Partly it’s autism and partly it’s anarchism, but I’m aloof from a lot of pop culture. I don’t get it, because my emotional responses to it aren’t normal. It’s interesting and disturbing to see normal people explain what’s going on.
A good example would be Andrew O’Hehir writing in Salon about the Thai children currently trapped by floodwaters in a cave. He’s executive editor at Salon, so he speaks for large numbers of liberal/progressive types.
Let’s be clear: The story that has transfixed the world over the last week or so, about the boys’ soccer team trapped in an underwater cave in Thailand who were feared dead but found alive, and whose fate may not be resolved for weeks, is not a metaphor. At least, it’s not just a metaphor. Its power comes precisely from the fact that it is a real event, if an unlikely and intensely dramatic one, involving real people.
No one (so far) has suggested that the story is “fake news” or that the boys are “crisis actors.” Only one point of view is possible, at least for anyone whose moral and ethical standards fall within the standard human range. There is no political disagreement (again, so far) about whether to rescue these children, whatever the cost, if it is humanly possible to do so. This is a clarifying and unifying story, in a world that seems paralyzed by division, unable to tell facts from lies and perhaps even uncertain about the nature or existence of reality.
But the fact that this story is really happening, and that we don’t know how it will end, doesn’t mean that it’s not a symbolic spectacle, or an allegorical fable. In our era, major news events — especially cataclysms and disasters — have two lives, the first in the physical world where human beings suffer and die, are injured or saved, and the second as a media narrative that is always and inevitably partly a fiction. Commentators who made this observation after 9/11 were roundly abused, but they were clearly correct: For most of the world, those attacks were literally a disaster movie.
If you were trapped in a cave like those kids, wouldn’t it be grotesque to know that this is how people are talking about your situation?
This passage suggests that normals really struggle to distinguish “news” from the rest of what’s on TV. They approach it all with the same mental stance, which results in dehumanizing the subjects of the news. It would make no difference to what O’Hehir is talking about if the kids in the cave were just an unusually good TV show. Everyone would come together and bond over it at the water cooler.
Few people outside Thailand had ever heard of the Tham Luang Nang Non cave complex in Chiang Rai Province, on the Myanmar border in the country’s far north, before it became the focus of worldwide media attention this past week. Most of us still have little idea what daily life in that region is like. That’s entirely understandable, and arguably does not matter. One of the most obvious morals or meanings we perceive in a story like this is about our shared humanity — concern for children in mortal danger transcends all cultural barriers, or so we tell ourselves — and another is about the interconnected nature of our fully wired world.
Again, do the kids feel their situation has anything to do with inanities like “the interconnected nature of our fully wired world?”
The idea that Americans care about children, especially other people’s children, is a bad joke.
I wrote that sentence about “children in mortal danger” just now without intending to draw an invidious comparison with the Trump administration’s immigration policies, believe it or not. But there it is, and I suppose there’s no avoiding it. Those boys in Thailand are literally and figuratively contained: They are not international migrants whose legal status is in dispute; they did not end up down there as the result of a controversial government policy that all parties are eager to blame on someone else.
At the risk of sounding unnecessarily harsh, it’s safe for all of us to express our shared humanity and our concern for children, at a moment when those things are very much in doubt, by hoping and praying for the rescue of those boys. None of us is at fault for what happened to them; none of us must admit to any wrongdoing or any evil thoughts in order to wish them well. As a spectacle — again, separate from the real event in the physical world — the pathos and danger and tragedy of this story offer us a moral free pass, an opportunity to think well of ourselves, and each other, without conflict or consequences.
This is the liberal unreality bubble of privilege. He lives in a world where hurting children is pretend-abnormal.
But he gives it away. Caring for children is universal unless their legal status is in dispute, in which case they serve as props in a different story.
Squabbling about who’s traumatizing children for life en masse is just one of those things. We should definitely spread blame around so it seems like everyone and no one’s fault.
He’s admitting that liberals know they’re full of shit and that they’re plagued with guilt over it. So afraid to make waves:
Presumably people have gotten trapped underground since time immemorial, and sometimes the really lucky ones were rescued. We may not consciously recognize the mythic elements in that kind of story, but they’re clearly present: In most mythological traditions the land of the dead lies below the earth, and only the greatest heroes can go there and then return.
From the dawn of the mass media age the story of trapped survivors and a daring rescue, set against a ticking clock, has proven to be an especially addictive narrative containing several layers of meaning. Again, honestly: I’m not suggesting that the boys in Thailand aren’t real or don’t matter, and I’m not criticizing anybody for being captivated by their story. (I wouldn’t be writing about it if I didn’t feel that way too.)
Not to mention cave art.
Maybe we identify so strongly with these stories because we identify with their helpless subjects. Maybe we too feel trapped in a cave or a “dark tunnel,” unsure how we got here and unable to get out, awaiting rescue from above by unknown or miraculous agency.
Sure, I’m partly thinking about the many Americans who feel trapped in the “malignant reality” of the Trump presidency, a phenomenon that seems without precedent and without explanation, and who keep hoping that the enormous damage to our so-called democracy can magically be undone by Robert Mueller or the “blue wave” or impeachment, and that after that it will be like a dream that was never real at all.
But that’s easy — too easy. I suspect the condition Chambers inadvertently describes, from which we all wish to escape, is universal. If there’s one thing we know for sure about Trump’s voters, and about the target audience for right-wing “populism” throughout the Western world, it’s that they feel the same way: isolated, crapped on and left behind in a merciless economy they never voted for and a multicultural society they don’t understand. They seem far too willing to embrace incipient fascism, or actual fascism, or at least a cult of personality built around an obvious con artist, as their preferred mode of rescue. That’s regrettable, and by “regrettable” I mean potentially catastrophic.
STFU anybody in the news media who made money off treating Trump like a game and then wonders how we got here.
“Without precedent and explanation?” Seriously? Salon is supposed to be contextualizing this stuff for people. None of it is new, and all of it is explainable.
If we want a revolution, we have to do it ourselves. Nobody’s coming to save us. We have to grow up.
WTF “merciless economy they never voted for?” Why is it so important for O’Hehir to pretend Trump people aren’t mean-spirited? People vote for rich assholes because they live in a fantasy world where they’ll get rich and enjoy the perks. Or they only care about abortion. Or whatever.
WTf “multicultural society they don’t understand?” They don’t want to understand. They don’t think they should have to understand. This makes it seem like obnoxious racists are just innocents confused by an overwhelming universe.
But I’m not sure the Trumpian demographic’s yearning to embrace dumbed-down reboots of Nazi conspiracy theories is categorically different from the liberal self-trolling that accompanies every new tidbit of scandal from the White House, or every faint spark of conscience displayed by some elected Republican. At least there’s a certain delusional grandeur in pretending to believe that Donald Trump is going to rescue you from the bottomless well of self-loathing where you’ve wedged yourself. It’s like betting everything you own in a blatantly rigged card game with a mob boss. In a Romanian prison. But pretending that Bob Corker and Mitt Romney are going to save you, because they love America and will not let her be besmirched? That’s just embarrassing.
We all believe we deserve rescue, of course, because we’re as innocent as Kathy Fiscus or those kids in Thailand. It’s not our fault that we wound up down here, and we’re sure — well, almost sure — that somebody’s coming with exactly the right technology or magic to haul us back up to daylight. But what if nothing about that story is true? What if we spent years digging ourselves down into this hole and have nobody else to blame? What if Bob Mueller and Donald Trump are not warring wizards, or our dads, but just two guys on whom we’ve projected way too much meaning? That might suggest that we’re on our own, that help from above is not coming and that we feel so strange right now because our oxygen is running out.
The passive childishness of this bothers me. There have been adults telling the truth about reality this whole time, and liberals prioritized their emotional avoidance over their long-term survival and shouted down anybody radical. We need to be present. This is really happening.