Thursday, November 22, 2012

Things Fall Apart

It didn't have to end this way. And, actually, it didn't end this way.

The nightmare of my childhood and young adult years was the all-out nuclear war. The end-of the world scenario younger viewers will recognize from the end of Terminator 3. I remember it most vividly from The Day After and Threads, American and British what-if-there-were-a-nuclear-war movies.

The horror of that vision is so absolute: nothing but irradiated dirt, burnt corpses, smoldering ruins... and the presence of that nightmare lurked in the background for half a century. It still lurks today, even further in the background, though Russia and the US seem like unlikely all-out enemies today.

But in the wake of that vision of the End of Everything, there was the question, what comes afterward? What about the survivors? And the answers we were given were just as awful: a breakdown of order, summary execution of looters (that was a scene in Threads that stopped me cold and still runs through my head sometimes), shorter brutish lifespans, nuclear winter, ruined crops, starvation...

And Mad Max. Or young Don Johnson in that most peculiar film A Boy and His Dog. The world turned desert, every man for himself. Kind of like Conan the Barbarian's world, only in the imagined future, not the imagined past.

This is a world where everyone is an orphan or a widow/er, where no-one whom we survivors meet (because you and I will be part of the lucky 5%, right?) is a friend or family. So even more than Conan's world, it's the world of B-grade westerns, full of suspicious gun-toting strangers.

Here's the thing: most of the real horrors of the world don't happen with breakdown of a larger society. They happen when that larger society is kidnapped by psychopaths with a Theory: Aryan superiority, collectivization, the legitimacy of Protocols of Zion, the Tutsi Menace... When that Theory is enacted, hundreds of thousands can be efficiently murdered. When the mass societies—which may do these terrible things but mostly just serve to organize people into ever-more-efficient machines for making things—break down, they tend, sooner or later, to re-form as small societies. These small societies may wage in regular low-level warfare on each other, but my point is things do NOT completely fall apart for very long.

European explorers and long-distance traders in the Americas of the 16th to 18th centuries came across well-organized groups of Indians. They appeared, in fact, to be a permanent part of the primeval wilderness. What they did not realize was that the primeval wilderness had been a lot less wild only a few generations earlier, before waves of disease destroyed a huge proportion of the population (50%? 70%? more?). By the time those Europeans penetrated the interior of the country, whole nations had vanished, and what the Europeans encountered were the survivors. What they took as natural poverty was the poverty of the children of refugees from a holocaust.

But they didn't see savage anarchy. They thought they saw savages, but savages with intricate kinship structures, a religious life, stories and arts and costumes and dances and villages and all those things that early anthropologists loved to collect and write down. And these survivors had organized political alliances in the fast-changing landscape, entire new tribes sometimes formed out of the decimated remnants of old tribes.

The end is not the end. The collapse of a state, or a church, or an economy, or of any institution, doesn't mean zombies shambling in the streets. Or rather, it only means shambling zombies for people so devoid of social imagination that life is literally meaningless without the collapsed entity. And sadly, if that's the case... those are the people who ought to be sympathetically treated as zombies. Not the poor survivors out looking to re-form some kind of society and feed themselves and their family and friends as best they can.

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