The end of the semester has sure been hard on my blog. Oh well. Onward and upward.
One of the pleasures of moving is experiencing a new culture with child-like curiosity. There’s real joy in being an innocent, unencumbered by the cynicism that comes with familiarity. I’m sure that certain things about the Athens, GA area will eventually wear down my resistance to bitterness, but I’ll fight that dread fate until the end.
What helps in my efforts for now is the fact that I possess two small children, 8 and 4, and their wonder naturally becomes mine. From my youngest’s fascination with Southern accents (“Mommy, I speak English, but I don’t speak y’all”) to my eldest’s wholesale adoption of cowboy boots as essential fashion, I am constantly reckoning with this new culture and landscape, and this has been blissful.
It’s become obvious (to me at least) that any proper exploration of Athens for my kids must include an introduction to the Great American Band, R.E.M. The band and this community are practically synonymous and their music is therefore essential to understanding the local culture. To this end, I’ve loaded my Android up with all my old albums and have been playing them for the girls, who have been loving it (and what’s not to love?). The seminal song, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” is high up on the family playlist, much to my delight. Take a moment to refresh your Gen X memories:
The song is catchy and enigmatic and weird and wonderful. One of the great pastimes of my generation was reciting the lyrics – making sense of the rapid-fire rhymes and idiosyncratic references was, if successfully pulled off, a trip to the Bank of Cultural Capital. If you were privy to the song’s secrets, you had what the kids today like to call “street cred.” In short, it captures that most imperceptible element, the “coolness” that Athens contains within its city limits.
Hearing it again, freshly, through my daughters’ four ears, has been been an intellectually stimulating experience as well. It’s lyrical rejection of paranoia as a motivating political tactic was powerful enough in the throes of the Cold War. (This is a theme throughout the entire Document album – see “Exhuming McCarthy). Today it is an essential defense against our public discourse.
In our time, and to a degree that Michael Stipe and company could never have imagined, paranoia and fear are co-conspiring kings.
Perhaps it is because of 9/11.
Perhaps it is because conspiracy has become big business.
The fact is, now more than ever, the most important decisions we make as a society are driven by fear and that is truly frightening. (Yes, the irony of that sentence is purposeful). The profits of cable news depend on the motivation fear provides, and the networks therefore have no qualms about packaging and selling conspiracy. It is a money machine.
This is, quite simply, a cultural disaster.
Caution and suspicion are not inherently bad things. In fact, when kept in check, they provide a vital conscience for both the individual and society. Fear is an instinct that has helped humankind survive from The Great Flood through Y2K, but its proper place is at the margins of life, not the center.
When thrust into the role of a life’s organizing principle, fear is crippling and destructive, forcing the individual to hide away from the world and forgo much of the experience that makes life worth living in the first place.
When extrapolated out to the societal scale, centralized fear breaks all the bonds that unite diverse people. All challenges then become more than obstacles to be faced and solved, they become the fault of “someone else.” Conspiracy theories are constructed, packaged, sold, and applied to every difficulty the nation experiences. These theories strive to make sense of chaos where sense does not exist. They are bought and sold in an economy that depends on victimization as its primary export. I believe that our hero Westley, from The Princess Bride said it best:
Indeed we are being sold fear, and consumer demand is high. This is a crisis we all now face. Together.
For all the good and great things the Enlightenment has brought us, this fascination with the individual has gone too far. We are more than individual consumers whose fates are our own concerns. George Costanza said it best, I think, when he said, “you know, we are living in a society!” Instead, we have drifted off, too far, into our own imaginary islands and left the very real mainland to rot. And it’s more than that we’ve simply drifted. We’ve fled one another’s great company.
R.E.M.’s song offers the wisest advice I can think of to confront this crisis. “Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives, and I decline. It’s the end of the world as we know it. And I feel fine.” In other words, don’t worry so freakin’ much.
The video that accompanies the song captures its essence as well as any could. The boy rummaging around the deserted shack in the wilderness, the end of civilization as it were, neither weeps nor gnashes his teeth. His forebears have left him ruins and rummages through them them with curiosity and humor. Then he skates among them.
We find ourselves in the same position as that boy. Our fathers and mothers have left us messes to clean up, as theirs did for them. There are problems to be solved and there alternatives to be chosen, but there is some joy to be found in the process. And isn’t it better to go through it with other people?
My family has staked out Athens as the place where we’ll make our stand. It is different from what we’ve known. We came here alone. Scary, but hey, we have R.E.M. to guide us. Coming up on our first year here, we can see a lot of progress in making this strange place our home. But, our strategy has not been installing security systems and building safeguards. It has been risk. It has been getting to know people. A place is not just its landscape and buildings, it is its people. Bad things will invariably happen to us as they do to everyone, but we will not be alone as we face them, blaming the hands of unseen and non-existent conspirators. Life is with people.
The past year has, in fact, been the end of the world as we knew it.
But we feel fine.