It’s hard not to consider the following events and think, with horror, that they're a sure sign that it's humanity’s third act: The United States has entered a period of surprising isolation. Racial tensions and violence are at an all-time high, and the president will neither comment on it nor condemn it. The general public is concerned about the ties between the US and Russia. The government has begun an attack on suspected radicals and immigrants; consequently, civil liberties are threatened. The president himself, reflecting the national mood of worry and panic, has admitted in private, “The world is on fire.”
2017 sure is crazy, amirite? Except none of that happened in 2017. It happened nearly 100 years ago, in 1919, shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, as Cameron McWhirter described in Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America.
Clearly, feeling like we’re speeding toward the end of the world is a familiar place for us — aside from 1919 (which also included widespread labor strikes and bombs sent to members of US Congress), countless other bad years have wreaked havoc on personal psyches and public systems. So, why does it feel like things are worse now than they’ve ever been? Are we actually in the worst of times? If we are, what can we do about it? And if we aren’t, what does that even mean?
I wanted to find out. So I tracked down some experts who could say whether or not the end is nigh, and give some context to this circus of chaos we’re living in.
I don’t have to tell you all of the things that are adding fuel to our current trash fire of a planet; chances are, you already know them too well. And they’re impossible to ignore. So, first things first: Is this as bad as it gets? Are we totally, completely screwed?
In short, no. “Americans live in one of the safest places and safest periods in human history,” Barry Glassner, professor of sociology at Lewis and Clark College and author of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things told me. “People are living longer, they’re healthier, and they’re safer in general.”
Of course, “in general” is the operative phrase here. Glassner, a straight white man, employs a privileged viewpoint that brushes the daily struggles and fears of minorities, immigrants, the LGBT community, and anyone living in poverty so far under the rug that there’s a towering lump in the middle. But even with everything that comprises our dark reality, most individuals should feel relatively safe.
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“If you take any kind of historical view from 20, 30, or 50 years ago, we’re a heck of a lot less likely to die right now,” Peter Stearns, professor of history at George Mason University and author of American Fear: The Causes and Consequences of High Anxiety, told me. “Although there have been some hiccups in the past few years, and it’s troubling, life expectancy has steadily gone up in the past century. Not only that, but crime rates have gone massively down since the ‘80s.”
Even knowing all of this, it’s difficult not to romanticize the past. We, the people, fucking love nostalgia. Baby boomers think millennials are ruining everything, millennials are obsessed with memes about how awesome the ‘80s and ‘90s were, and we recently elected a president whose campaign slogan basically said, “Things suck now, so we should just go back to the way we were.”
We, the people, fucking love nostalgia.
Just like we have a tendency to whitewash the past, we also romanticize how people responded to bad shit. Unlike today’s special snowflakes, they kept calm and carried on. They walked 10 miles to school in the snow, uphill both ways, during wars, while also being subjected to horrible racism and sexism. I often try to calm myself down by thinking that if they got through it, we’ll get through it too, right? But that outlook ignores the fact that a lot of people died. A lot of people didn’t get through it. Sure, humanity technically carried on, but when more than 60 million people died during World War II, it feels wrong to say they "got through it." This also conveniently glosses over just how scared and anxious everyone was as earth-shaking events unfolded.
Disaster and ensuing doomsday fears have been around for basically as long as there have been humans, and they’ve never been easy to deal with. In 1348, a truly shit year, the Black Death unleashed a living hell on much of the Eastern Hemisphere. People started dropping like flies and "a sense of impending apocalypse" followed as roads became filled with dead bodies. A Franciscan monk notably left space blank in his diary “for continuing [my] work, in case anyone should still be alive in the future.” The bubonic plague was as mysterious as it was deadly; it’s estimated that it wiped out 30–60% of Europe’s population. We know now how it spread and that it wouldn’t last forever, but as it was happening, people were convinced it was a sign that God was angry and wanted them wiped off the planet.
Three hundred years later, 1666, a year in England that puts 2016 to shame, came 'round, armed with a whammy of plague, the Great Fire of London, and a war with the Dutch. Much like 2012, it was predicted to be a doozy far in advance. Religious scholars and astrologers dubbed it “the year of the beast,” and many god-fearing folks saw "unmistakable" signs that doomsday was just around the corner. Townspeople like diarist Samuel Pepys bought magic number journals that “explained” why 1666 was truly the end of the world as they knew it. In the end, did the Antichrist descend upon the planet, as predicted? No. Was it still an awful year? Yes. But predicting the apocalypse was practically a cottage industry; it was an inescapable part of life, even if the predictions never came true.
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Doomsday predictions have a habit of popping up when politics and/or technology move too quickly and unpredictably, Evan Osnos writes in The New Yorker. Case in point: In 1893, as the Chicago World’s Fair introduced wonders like the lightbulb, other people protested low wages and big corporations. Protesters were reacting to “a sense that the political system had spun out of control, and was no longer able to deal with society,” Richard White, a historian at Stanford University, told Osnos. “There was a feeling that America’s advance had stopped, and the whole thing was going to break.” It was no coincidence that along with the demonstrations came some of the earliest modern dystopian novels.
Flash forward another 300 years from 1666 to the late 1940s, and a new harbinger of the apocalypse had arrived: the nuclear bomb. It was deployed to ensure Japan’s total surrender, but the subsequent Pyrrhic victory left people more terrified than happy. The civilians and soldiers celebrating V-J Day in the streets were tinged by an invisible existential dread, Paul Boyer writes in By the Bomb’s Early Light. The war may have been over, but the world was arguably worse off. John Hersey’s wildly popular “Hiroshima” essay, published in The New Yorker one year after the bombs dropped, was a raw, unembellished account of what happened to “regular” people — a young secretary, a widowed seamstress, a Jesuit missionary, and more — during and after the bombings. In printing the essay, the magazine heightened everyone’s awareness and emotions, and made it all feel like a distinctly human tragedy — and that made it even scarier.
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A culture of panic, later termed the “Great Fear,” blossomed, and in the 1960s, it hit fever pitch after fever pitch. There was John F. Kennedy publicly telling all “prudent families” to have a bomb shelter. There was the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, arguably the closest the Cold War ever came to devolving into a full-scale war. At the time, Stearns was just beginning his teaching career. “My students all thought they were going to die. They would all come into class panicked it would be their last day on earth, and to be honest, and it wasn’t unrealistic to think that way.”
The nuclear fears of the ‘60s were joined by other horrifying events: the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War's Tet Offensive, and bloody riots at the Democratic National Convention all happened in 1968 alone. “By Dec. 31, I was literally too pessimistic to say ‘Happy New Year,’” author Susan Strasser wrote in Slate.
So, why does it feel like everything is so unequivocally awful right this very second? Well, there two big reasons: First, we’re basically hamsters in a wheel of news (and reactions to that news) that never stops spinning. Social media has intimately acquainted us with parts of the world that felt unfathomably distant centuries and even decades ago. And, look, being more aware of global issues and problems certainly has its benefits — that is, if the reaction is to reach out and help, not to freak the fuck out. But thanks to the instant “why this is so terrible” analysis that defines how we digest news now, everything feels like it’s in our backyard.
This kind of candid, open panic is something of a trend. "Currently, fear has become in some ways slightly fashionable, so maybe people are even exaggerating a little bit,” Stearns said. But behind the Twitter jokes are a lot of people who are truly terrified of — or at least anxious about — the world around them. Gun ownership is on the rise, emergency shelters and bunkers are popping up across the United States, and more than 3.7 million people in the US identify as survivalists. All of this stems largely from an eroding sense of American invincibility, thanks to 9/11, devastating natural disasters, and the 2008 economic collapse.
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So, ok. We’re more exposed to bad things. But the other important factor at work, Glassner said, is that we are literally being told to be scared. It’s being weaved into our discourse and DNA at a rate more rapid than any time in the past 10 years or so. Fear, as every presidential ad campaign from Lyndon B. Johnson to Donald Trump has shown us, sells. Take Johnson’s “Daisy” campaign ad in 1964, which showed a little girl picking flowers getting obliterated by a nuclear bomb as a way of telling the electorate not to vote for Barry Goldwater. Not only did it get more people to the voting booth, but it also got LBJ elected. And so politicians started using this tactic more and more.
Glassner conducted research into campaign ads and platforms from the ‘80s through the 2016 election, and found that fearmongering was ever-present, and that it won campaigns more often than not. Ronald Reagan warned of the problems of “big government” and said he’d make America great again. Just last year, we were told, in vivid detail, of all the bad hombres, immigrants, and others who wanted to do our country harm.
The things people are afraid of have shifted over time, but there’s always something.
That’s not to say that only Republican politicians practice fearmongering, Glassner clarified. He said that Bill Clinton was one of the most fearmongering presidents we’ve had in decades. “He cited youth crime rates as one of the biggest problems our country was facing, even though we were at a time when the youth crime rate was going down,” Glassner said. “He said, ‘The country is going to be living with chaos.’” And Trump wasn’t the only 2016 candidate who sold fear, either — part of Hillary Clinton’s platform rested on telling voters to be scared of Trump.
The only president who did relatively little fearmongering in the past 30 years, Glassner said, was Barack Obama. But just because Obama wasn't actively stoking personal fears doesn't mean people weren’t scared, or that other public figures weren’t filling the fearmongering void. After all, how did Obama critics react to his relatively optimistic campaign? By purchasing copious amounts of guns.
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There is a lot of danger out there — Glassner said that auto accidents are what actually scare him — but, he continued, “If you want to do something constructive, being afraid is a big waste of your time and it makes you vulnerable to people and organizations with quick fixes and radical politics.”
Since the ‘80s, Glassner said, “there have been very high fear levels in the US continuously.” The things people are afraid of have shifted over that time — from the Cold War to computers to youth violence to teen pregnancy to school shootings to terrorism — but there’s always something.
Meanwhile, as the years wore on, our collective faith in the government or any of the powers that be to save us if things are going to shit has practically vanished. “There’s been a measurable decline of trust in the government, social institutions, and groups since the ‘60s,” Stearns said. “Back when the US entered World War II after Pearl Harbor, there were fears about safety, but there was a widespread belief that government was up to the task of responding.” These days? Not so much, a result of trust-shattering events like the Vietnam War and Watergate.
A housewife model smiles while posing with a display of bomb shelter supplies during the Cold War.
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That lack of faith is why we find ourselves wanting to take matters into our own hands. It’s why we’re building shelters, why we bought guns and duct tape after 9/11. “Not long after the Twin Towers fell, pop-ups around the city started selling gas masks, in addition to ladders, parachutes to people who thought they’d need a quick way to escape a burning skyscraper,” Irwin Redlener, a disaster-preparedness expert, told me. Thankfully, almost no one who bought those has needed to use them.
It’s also why every time we hear something horrible on the news, we hunker down and prepare for the worst. And it’s why, when election days comes, many people vote for reactionary politicians who play off those fears. They tell us to be scared, and when disaster strikes, the cycle continues.