Flat White

In search of monsters

3 March 2022

12:00 PM

3 March 2022

12:00 PM

In the final scene of Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up, DiCaprio’s Dr. Randall Mindy – an astronomer who had attempted for months to convince an incompetent blob of federal agencies that an enormous Mount Everest sized asteroid was headed for Earth – remarks solemnly and sincerely that, ‘We had everything, didn’t we?’ moments before humankind is blown into extinction.

In America, we’re at that moment today. The threat is real and existential.

We live in abundance, feasting on some of the most luxurious fruits any civilisation in history has ever known. And yet we’re not satisfied. Far from it. We’re irate at a false narrative about racism as the foundational American doctrine, old wives’ tales about micro-chipped vaccine implants, and the absurd notion that there’s a cabal of paedophiles within the Democratic Party that runs a child sex trafficking ring out of pizza parlors – among scores of other inane yet divisive cults of belief.

I think of the American poet Charles Bukowski, who famously once wrote ‘for want of something to do we keep slaying our small dragons as the big one waits’. I think of John Quincy Adams’ 1821 warning against setting out ‘in search of monsters to destroy’.

I look around, and I see a profound lack of gratitude. The proliferation of hubris as an ascendant, ubiquitous ideology is shared by vast swathes of the population that are convinced unabashedly of their own sanctimony – sure beyond the shadow of a doubt that they’re on the ‘right’ side of things, fighting the proverbial good fight.

I listen to progressives, ignorant of history, call for socialist revolution in the name of justice and equity. The 20th century is littered with the carcasses of communist dreams – rubbish that belongs in the dustbin of history and yet it is somehow being explained away and repurposed for our times. As if we can casually ignore that there was equality – starvation, torture, and abject poverty for all but a select few communist party bureaucrats. We gave socialism a fair shake and it didn’t work out. But as Orson Welles once mused, a happy ending ‘depends of course on where you stop the story’. So on we go, decking our jolly halls with the notion that we can churn fresh Baklava out of black bile.

On the right, I see the callous encroachment of religious doctrine and ineffable dogma as the prevailing rule du jour. I see a devolution into the totalitarian, ideological hegemony and mobbing they’re so quick to call out on the other side of the aisle.

In the wake of riots that tore through Los Angeles in 1992, Rodney King famously implored rioters – who had been moved to action on account of his savage beating – to lay down their arms, their ego, and their anger: ‘Can we all get along?’

Any sufficiently articulate answer to King’s question requires at least a volume or two from a sociologist, psychologist, or biologist. The short answer is that we’re tribal creatures. We weren’t designed to get along. It’s antithetical to our nature. The politics of conflict and cooperation have been at the heart of natural selection for most of our evolutionary history. Biology is not destiny, and nothing is written in the stars. But there never was, nor will there ever be, egalitarian utopias devoid of violence and suffering. Without suffering, there would be no life – not a life worth living, anyway.

Rocky said it best: ‘The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it.’

Hobbes was probably right, too: ‘Life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’

‘All life is full of pain and suffering,’ stipulates the First Noble Truth of Buddhism.

Pain is an unskirtable absolute. This should inspire us to no end. It should light a fire under our ass and encourage us to exhale, to smile, to tend our own garden instead of stomping around boisterously in our neighbour’s. The course of human history has seen this insight bubble up in flickers and flashes, bouts of lucid clarity, episodically. But it’s somehow always forgotten, washed away and submerged back into the soil, only to sprout up again any number of years later before being reburied. And so the process repeats.

It’s time we all make a valiant effort to face our own demons, tend to our own gardens, and most importantly, to express gratitude, marvel, and wonder at the abundance, the luxury, and the comfort with which we are blessed. There has never been a freer civilisation – one in which each and every person has the liberty to self-invent, to innovate, to move, to become, to love, and to live – than the one we inhabit today.

We could take this course and claw our way out of a muddy cesspool, or we could simply leave things as they are and await the day that historians begin writing about how we ripped each other apart. About how the slow and steady erosion of civility quickly devolved into the clubbing and gulaging of our enemies, real and imagined.

Present (‘we have everything’) will glide gradually into perfect (‘we had everything’), and the great Gibbons of the future will catalogue our descent. None of this, it seems, will have been apparent to us while it was happening. We were the arsonists and the firefighters. In the end, it was we who buried ourselves.

Scott Newman is an award-winning author and Associate Editor at Quillette. He graduated from Princeton University with a degree in history and currently resides in Sydney. 

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