The new epidemic: Death cults and the culture of despair
An article in The Atlantic speaks to the growing death-fetish that is gripping more and more youth. It is a bad omen for the state of modern industrial civilization as a whole, I would contend, and it indicates a broader trend toward anxiety, hopeless and despair, which must be confronted and overcome – if, that is, we are not going to collectively groan our way into self-annihilation.
There are sociological, political, economic, psychological and ecological reasons for the rapidly emerging death-cult that is now sweeping the world, and I think it is important that we address them head on.
Bieber with his swag, Miley with her tongue, Skrillex’s stupid haircut … There are tons of reasons to tune out modern pop music that don’t have a thing to do with the music itself.
But if you do listen—really pay attention—you might find something in today’s pop that’s a lot more bothersome. There’s an apocalyptic, we’re-all-gonna-die-anyway theme that keeps popping up—a YOLO-style message to do whatever you want right now because tomorrow you might be in a box.
Icona Pop’s song “I Love It” is an ode to crashing cars, throwing someone else’s stuff down the stairs and essentially doing whatever the hell they want, all the while proclaiming “I don’t care, I love it.” In “Die Young,” the always-prolific Ke$ha tells someone she just met to “make the most of the night like we’re gonna die young.”
I keep seeing this: there is a death-cult sweeping the Western world, and it is growing. This is not surprising, but it is disturbing.
When we are actively destroying our future, by poisoning the air, water, soil, the oceans, rivers, lakes and groundwater, and even the food we eat, when we are racing toward self-annihilation and collective suicide, it is not surprising that anxiety and despair grow and become the unspoken, and sometimes the openly expressed norm. And when a civilization is in decay, then death cults will invariably emerge. The problem is not pop culture, but mainstream culture more broadly, which is narcissistic, quietly despairing, escapist, voyeuristic, materialistic, deeply lost and deeply alienated.
What we need is not more reckless hedonism and despair, not more of a “fuck it all, because it’s all hopeless, so let’s go out with a big bang” attitude of collective suicidal tendencies, but instead, a reconnection with one another, with our deeper selves, with nature, with our hearts and our own common sense.
What we need is to reconnect, and rediscover our hope, our courage, our determination, our inspiration, and our empowerment as thinking, feeling human beings who consciously choose to live with love and courage, and not a quiet despair – much less a loud and moaning despair.
We need not go out with either a bang or a whimper. (Does anyone now even know where such lines of prescience come from, in this hyper-distracted age of obsession with mindless drivel?) We can live, and live well, and heal this world. But only if we have the courage and the heart to do so. Telling ourselves and one another that it’s all futile and we’re all doomed, is both cowardly and irresponsible. We need hope, courage and empowerment, not more whining and foolish self-destruction.
Find your courage, and get your warrior on. We need warriors now, not whiners.
There is a great fascination now, and there has been for some time, with disaster movies and TV shows like “Survivor” – and the reason is not hard to figure out, as others have noted. We all know by now, consciously or at least subconsciously, that we are racing toward disaster, environmentally speaking, if not also in other ways. The fascination with such pop culture fluff as portrayed in these genres is a way for us to unconsciously begin to prepare ourselves psychologically for possible disaster.
As an aside, it should be noted that TV shows like Survivor give terrible life lessons and darkly negative social conditioning, basically upholding the game theory of social relations, which is a disproven theory, as studies in evolutionary biology have shown – but nevertheless they continue with it, essentially telling people in every show that deceitful narcissism and ruthless self-centredness win out in the end over honesty, loyalty, compassion and cooperation. Such messages are deeply antisocial and darkly cynical, and the message they give is not only callous and cut-throat, alienating and dividing as well as morally bankrupting, but also leads people into ultimately self-defeating behaviours.
Selfishness and deceit do pay in the short term, but in the longer term, as the scientific studies confirm, the person who behaves this way ends up alienated and alone – and alone, we are far, far weaker than we are together, working jointly in solidarity and mutual aid. Empathy, compassion, solidarity, cooperation and mutual aid are basic human instincts, as evolutionary biology has now shown, and there is a reason for this: it simply works. Compassion and cooperation makes us all stronger, and are a matter of enlightened self-interest, and not simply a matter of being “nice.” It is a matter of being intelligent.
But to return to the central point, the rising death cult is a phenomenon that is arising out of a quiet desperation, as Thoreau observed over one hundred and fifty years ago. Not only has modern society produced deep alienation, loneliness and a pervasive sense of meaninglessness and malaise, in our mindless automaton culture (sic); but we are also witnessing our civilization self-destruct, and we are living in a state of on-going slow-motion disaster. In such a situation, the best and the worst of people comes out, and also, their addiction to escapism and flights into fantasy. But what scientific studies have also shown, once again confirming the obvious, is that in a crisis situation – and we are living in a perpetual state of protracted crisis now (despite the denial portrayed on the brilliant Supertramp album cover, “Crisis, What Crisis?”) – the people who cope the best are those who stay active, those who find something to do that may have even the slight possibility of being some help.
If a plane crashes on an island and a few people survive, the ones who go and gather food and water and firewood, or comfort the wounded and the mad, tend to cope far better than the ones who sit around moaning about their terrible lot. Action matters – and not just in terms of its results, but also in terms of the positive impact it has on our minds. It is far better to do something that just might be of some small help, even if it is a long-shot and all seems hopeless, than to give up, in conscious or unconscious despair.
I agree completely with what Thomas Merton said, “If you are afraid of writing something that might offend someone, why write anything at all.” Sometimes painful truths must be spoken.
For example, in the 1800’s, people had to say loudly and clearly that slavery is wrong and utterly intolerable, an abomination that cannot be accepted under any circumstances. In the 19th century, women and men had to say loudly and clearly, and boldly, that voting is a universal right. In the 20th century, Martin Luther King Jr. and the millions of people who participated in the Civil Rights movement had to loudly and clearly state that racism and segregation are obscene, supremely unethical, and utterly unacceptable. And today, we must say, that reckless hedonism and moping despair, are both unintelligent and also irresponsible, shameless and cowardly.
If you “emo” kids, goths, punks and others who parade your pain like it is a badge, and whine endlessly while doing little, are all so sensitive, then put your hearts into action, and do something that helps in some small way to bring about a better world – don’t just sit there moaning, waiting for someone to fix it for you.
You are young adults now, or soon to be – stop behaving like four year olds throwing a temper tantrum or a sulking fit. Keep your sensitivity, yes, but embrace your power as well. You are far more powerful than you imagine. Stop whimpering and do something.
The youth have traditionally, in every generation, been the questioners of the status quo and the norm, and the drivers of change. While this is still the case to some degree, many youth are now lost in a pool of their own spittle, blathering about how much they hate their lives, while watching the world burn. They should be out in the streets, not sitting idly in self-pity. Where is the fight in them? We certainly do not need any more violence in the world, but we do need action, and for that, there must be the heart of a warrior. Find your brave hearts, lads and lasses. This is your time to shine, not to whine.
Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, The World Wildlife Fund, Friends of the Earth, countless local environmental groups, the Occupy and Solidarity movements, Idle No More, the David Suzuki Foundation and the myriad groups working for social justice, peace and real social change, need your help. Pick one, and let’s see some action. Whining about how much you hate your life is not cool – it’s just whining.
It must also be acknowledged, that a lot of youth, and a lot of children and adults, are not only quietly or openly despairing, but are clinically depressed. Depression, anxiety and despair are all at epidemic proportions now, and rising fast – for obvious sociological reasons, and not, emphatically, for reasons of brain chemistry, generally speaking. And taking a pill will only be a band-aid, temporary measure, and not a real solution. But having lived through depression and survived it, and coming out the other side, I can say this with certainty: the best antidote for depression, is action. Do something that gives you joy, and even better, do something that is truly meaningful, and the depression will subside, if not completely disappear. Sitting around and contemplating how much your life sucks, won’t help you.
But to be sympathetic and also fully real, we must also say this. What do youth – or any of us, for that matter – have to be hopeful about today? The economic outlook is grim. More and more, we can expect, as George Carlin has said, “Increasingly shittier jobs with increasingly shittier pay, and vanishing pensions that disappear the moment you go to collect them.”
What do youth have to look forward to economically? Working as a Wal-Mart greeter for minimum wage, a wage that is below subsistence level, with no benefits and no future – and that is while being saddled with crippling student debt and laden with an education that may get them a job driving cab or flipping burgers, if they’re lucky.
The middle aged and elderly have few better options, and the middle class is sinking into the underclass and being systematically destroyed. Hopelessness and despair are very understandable, given the state of our global corporate-dominated, rape and pillage economy, which benefits the top 1% while screwing the other 99 out of a hundred of us.
Ecologically, youth and also all of us, are staring down the most severe crisis human beings have ever faced: an ecological crisis which is only gathering speed, and which threatens to wipe out our civilization, if not the entire human species on earth. And we are not doing remotely enough about it for anyone to be truly hopeful at this time. That could change in a heart-beat, if the people decide to act with boldness and stop hesitating, but for the moment, despair is an understandable response.
What about politics? The youth, as well as the overwhelming majority of the people, of all ages, have lost all faith, trust and confidence in the political system, as poll after poll reveals. The youth, and people in general, have come to view the major political parties, their governments, and the great majority of the politicians, as simply corrupt, or at best, inept. They see no hope in any serious positive change coming from this morass, this garbage heap which is contemporary political life. And they are right. The major political parties, along with most governments in the world, are bought and owned by big business and the corporate elite, just as the media is, and increasingly, the schools, colleges and universities as well. What is there to be hopeful about? Again, despair is an understandable response.
But while despair may be understandable, it is not conscionable, and nor is it intelligent. To surrender to despair is to actively sow one’s own misery, as well as sowing misery for others. This is not only unacceptable, it is also stupid, and deeply unwise.
We must be brave, if for no other reason, than because we care about others and about life on this earth. If we are heartless, then we can throw in the towel, give up, and go and moan in the corner. If we have a brave heart, which is to say, if compassion and caring mean more to us than our own petty self-interest or personal comfort, then we will not only carry on: we will give it all we’ve got, and never surrender.
And if we are not motivated by love, then we should at least be motivated to seek happiness for ourselves – and that requires boldness and determination, courage and heart, and a refusal to give in to the temptations of despair.
Life is for living. And life is precious. If we have forgotten that, then we really have temporarily lost our minds, and we should sit down with a cup of tea or a quiet moment, and remember that we are alive, or watch the stars at night, or the sunset or sunrise, or the wind swaying through the trees, and remember that there is beauty and preciousness to this life. At the very least, we should not let our own personal despair turn us into assholes who care about nothing and no one. That would be about the worst thing we could possibly do.
Real change will come from the streets – as it always has – not from some elected demagogue in Washington who makes pretty speeches, then betrays every principle and every promise made, while selling out the people to the corporate elite who now rule the world. If we want change, real change, then we will have to make it for ourselves.
The people always have the power. If they choose to lie to themselves, and to pretend they are powerless, then that is their great misfortune, and their great error. If they choose to embrace their power, then anything and everything is possible.
Stay strong. As a great line from a favourite movie put it, “Get busy living, or get busy dying.”
Don’t be wishy-washy, whiny or vapid. If you’re going to live, then really live. Give all you can, love to the fullest extent of your power, and respect yourself, always.
The power to shape our own future is still in our hands. If we want to make of this world, a better place for all, then that is in our power. We will have to come together and unite in order to accomplish this admittedly large and challenging task, but it is entirely within our power, and within our reach.
Despair is for cowards. Have some self-respect. We cannot afford to be cowardly if our hearts are still alive. We may have moments of despair, but we can never completely surrender to despair. Life is simply far too precious for such ordinary madness.
Live while you live.
As Yogi Beara said – and he was right – “It ain’t over ’till it’s over.”
J. Todd Ring,
November 1, 2013
Here’s a little music for the revolution. Enjoy, and let’s see action.
A Little Less Conversation
Let’s See Action
Let’s Get It Started
This entry was posted on November 1, 2013 at 8:20 pm and is filed under Uncategorized with tags activism, anthropology, death, death cult, death fetish, despair, ecology, economics, emo, environment, epidemic, goth, hope, inspiration, music, philosophy, politics, pop culture, psychology, social change, sociology, warrior, youth. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.