I can’t decide if the threat of nuclear war with North Korea is real. That’s the problem with the Information Age. I know the details–nuclear tests and Frankenstein missiles and bond villain wannabes–but I have to draw my own conclusions.
It used to be, “Hey, the Soviets are putting missiles in Cuba,” or “Hey, the Soviets have tested the H-bomb, so hide under your desk and dig a hole in the yard (because the obvious counter to nuclear war is lying in a lead-lined pit),” and you could trust them because they had keyhole satellites and U-2 spy planes and we didn’t know shit from Shinola, as Frau says. They said the Soviets ate the bones of American children and they had the means and desire to destroy us, and it was mortal terror, but one you could hang your hat on. It’s comforting in a way to know who wants to murder you, to know where they are and what they can do. And sure it wasn’t true, or not completely, but it all seemed so reasonable. There were people out there who wanted us dead, but we could cope and carry on.
Now, instead of having no information, I have more than I could digest if it was my full-time job, and where once there was just the Soviets, I’m pulled in a hundred directions of existential dread:
The population bomb is ticking.
The hole in the ozone will fry us.
And the North Koreans will nuke us.
Donald Trump will provoke World War III.
Immigrants and automation will steal our jobs.
And Vladimir Putin will destroy western democracy.
Muslims will come to eat our children (which isn’t halal).
Global warming will kill our crops and generate super storms.
Peak oil will arrive and we’ll run out of energy to power our world.
Antibiotic effectiveness will end and we’ll die in droves of simple diseases.
Iran will get the bomb.
Liechtenstein will get the bomb.
My parents-in-law will get the bomb.
And I have to somehow parse the Encyclopedia Britannica-sized wealth of information and cut through the lies of every “news” source with a polished website and an angle to push, and some of it’s true and some of it’s not, so I end up sitting here without a clear idea of what’s happening in the world.
It’s a world of contradictions and that was true in the Cold War, too, like when we said the Soviets wanted to destroy us because we stood for freedom and then we shot protesters, but we put a pretty face on it, made it all sound so reasonable, offering us the pretty lie that we were a force for good, the force for good. This was our picture of ourselves, and even if it was like looking at a fun house mirror, like lapsed Catholics it was something to aspire to, and the bad things, the racism, sexism, homophobia, these were either bitched about by small but vocal groups of ungrateful agitators who didn’t see that America was a bulwark against communism, or they were unfortunate instances that didn’t represent “true” America. We were equal and fair and working together for the greater good. The Cold War gave us this lie we could believe in.
Now we can still hear the lie, but it is mixed with the truth, and there isn’t just one. It’s a dozen, a hundred. If you want a reason for millennial apathy, here it is. It’s exhausting to field threats from a dozen angles. For our parents’ generation, they just had the one: global hellfire from nuclear war. But they learned to cope. They hid under their desks and they voted for Law and Order and they fought pointless wars to bleed away the nervous energy of existential dread. It let them feel active, like they weren’t just rolling over.
But for us, we aren’t given one enemy. We’re given dozens. And it’s like getting bills in the mail. Just the one is easy enough to pay. You write a check or make a bank transfer and you push it from your mind until next time. But ten? Twenty? It’s easier to hide under the bed and pretend I’m not home when the bill collectors come.
They flatter me with their attention, sure, but my dance card is full.