been.

    And yet we’ve survived so far. It may be cynical, but that may be the best we can hope for.

  • allin58

    An interesting thesis was put forth on this “The Fourth Turning”. It claims civilizations develop cycles that have been going on for quite a while. We are in the middle of the end of the fourth part of one of the cycles: Generally not good times. It’s quite an interesting read.