When I was a kid, my buddies and I loved Mad Max. We quoted the lines, we made fun of Tina Turner in Beyond Thunderdome, etc. But lurking behind the simple love of weird and memorable movies is a truth I’ve only recently put together.
Mad Max isn’t real, and will never be real. Civilization isn’t going away. We and our children will never have to wander a bleak and blasted earth. Boy scout skills are obsolete. Eat the beans you’ve stored in the basement.
Are you yawning or recoiling? I can understand…
both reactions. My previous paragraph shouldn’t be news. It seems like I’m just saying that the sun will rise tomorrow. Duh.
But I think the truth is that Americans actually fetish-ize apocalypse, think about it often, think and discuss preparing for it, fantasize about what we would do in a lawless hellscape. And there are many reasons why this is so, but most of those reasons are toxic, which is why I want us all to get beyond Thunderdome (ouch!).
First is the cold war. I grew up with Mutually Assured Destruction, the cold fact that the nukes could come raining down any day. Thank god we’re past that, and we ARE past that. Nobody seriously believes the world’s gonna be destroyed by nuclear fire in the 21st century. But many, many people believed it about the 20th century, and it scarred us. If you look back at the giant monster movies of the 50s and 60s (which I often have), the fatalism and dread is patently obvious. We as a culture don’t get over that stuff quickly.
Christianity (and Judaism before it) is an apocalyptic religion. Even if you don’t count all the little end-of-the-world cults that hold the Bible holy, there’s always been an end-of-days element to these religions. The advent of radio- and televangelism pushed this aspect of Christianity to the fore, ’cause charlatans could make a lot of money with the 3-rule system.
What’s the "3-rule system"? Simple. Get a media megaphone, and tell your listeners three things. 1) The world’s going to hell. 2) There’s nothing you personally can do about it. 3) Give all your money to us because we’re a big organization that can do something for you. It’s a great system, especially if you love preying upon the weakest and most gullible of your fellow humans. I guarantee that it will make you rich unless you’re lazy or ethical.
The Wild West is still fetish-ized by Americans, too. And Mad Max is nothing but a Western dressed up in different clothing. Now, lots of other cultures either embrace the American wild west fantasy or have their own (like Japan’s shogun era), but whether a culture lives by the gun or sword, it’s still sick and miserable. People like to scoff at the notion of the Rule of Law until they want to sue their neighbor over the placement of a fencepost. Then they hire a lawyer, and thank God. Whoever loses in court, neither family loses a loved one.
And movies about the apocalypse are still well made and popular. The Road, the Book of Eli, 2012, and more every year constantly remind us of how cool it’s gonna be when everyone’s dead. Unless you’re one of the dead. Or one of the living. Truth is, these movies aren’t even honest enough to be about simple survival. They’re all revenge fantasies, that sick and twisted dream of every middle-management Walter Mitty out there. Civilization isn’t going away, Walter. You’re going to have to find a REAL way to deal with your oppressive boss and soulless job. Suck it up, be a man, and be strong enough to live in the real (civilized) world.
Now, will there be places on Earth that are devastated and lawless, now and in the future. Of course. I’m not telling you that everything’s peachy for everyone. And as I write this a natural disaster has battered Haiti back to the stone age. But that’s different. That’s not the hopeless end of humanity, the Dying of the Light, that so many speak and think is coming.
At best, dreaming of apocalypse is a big waste of time. But I think it’s worse. We are all living in the future right now, and the future has never been so bright, nor has it ever changed so fast. To keep up, to stay sane, we have to embrace the future. To hold it at arm’s length, to assume that (sooner or later) we’re all going to need our boy scout skills to survive, is hurtful to us, individually and as a culture.