The World On Pause

Everywhere around us, it felt as if the universe were holding its breath.
―J. Michael Straczynski

It’s hard to resist the value of a good symbolic pun, and once the dust settled around the ruins of the World Trade Center I found it impossible to resist a small flash of admiration for the marketing genius displayed by Osama bin Laden & Co. Successful terrorism is predicated on memetic value, and you can’t buy better memetics than precipitating a national emergency on 911, given that it’s also the number that Americans dial when they need emergency services.

A subsection of science fiction fans, naturally, saw things a little differently, as science fiction fans are wont to do. As the propaganda and military focus of the American and European establishments came to settle on Afghanistan and Iraq, it seemed strangely appropriate. Frank Herbert’s novel Dune (now soon to be a major motion picture, again), which tells a tale about a geopolitical (astropolitical?) disruption precipitated by state-sponsored subterfuge and “grass roots” terrorism, itself incited by a party to the general power struggle, begins in the year 10191—an anagram of 9-11-01.

I’m not aware of any reason to think that Mohammed Atta had Dune in mind when he picked the date, but it goes to show that good memetics can work even on unintended levels.

Since that first year of the century (or second, depending on your attitude about the Year Zero controversy), the 21st century has been an age of memetics. The impact of the new printing press hit the American (and global) body politic with all the subtlety of an airplane ramming into a building.

Yes, I’m saying that the most historically important effect of the attacks of that day—where I lost two acquaintances in the explosions, and which resulted in twenty years of war killing hundreds of thousands of people—was not the destruction, the blood, the loss of life, the heroism on flight 93, or even the unhinged, inchoate, and impotent rage of the most powerful nation in the history of the world. The most important effect of 9/11 was that it completed (fulfilled?) a long-growing trend whereby memes and symbols became more important than reality.

Ten years prior to 2001, there were basically four news sources informing the general populace (ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN) and three informing the upper crust (The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post), along with a fairly vibrant market in local newspapers and radio.

It’s easy to have a culture and a consensus when everyone is using the same pieces to build their picture of the world. This was the world of Moynihan’s Warrant:

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts.”

We all had access to the same set of facts, and we ordered them according to values, and we sorted ourselves into more-or-less coherent tribes (including a tribe of outsiders united primarily by virtue of being outsiders). The moral thrust of Moynihan’s Warrant, too, made perfect sense:

“Don’t go making stuff up in order to justify your opinions.”

The world is real, the world is known, and so-called “alternative facts” need not apply. They’re most often 90% spin wrapped around a tiny kernel of truth, anyway. At best.

That was then.Fast-forward to 2005, the newspapers were dying (killed by the Internet), and the big news bureaus were well on their way to becoming propaganda outlets and yellow journalism. Suffering from a slowly declining viewership, declining ad revenues (web ads were cheaper and you could actually measure their effect), their influence declined as well, supplanted by a new ecosystem of blogs filled with far more thoughtful fare than was commonly available to the hoi polloi.

Some of us think back on this era as a golden age, others as the time when everything started coming apart, and there’s some truth in both perspectives. Where a robust grass-roots ecosystem (like the blogosphere) arises, venture capital soon follows. VC-backed news outlets started hitting the internet around this time, and from there, the slide to clickbait-driven generally-devoid-of-thought “think pieces” to unmitigated rage-bait propaganda proved broad well-lubricated enough for the industry to respectably slip; a slide accelerated as the social media ecosystem started coalescing around the dominant players.

The ultimate effect? The triumph of the meme, and the end (perhaps a permanent end) to a world in which Moynihan’s Warrant makes sense. You can’t complain about people having different facts when nobody has access to the same set of facts.

This has some interesting effects on the general ecology of culture (and politics):

  1. It makes fertile ground for con artists, scammers, and cult leaders of all kinds.

  2. It makes it easier for political and cultural dissenters to seize the spotlight.

  3. It reveals the “mainstream” as a bubble created by a monolithic media culture, rather than an accurate view of the world.

  4. It stokes the embers of political and economic populism.

  5. It shatters the basis for the modern world.

When the first plane crashed into those towers, as far as those watching were concerned, it was an accident. When the second plane crashed, it was no accident. It was a message to which the deaths of over three thousand people were incidental:

You may be the biggest power in the world, but you’re powerless against us.

That message came through loud and clear. The post-Cold War world that had so recently emerged in all its messy, chaotic, prosperous, fragmentary glory with the promise of a grand unipolar future in which everyone could trade with whoever they wanted, go wherever they wanted, invent whatever they wanted, and be whoever they wanted...died. Hard. As did the American moral authority it was based on.

During the Cold War, the great seat of America’s international moral authority was very simple:

“If I’m an ally, and I’m in trouble, the Americans will come and save me.”

America spent considerable time and treasure (and public faith) proving that promise good—in Korea, in Vietnam, all over South America, and in places (and for causes) many Americans didn’t approve of and that most of us have still never heard of.

For ten years after the Soviets blinked, American moral authority went unquestioned. The Americans guaranteed global oil supplies in the first Gulf War, they stepped up to stop a genocide in Serbia (once the situation became geopolitically dangerous), and they kept the trade lanes open.

Would the world dance to America’s tune now that Al Queada had poked the sleepy giant?

When the answer came back as a resounding, “Well, kinda, I guess,” the whole post-Cold War order trundled elegantly, quietly, and decidedly off the tracks and into a brick wall.

America fought in the mountains.

It fought in the desert.

It brought the entire world’s financial system under its direct control.

It took a Howitzer to the civil liberties it had spent decades publicly championing.

It abandoned fiscal discipline and exported trillions of dollars, unbalancing a previously balanced budget, abandoning any hope of paying down the debt.

It created more of the problems it was trying to solve.

And the world held its breath.

For seven years.

During that time, something else happened that was just as historically significant:

During that time, something else happened that was just as historically significant:

The biggest generation in history hit their peak investment years across the globe, and the tax receipts rolled in. The biggest capital glut since the invention of money hit the market, driving interest rates to near-zero and creating a growing demand for ANY investment opportunity, even ones that a saner market might look on as psychotically risky.

Governments loosened their capital controls to accommodate the market, they increased their spending, balance sheets went wild...

Until it became clear that the collateral that so much of that credit was based on was, literally, worthless.

When Lehman Brothers collapsed on September 15, 2008, the world financial system followed. Afraid of another Great Depression, the American government scrambled to cover the debts that the markets wouldn’t, bailing out the balance sheets of the banks directly while leaving the hoi polloi to deal with the fallout on their own. The managers and regulators were betting that if you saved the system’s solvency, you’d save its faith, and everything would recover and return to normal.

But in an era of Memetic Supremacy, it didn’t turn out that way. Younger generations saw their futures being looted, the world for which they’d diligently trained being yanked out from under them, the debt they’d been encouraged to take on in exchange for higher earnings and access to power being turned into a prison from which they’d never escape.

Things were worse in Europe. America had the option of growing its way out of the financial dip, which it did (if inelegantly and unevenly). It has the global reserve currency, a favorable trade footing, and a still-growing population. Europe, with its single currency across so many nation states, economic regions, language groups, and cultures, with an already-peaking demography and a negative birth rate, sealed their fate by raiding insured bank deposits in order to bail out the banks. They weren’t just mortgaging their children’s future, they were stealing directly from the citizens of Cyprus. Trust in the Euro died that day, leaving Europe with no choice but to cast about desperately for ways to grow its population on an emergency basis.

The fallout, you know. The Greek crisis, the refugee crisis, New Year’s Eve in Dresden, the suppression of dissent on the continent, the Yellow Vest protests, Brexit, and on, and on, and on.

In America, left-wing populism was easily derailed by the aggressive infusion of identity politics into strategy sessions at Occupy Wall Street—the effect was to turn a big tent movement against corruption into the Judean People’s Front in a matter of a few days, a transition from which the American populist left never recovered (heroic attempts to the contrary notwithstanding). Right-wing populism, on the other hand...well, there was a bright orange ball lurking in the future that, while neither right nor left in any traditional sense, was as populist as he was inchoate.

By the end of Obama’s first term, the Humpty Dumpty of the American-led World Order had well and truly fallen off the wall, and nobody could put him back together again.

The world was on pause, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

And then, on June 23, 2016, it did.

But we’ll have to get to that later. First, we need to look at a couple more threads in the tapestry if we’re to make sense of the whole thing.

In the meantime, I invite you to post any corrections or arguments in the comments, or send them directly to me at feedback@jdsawyer.net.