An Impending Sense of Doom
And How I Cope With It
You may be like my wife and me in watching the winter Olympics with mixed feelings: a sense of excitement and wonder at the amazing athletic feats to which we will be treated over the next two weeks, coupled with a sense of guilt about watching an event hosted by a country whose leaders have been snuffing out democracy in Hong Kong, committing cultural genocide of its Uighur population, and saber rattling about invading, or perhaps more likely blockading into submission, Taiwan.
This is hardly the only example of cognitive dissonance, and more accurately, source of dread that we are all living with. Even if the Olympics are not marred by a Russian invasion of Ukraine during the event – a not inconceivable possibility – the world, including our country, is poised on a knife-edge, with nothing but danger on the other side. In this sense, the 2022 winter Olympics conjure up thoughts of what it must have been like for Americans to read about and only watch newsreels of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, with the obvious threat of Nazi terror about to be unleashed in only a few short years’ time.
Though it all still seems unreal. It is hard to fathom the danger lurking off camera when watching the beautiful opening ceremonies in Beijing. Contrast that with the grainy black and white images we have of Adolf Hitler presiding over the Berlin Olympics and the regimented ceremonies then which really did (admittedly in retrospect) leave little to the imagination of what was likely to follow.
In any event, it goes without saying that if either or both the threatened military actions by Russia and China occur at any point the world as we have known it will fundamentally change – in ways that frankly cannot be easily predicted. We just know things would be very different, with potentially much tragedy for those on the front lines in the countries anxiously awaiting what’s next.
Then there is deep cleavage in our own country, with large portions of those on either side believing those on the other not only to be highly misguided but a real threat to our way of life. That cleavage is likely soon to get even worse, with prime-time coverage of the testimony before the January 6th committee coming shortly after the Olympics. Then come the mid-term elections in 2022, and beyond that the presidential election in 2024 … when it seems too many are geared up for Armageddon.
If we somehow manage to get through all that, hanging out there is a dystopian future of more frequent and severe weather-related catastrophes due to climate change, the massive migrations of people within and across national borders that climate change will continue to induce, or future pandemics of viruses as or more lethal and transmissible than the COVID variations that have plagued us since early 2020.
Admittedly, there is one bit of bright news. The Omicron wave of COVID looks like it has crested, and the U.S. economy is running hot. Whether the supply chain and labor shortage kinks in it will dissolve in time for inflation to cool as the Fed ramps up interest rates, however, is anyone’s guess.
So I ask a question that I am sure that is on the mind of readers of this post, and others like it. How, in the face of all this, is America hanging together, at least for now?
I offer three answers.
One is mental inertia. We have lived for so long believing in “America” and all the goodness it represents, as well as in the relative comfort that large-scale invasions of countries, putting the two Iraq wars aside, are things one sees only on the History Channel, because they are believed to be in the past. I call this the “Buffett” theory because of the many times over the years I have read or seen famed investor Warren Buffett remind his many followers to “never bet against America.”
The major problem with this theory is that it is subject to the “failure of imagination” retort. 9/11 was the product of a failure to imagine by our national security establishment that terrorists could hijack commercial airplanes and come close to destroying the U.S. capitol. Speaking of the Capitol, Jan 6th was a similar unimaginable event, both at the time, and now a year later, where one party wants the rest of us to deny what was plain for all to see on live TV and believe that Jan 6th either wasn’t a big deal or just a “peaceful” demonstration.
A second answer is that despite our deep political differences, most of us, thank goodness, don’t care that much about politics – except on voting days – to let our political differences from interfering with all the other activities that keep our economy and society going. If all of us watched either Fox or MSNBC/CNN all day, tweeting all the time in the process, our society already would have been torn asunder.
Which leads to a related third reason, stemming from insights of the great political economist Adam Smith (whose name and thoughts I invoke for totally non-political purposes). Smith wrote this oft-quoted sentence in his classic Wealth of Nations which rings as true today as it was in 1776:
In other words, everyone by pursuing his or her own interest – going to work, spending the proceeds on what we need to survive – helps keep our entire society together. The deep political differences among us don’t stop “blue” city dwellers from buying food produced by “red” farmers, or conversely from “red” residents buying things made by “blue” companies and their workers. Thank goodness we are also so interconnected – and not autarkic, self-sufficient economic islands – that we so much need each other to survive that, at least so far, we haven’t let our political differences bring us all down.
Will this tenuous situation last when it comes to possible (real) fighting over power in 2024/2025? I don’t know, and frankly none of us knows.
But I tell you how at least I live with this uncertainty: through distraction. Sports, Netflix helps. So does a heavy workload, which is why I haven’t posted on substack in several weeks.
I realize living like this is akin to having one’s head partially in the sand. But these days, I don’t know how else to cope. I’m sure others have their own, likely different coping mechanisms. In comments, I’m reasonably sure many would like to see them.