Saturday, October 27, 2012

The sci-fi novella Wool, the plight of the Baby Boomers, and America's post 9/11 paranoia

The screen in the living room tells us to be afraid

Posted by Chris Haire on Sat, Oct 27, 2012 at 4:37 AM

I am a risk taker. I am the kind of guy who stares danger in the face and laughs. I live on the edge each and every day. And it’s not because I do anything particularly daring or reckless.

I wear a seatbelt. I don’t drink and drive. I look both ways before crossing the street. I brush my motherfucking teeth twice a day. I am a paragon of staying out of harm's way.

But after Monday night’s presidential debate, I learned that I was wrong. Not only was I not as safe as I thought, I was in imminent danger, and it was all because I was the most dangerous thing that you could possibly be: an American citizen.

I’m not joking. I’m dead fucking serious. Everybody wants to kill us, and they will stop at nothing until we’re all dead.

There’s Al Qaeda.

And the Iraqis.

And the Iranians.

And the Taliban.

And Hezbollah.

And the Muslim Brotherhood.

And the Chinese.

And the Russians.

And the North Koreans.

And the god damn Mayans. Those guys have it in for us more than anybody. In fact, they’ve already let everybody know exactly when they’re going to 86 the good ol’ U.S. of Fucking A: Dec. 21, 2012. The clock is ticking, and frankly, I’m afraid that it’s not going to matter who we elect president.

It could be the white guy who believes we need to wage even more war around the world or the black guy who continues to order our troops to wage war around the world. There really is no difference. Both men clearly believe that the U.S. is in grave danger. Heck, the gravest of danger. The most dangerous of gravest danger. The gravest, most dangerous grave danger that any people have ever faced. Forget all other oppressed peoples in world history. Forget the Jews. And the Kurds. And the Native Americans. And the West Africans who came to America in chains. No other people at any other era have ever lived in such perilous times.

Make no mistake, American foreign policy is driven by one thing and one thing only: an irrational fear that everyone is out to get us. As a result, our military actions overseas are not about fighting the good fight, defending the weak, or championing budding democracies. We don’t care about those things now, that is if we ever truly did.

Truth be told, we don’t care about much of anything these days but bogeymen — whether it’s terrorists, illegal immigrants, or our fellow Americans — you know, the ones who plan to vote for that other guy; they’re the real enemy, the traitors in our own midst.

We are a nation that is gripped by the fear of what might happen next. And so we have decided that the only solution is to put our country on a permanent war footing and to send our troops overseas and offer them up as a sacrifice to a god who has seen our fear and wants to punish us for being pussies.

And while good men and women die — most of whom are young people who have barely experienced any of what life has to offer — we sit at home in front of our TVs and laptops and stare into the screen. We listen. We read. We yell. And we post ill-informed, half-baked rants on comment boards. This is a deadly hobby. For when you stare into the screen, the screen stares back into you. And far too often, all that it sees is emptiness, and it fills it not with dreams, but with endless nightmares.

And it’s the post-9/11 nightmare that we can’t seem to wake from that author Hugh Howey explores in his best-selling novel Wool. In this post-apocalypse tale, the former Charleston resident imagines a world where mankind lives underground in silos. The air above is polluted by toxins, the fields have all turned brown, and the mighty cities that the human race once built are nothing more than tombstones marking our arrogance. And the only glimpse of the outside world that the people see is through screens. However, in the first installment of Wool, a silo lawman named Holston comes to believe that the outside world is far different from what they see on a flickering screen. (For more on Wool and Howey’s surprising success story, see Erica Jackson Curran’s article on the sci-fi author.)

“The question explored is this, can we know the world by staring at a single screen? By watching 24-hour news? Or do we need to go outside and see it for ourselves?” Howey asks in a recent interview.

And it’s finding that answer to that question — is the screen telling us a lie? — that drives the first installment in the five-part collection of novellas. In part one, Howey writes:

“The view of the dead world filled up the entire wall of his cell, just like the walls of the silo’s upper level, each one full of a different slice of the blurry and ever blurrier wasteland beyond. Holston’s little piece of that view reached from the corner by his cot, up to the ceiling, to the other wall, and down to the toilet. And despite the soft blur — like oil rubbed on a lens — it looked like a scene once could stroll out into, like a gaping and inviting hole oddly positioned across from forbidding prison bars.

The illusion, however, only convinced from a distance. Leaning closer, Holston could see a handful of dead pixels on the massive display. They stood stark white against all the brown and gray hues. Shining with ferocious intensity, each pixel (Alison had called them “stuck” pixels), was like a square window to some brighter place, a hole the width of a human hair that seemed to beckon toward some better reality.”

Howey, for one, doesn’t believe that the world that we see on the screen is as bleak as it appears, regardless of what Wool may ultimately suggest. “I’ve been to dozens of countries by boat. I’ve explored the slums of Cuba and the fancy resorts of the Caribbean. To my naive and optimistic eyes, the world is a damn fine place,” he says. “History books make me fear the past and look forward to the future. The screen in my living room yells at me to fear the future and long for some idyllic past. That’s the heart of Wool, right there.

So if Howey is right and the world itself is not the scary place that so many of us, Obama and Romney included, believe, then what exactly is going on? Why is it that the screen in the living room constantly tells us that the end is nigh? And why do so many of us continue to believe it is?

The truth of the matter is it’s never been safer to be an American. Domestically, crime — violent or otherwise — is down. Internationally, our biggest threat comes from a scattered franchise of cave dwellers who are armed with hand-me-down weapons and IEDs. Our enemy doesn’t have hundreds of nuclear missiles pointed our way, nor does it have a massive army that is quickly advancing in our direction. By no stretch of the imagination is the world coming to an end.

Except that it is, at least for one very large and self-centered segment of the American population: the Baby Boomers. For the first time in their lives, the Boomers are beginning to realize that their best days are behind them and that death is stalking them. And so they dwell on the end. They obsesses over it. They endlessly moan and groan. After all, they are a generation taught by the media that their fates and America’s are intertwined. What they are experiencing is what the nation as a whole must be experiencing.

The Baby Boomers like to imagine that everything was idyllic in the 1950s, the time of their childhood.

They like to imagine that America lost its innocence along with the Boomers in the ’60s, first with the death of John F. Kennedy and then with Robert Kennedy and MLK. It didn’t. If America ever had any innocence, it ended long before the Baby Boomers were even the by-products of a drunken back-seat tussle.

They like to imagine that Woodstock and the countless other playtime picnic parties they threw single-handedly ended the Vietnam War. They didn’t. The war in Vietnam went on for years after most protests had died down. And truth be told, the pullout had far more to do with practical concerns than with silly notions about peace and love and all of that pipe-dream bullshit that nobody ever believed except for that chick your father was trying to get naked in his dorm room.

They like to imagine the ’70s were a spiritual crisis, the moment when they were finally forced to deal with all the emotions brought on by all the innocence they had lost. They saw that all of their youthful idealism had amounted to naught. They learned that you can’t be a child forever. They found out that love didn’t last. They found out that, yes, you had to grow up and schlep for the man. They discovered that in order to rise, you had to knell and occasionally open your mouth and suck. And so they imagined that their malaise was their own country’s.

They like to imagine that in the ’80s, they got their mojo back. They were now adults, and they were proud of what they had accomplished, the careers they had built and the families they had raised. Despite abandoning all the ideals they cherished when they were young, despite selling their souls for a new Beemer, a big-screen TV, and a time-share in Myrtle Beach, all was right and good with the world.

They like to imagine that in the ’90s they had finally succeeded in what they had tried so long to accomplish: They brought peace to the world, and they did it in a way that would have repulsed them in their youth: by the barrel of a gun. For three decades, we held the world hostage and then it finally gave up. We won. The Evil Empire was no more, and the world was safe for the American missionary force led by Mickey Mouse, Ronald McDonald, and Microsoft’s blue screen of death. Then, suddenly, the peace ended. The Pax Americana was over. The impenetrable bedsheet fortress in which the Boomers had lived their entire lives was not so impenetrable.

To this day, the Baby Boomers have not recovered. In part, it’s the result of a collective amnesia that ignores the fact that 10 years before 9/11, doomsday was an everyday reality. All it would have taken was the push of the button and everything that we ever knew and everything that ever was would disappear in a fiery flash. But then again, today’s troubles have nothing to do with reality. The fears of today are rooted in a growing paranoia brought on by a population that is growing old and growing irrelevant. And so what we are experiencing today is not an America under attack, but a generation struggling to come to terms with its own mortality.

I ask you to think of the Boomers in your life. They may be your parents. They may be your relatives. They may be your friends. Think of how they get the news. For the vast majority, the answer is simple: They get it from cable news, and they get it by sitting in front of it, passively absorbing it all like children at the glass teat. And this feeding is no longer a single 30-minute affair once a day. They leave it on and they wait for something horrible to happen. They don’t know when it’s going to happen, but they know it is coming. And so the fear grows. The end is nigh and they must be there when it happens because they are the Baby Boomers. Their history is America’s history.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

The world today is a drastically different place than the fearful world the Boomers inhabit. It’s amazing that today’s younger Americans see the progress that our nation has made and they see hope, while the Baby Boomers see only danger.

To the young, America’s increasing cultural diversity is simply an example of our nation living up to its role as melting pot of ethnicities and nationalities, whereas the Boomers see an America that increasingly doesn’t look like them, talk like them, or think like them.

To the young, America’s move to embrace the gay population — to dismiss Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and legalize same-sex marriage — is the sensible and right thing to do, whereas the Boomers see a threat to the institution of marriage and their own tenuous religious beliefs, something they are desperately trying to hold on to now that the end is near.

To the young, America’s effort to cover the healthcare costs of all of its citizens is fair and just, whereas the Boomers are obsessed with death panels and the selfish need to ensure that they will receive the care that they need even if it means that everyone younger than them does not.

To the young, America’s ongoing wars in the Middle East have brought only pain to families here at home and the thousands of innocents overseas and the bloodshed must stop, whereas the Boomers believe that we can, indeed we must, kill ourselves out of this mess, as Romney said, not realizing that to do so is suicide.

To the young, America is at a turning point, one in which we finally abandon the prejudices that have dictated so much of our history, whereas the Boomers desperately want to take our nation back to the past, to return the United States to its hypocritical yesteryears.

To the young, the world is a place of excitement, of learning, of curiosities and new adventures, and they see the differences between the countries disappearing, whereas to the Boomers, all they see are enemies and threats and fear.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of living dangerously. I’m tired of the Decade of Fear, and I’m tired of the stranglehold that the Baby Boomers have had on our nation for far too long. Hopefully, we can convince them to see the error of their ways, to see how their paranoia affects the nation as a whole. If we can’t, it doesn’t matter. Their days are numbered, and with it, the fear will pass.

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