Not With a Bang

Friday, May 3rd, 2013 Politics / Writing

There’s a scene in Stephen King’s 1978 apocalyptic epic The Stand (in the 1990 extended edition, with the wonderful Berni Wrightson drawings and the lamentable Cyndi Lauper references) in which we are able to read several of the final top-secret reports by one of the United States government scientists who are desperately trying to contain the rapidly spreading plague (with its 99.4% communicability) that will soon kill nearly all of the human race, and which was created in a California military laboratory, presumably as part of a germ warfare program. We read the scientist’s rote recitation of his team’s most recent test results—they have been working tirelessly both to try to stop the geometric infection rate in the American Southwest and to understand why certain people are immune to “Project Blue,” their lethal superflu virus (which immunity King never explains)—and the facts and figures and sputum slide results and blood test antigen reactions are punctuated, as the memos continue, with more and more frequent interjections, breakdowns in formality, and other terrifying signs of the author’s increasingly wild panic, and his intimations of both his own mortality and the incipient end of the human race.

It’s a particularly memorable passage in a pop horror novel that’s unusually dependent (in its earlier chapters describing the plague days, before the world is swept clean of most of its population in preparation for the Biblical showdown to come) on “official” material like this memo: King deploys his unparalleled structural mastery to ensure that the glimpses we’re afforded of the “inside story”—the actions of the men who cause the end of the world—are both suggestively fleeting and painstakingly, totally believable. There aren’t monsters in these scenes (although the whole book more than lives up to King’s epigrammatic description as “this dark chest of wonders”), nor are there Strangelovian caricatures, grappling with “megadeaths” by means of insane polemics; these are reasonable people doing reasonable jobs, and the way that the mundane, circumspect, benign, officious military and scientific personnel gamely destroy the human race is probably the most realistic of all the elements in what turns out to be an elaborately fantastical story. The scientist concludes, “Those sons of bitches out in California did this job a little too well for my taste.”

That’s how I felt yesterday, seeing three news stories. Two of them were poll results: according to Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind, a “staggering” 29% of Americans feel that “an armed revolution might be necessary” (in “the next few years”), “in order to protect our liberties.” (It breaks down along party lines: 44% of self-identified Republicans agree, and 61% of self-identified Democrats disagree.) And, according to a new study reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, self-identified Conservatives are less likely to buy light bulbs (and other consumer products) that are identified as cutting carbon emissions, reducing “carbon footprint” or in any other way upholding “green” values—even if they are saving money in doing so—”because they so strongly object to the thought of climate change.”

The third story—about a Northern Virgina cabdriver and Iraq war veteran, who also served in the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay, and who is Muslim, being physically attacked by a passenger who called him a “jihadist” and compared him to the Boston marathon bombers—can be dismissed as a statistically irrelevant “one-time” event, as can, I suppose, the fourth of the day’s stories that caught my eye, the North Carolina arrest of rapper Christopher “Xstrav” Beatty for refusing to hand over his can of AriZona iced tea to a police officer when asked to do so; the can of iced tea, of course, recalling the Trayvon Martin shooting, which was itself an unusual incident of little statistical significance despite its ongoing incendiary effects. But the polls I’m citing are real, and scientific, and scare me more than even the most egregious “isolated” instance of American stupidity, intolerance, cruelty and paranoia.

The men and women who will not buy light bulbs because they have been re-designed to protect our environment against the threats of global warming, as well as the men and women who believe that they must own guns to protect themselves against the government (when it has already been clearly demonstrated that the second amendment was ratified to preserve slavery—in other words, the diametric opposite of the power vector imagined by today’s pro-gun-violence advocates) are part of a new breed of Americans whose resistance to reason and truth is profoundly frightening because it is not experientially inspired and cannot be understood to represent the regional persistence of intractable, retrograde pockets of backward thinking. They don’t think this way because they’re cut off; they think this way because they’re tuned in: the polled ideas about global warming and guns have been put there by means of systematic propaganda, astroturfing (the effects of which I became depressingly familiar with during my two-year stint at the nonprofit media forum Center for Communication) and programmatically distorted “reporting” dating back at least to the Reagan-era deregulation of the FCC that relaxed ownership rules, allowing five “Fortune 500″ companies to determine, today, 80% of what Americans watch on television.

So the National Rifle Association, which, after their May 21, 1977 leadership coup, shed its obligations to its membership and ceded control to a new board of directors comprised entirely of representatives of armaments companies, and the much broader industrial lobby who stand to lose billions of profits should their activities be constrained within even the most modest climate-aware regulations (and who, along with the NRA and the food lobby and the “Club for Growth” and other well-funded top-down advocacy groups, have established an unbreakable stranglehold on even the most urgent topical debates), have created a situation where majorities of polled Americans support their initiatives without even understanding why they are taking the positions they’re taking. Every time a “person in the street” with a microphone in his or her face talks about the dangers of “the deficit” or a state representative won’t support Islamic prayers before legislative functions because she doesn’t “condone terrorism,” the broad, lasting corrosive effects of these institutionalized dogmatic agendae become more and more deeply and irrevocably entrenched.

The Stand is, of course, a novel about Armageddon, in so many words (with the biblical overtones and undertones very much front and center), although King never quite maps out the connections between the human-created apocalyptic disaster (the concept of which clearly has its roots in the post-Watergate institutional mistrust of the time) and the broader, more overtly supernatural (and spiritual) elements of his story. But I like the way he left it vague, because it makes his allegory all the more applicable to the present day, when an alarming number of people are not deterred by the concept of global disaster, since they are looking forward to the “End Times” (“foretold” as prompted by Middle East violence) and the cosmic moral reckoning it will provide them. Forty-two years after Nixon consultant Roger Ailes sat in the Town Hall of California with his team of political operatives and laid out the armature for controlling the public discourse, more and more Americans believe that they have their own, good reasons for not buying the new reduced-carbon light bulbs and not giving up their guns (no matter how much slaughter occurs) and not providing Muslim Americans with basic civil rights and not doing anything to arrest the ongoing upward transfer of wealth or the loss of our manufacturing base or the failure of our public schools. Those sons of bitches out in California did this job a little too well for my taste.