July 2016: It’s Not the Apocalypse, but It’s Close Enough
It’s not the steamy weather that alarms me, although I’m increasingly inclined to wait until sunset for my daily walks. It’s not even the rapidly melting glaciers, the plight of African elephants or the prospect of a costly sewer line repair outside our house, although all those things are alarming, too.
No, what really alarms me this summer is that our world is starting to resemble one of those dystopian tales on the order of 1984, Fahrenheit 451 or Soylent Green. Nearly every day now, the news drops some fresh horror onto our battered heads — and we’re not even engaged in a major war. We’re simply looking at everyday life during the past month of a bad year in a mostly-disastrous century.
- As a relatively mild preface to this month’s horror show, the United Kingdom voted (narrowly) to exit the European Union. The “Brexit” caused panic and discord in Europe, a temporary stock market swoon, and disgruntled rumblings among the liberal-leaning elite that such vital matters shouldn’t be entrusted to ignorant voters. (In other words, democracy has its limits!)
- On Bastille Day, a radicalized Tunisian-born French Muslim drove a truck more than a mile through a crowd that had gathered to enjoy the fireworks along a waterfront promenade in Nice. The 31-year-old terrorist managed to obliterate 84 innocent humans (including at least ten children) and injure scores more before he was mercifully euthanized by the police.
- A 17-year-old Afghan refugee armed with an axe and a knife terrorized a train near Wurzburg, Germany, slashing at least five passengers before police took him down. The teen had pledged to kill infidels and was heard to exclaim “Allahu Akbar!” before entering that peculiar paradise reserved for dead Islamic terrorists.
- In Turkey, an attempted military coup ended in disaster as President-and-Aspiring-Dictator Recep Tayyip Erdogan quashed the revolt with a little help from his police. Nearly 300 died during the upheaval, and angry mobs demanded the death penalty for some six thousand rebels. A vast purge is now underway: Erdogan has fired 45,000 military and public officials along with 15,000 educators (including all university deans). Their professional futures don’t look especially bright at the moment. Meanwhile, Erdogan blamed a 77-year-old Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania’s Poconos for instigating the coup and demanded his extradition. (As Dave Barry used to write, I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.)
- The much-anticipated Rio Summer Olympics could sputter out in a miasma of polluted water, Zika infections, rampant crime, decimated attendance, political instability and the possible expulsion of the entire Russian team due to performance-enhancing drugs. What if they threw an Olympics and nobody came?
- Puffy North Korean chieftain Kim Jung Un launched three ballistic missiles into the sea as a test designed to simulate a pre-emptive nuclear attack on South Korean ports and airfields. As South Korea’s primary ally, the U.S. is committed to respond if the North ever attacks the South. Calling Dr. Strangelove.
Of course, the United States hasn’t been immune to the July madness. Two more black men — Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota — were executed by police during what should have been routine stops. It’s almost always the same story: nervous confrontations, misunderstandings, threats, hair-trigger reactions, sudden death, grief and anger. Those two men should still be alive, but there’s no going back.
Because the victims were black men shot by police, their tragedies made national headlines. (We almost never hear about the white men fatally shot by police, even though — surprise! — they outnumber black victims by a ratio of roughly two-to-one. Are white shooting victims less newsworthy? Would they muddy the narrative? Maybe they’d help focus the narrative more on overuse of lethal force and less on race.)
The Black Lives Matter people staged reasonably peaceful protests in response to the two executions, and they were entitled to do so. Even though their fears and resentments are based on a distorted narrative fed to them by the media, those fears and resentments are genuinely felt. They wonder why their people seem to be disproportionately targeted by the authorities, and naturally they worry that any encounter with the local police could quickly turn fatal.
Then the unthinkable happened: five cops assassinated by a militant black sniper in Dallas, and another three methodically gunned down in Baton Rouge, scene of Alton Sterling’s death. The latter assassin, also a black militant, traveled nearly 800 miles from Kansas City to carry out his revenge.
The two black assassins saw their victims as symbols rather than individuals with distinct personalities, families, hobbies and personal histories. The cops became interchangeable representatives of a hated group. The Baton Rouge shooter might have been unaware that one of the assassinated officers, Montrell Jackson, was a black man beloved for his kindness and decency and, ultimately, for a heartbreakingly sympathetic Facebook message that stands as a testament to his character. In the end, all that mattered to his murderer was that he wore blue.
That’s what terrorists do: they reduce three-dimensional humans to flat cartoon figures who conveniently represent The Enemy. Shorn of individual traits, virtues and quirks, they’re easier to view as targets.
Extremist ideologues do the same thing, without going as far as to commit literal murder. Their ideological opponents become caricatures, drawn broadly and grotesquely for the purpose of ridicule and political annihilation. Reduced to easy targets, they never gain consideration as individual human beings. They’re identical ducks in a shooting gallery. Progressives see conservatives as dangerously ignorant xenophobic yahoos with a gun fetish; conservatives view liberals as effete anti-Christian snobs who shield Islamists and advocate all manner of gender-bending depravity. As for whites and blacks, those labels alone imply that they’re opposites predestined to eternal conflict.
The United States is increasingly vulnerable to random acts of terrorism. Just as disturbingly, our republic has become fertile ground for the kind of intellectual terrorism that reduces fellow citizens to two-dimensional targets. On the left, “white male” is now a virtual epithet accompanied by vocabulary garnered from collegiate Grievance Studies seminars: patriarchy, hegemony, structural racism and the like. On the right, all forms of “otherness” are generally suspect.
Am I caricaturing the caricaturists? Perhaps. But I need to point out that such divisive attitudes are dangerous. They might not propel us toward a literal civil war (although I wouldn’t rule it out), but they’ve already launched a rhetorical one.
Extremist rhetoric is magnetic: it tends to pull unaffiliated souls toward the poles and away from the center. The ranks of moderates are dwindling while the extremists are gaining ground at our expense. The result: more anger, less tolerance, and the kind of July madness that we’ve been witnessing.
Our overheated July is coming to a head with the two national conventions. As I write this, the Republicans are going at it in Cleveland. No orgies of madness to report so far, other than the ominous cries of “Lock her up!” whenever a speaker utters Hillary Clinton’s name. The gun rhetoric has been less militant than I expected, even from the Duck Dynasty scion who spoke the first night and the NRA spokesman who followed him. Melania Trump’s surprisingly effective speech was immediately undermined by revelations of plagiarism — most likely not her fault, although extracting a confession from the Trump organization was like pulling half a dozen teeth. I’ve smiled quizzically at the D-list show biz celebrities called upon to address the assembled crowd. (Yes, it must be tough to come out as Republican in Hollywood.) I wondered why that crowd was booing the speech by Senator Ted Cruz, until I realized that he had no intention of endorsing Trump for the presidency. Trump’s grown children seem like models of filial loyalty, clean-cut attractiveness and good citizenship — hardly the spawn of Satan. (The man himself speaks tonight.)
On the whole, the Republican convention hasn’t looked much like the apocalypse. I suspect that the upcoming Democratic convention here in Philadelphia will follow suit. But the ground continues to rumble and simmer beneath the surface — here in the U.S. and around the world. The pressure builds, and the summer is only half over.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.