Going Back to “Normal” In a Broken Society Was Never Going to Be Good Enough
by umair haque
The picture above (missing for this post).
Kids are pretending to die in an “active shooter drill,” as men with guns pretend to kill them. I bring it up because America’s had another shooting. That’s two in two weeks. That’s six so far this year. Things are going back to normal, my friends tell me. I don’t want to say what I think back to them: normal in America was already dystopian. And now, perhaps, you see the flaw in the logic of “things can just go back to normal.”
America is a deeply unwell society. What was “normal” — before the overt fascism of the Trump years? School shootings and mass murders. Kids having to pretend to die as masked men burst in and shot them with blanks — “active shooter drills.” Can you imagine what it does to a kid to have to pretend to be shot? To die? Then there was the “student debt,” the “medical bankruptcy,” people begging strangers online for money to pay for bills. All that was normal.
But a society like that is not normal. It’s just that all that has been normalised in America. What is all “that,” though? I want to explain it in a different way to you.
When my European friends visit America, or live there, or when I return to America, having lived so long in Europe, what strikes us is this. How mean and cruel and brutal American life is. American culture is. In Spain and France, friends — or just strangers — will greet each other with kisses and an embrace. That’s not some kind of pointless anecdote. There is real human warmth in these cultures. In America, it seems to have gone missing entirely.
Nobody is really friendly in America. I know they think they are, but they’re not. Americans don’t seem to know what is to be gentle, warm, kind. Hug and kiss an American and they’d probably think you were crazy, or maybe try to shoot you. Go to the store, the airport, school — anywhere — and simple social interactions are bizarre, dehumanizing, alienated things of people barking orders at each other. To Canadians, Europeans, Asians — literally the whole world — this way of being is deeply bizarre.
You can feel anger and rage pulsing through America like a shockwave. If you’ve lived elsewhere.
Nobody will be nice to anyone, really, kind, gentle, warm. It’s exhausting, wearying, depressing, if you can sense it. Americans have mostly lived no other way, so they can’t. But if you have — it shakes you. The aggression and hostility of American life is omnipresent — literally everywhere, inescapable, ubiquitous. At school, at the workplace, at the university — thanks frats — at the office, in church. There is nowhere you can go in American life to escape the shockwave of aggression surging through it.
Why do I bring all that up? Am I just condemning Americans? Of course not. I am diagnosing a certain kind of social illness. Rage.
It’s true that guns are a big problem, and I’d never want you to think that I’m not on the side of gun control. Of course I am. But beneath the surface of guns, there is a culture of omnipresent aggression, brutality, cruelty. That has resulted in a culture of rage.
Where do you see the culture of rage? Where don’t you? Turn on the cable news, and you’ll see talking heads screaming at each other. American pop culture is movies about death on an epic scale and video games where people just kill each other. Am I saying movies and video games are to “blame” for mass shootings? Of course not. But I am saying so much rage and anger and violence are signs of a deeply unwell society. In a very precise and technical and formal way.
What is it that makes American so angry, so aggressive, so hostile, so cruel? Why is it that that’s the very first thing anyone not from America notices — and why the world, for example, rolls its eyes at American tourists?
What’s immediately apparent to anyone from elsewhere is that Americans have reduced each other to commodities. In Europe or Canada, life is completely different. Schools are not just little arenas of violence, where kids are encouraged to compete brutally, for sports trophies or grades. The result is that there is less bullying — and far, far less violence like school shootings. The workplace isn’t like a prison — a place you have to go to have healthcare and retirement — because of course everyone already has those basics. University isn’t dominated by the stupidity and ignorance and violence of fraternities. Profit isn’t the sole motive of every aspect of human existence.
I could go on endlessly. The point is this. Take the example of going to the store. In America, you can go to the same Starbucks forever — and never know a thing about anyone who ever works there or goes there. That would violate a social norm. In Europe, you can’t not be friends with people, at least if you go to your neighbourhood bistro or cafe. That would violate the norm. American life is completely atomized, and because it is atomized, it has been dehumanized. What does that lead to?
America is a society that has undergone an almost complete process of social disintegration. Social bonds are almost entirely nonexistent anymore. Way back in the 90s, sociologist James Putnam began documenting this startling collapse of social bonds, in his famous Bowling Alone. In Holland, the number of people who think that most people can be trusted is almost 70%.
In America, it’s half that: just 35%. And that almost certainly overstates the number, because people tend to be polite in surveys.
Think about that for a second. Just three people out of every ten in America trust the rest. But can you blame them? I can’t.
Think about American life for a second. What is it, if we really think about it? It’s an endless war, a battle, a life-and-death contest, that you have to wake up and engage in day after day, every day, your whole life long, just to have the basics. Want healthcare? Want a tiny bit of money? Want to be able to have a place to live and pay the bills? Then you have to go out there and compete with everyone else for a “job.” That means, in plain English, some morsel of pointless work, whose only real purpose is to make billionaires richer. And you don’t even get a fair share of that.
American life is a bitter, bruising, endless life-and-death contest. For things that people in every other rich country, and plenty of poor ones, simply give each other. Healthcare, medicine, retirement, education, income, housing, transportation, utilities. Americans have to compete with everyone else just to have a tiny, tiny share of those things. And if they don’t compete, they don’t get them, which means they’re left to die. If they can’t compete, or if they don’t win this game, even on some tiny level, again, they’re left to die.
Existence itself has become a battle in America. So who can blame Americans for not trusting each other? They are made to regard each other as adversaries, enemies, competitors, rivals. For the basics of life, whether money, food, water, or shelter. That is the way America is “institutionally structured,” which is a fancy way of saying “set up.”
But turning life into an endless life and death contest for the basics, where if you lose, you die — it has a price. When you’re forced to regard everyone else as an enemy, rival, competitor, adversary — they can’t also be your friend. Ally. Partner.
Sure, you can pretend they are — with that weird fake plastic mean smile Americans are famous for. But that’s just a game of make-believe. Americans are made to regard each other was enemies, so, unfortunately, they can’t be friends.
That is why America has undergone a process of social disintegration. That is why it feels so bleak and brutal and cruel. It’s why when someone like me or my European or Canadian friends visit or move, they feel alienated, weirded out, estranged. Nobody’s genuinely friendly, and everybody’s angry and cruel all the time, and strangest of all, they don’t know it.
What my Canadian and European friends are baffled by is this. Why do Americans live this way? All the things they’re made to compete with each other for aren’t really in short supply. They are just kept in a condition of artificial scarcity. There’s no real shortage of houses, or money, or work. It’s just that these things are kept artificially scarce, by America’s weird, failed systems. Hedge funds buy entire neighbourhoods and demolish houses — while Americans go homeless. Billionaires like Bezos and Zuck have all the money — while the average American lives pay check to pay check and dies in debt, just like a neo-serf. There’s no shortage of insulin — it’s just made cruelly, fatally unaffordable because corporations need to perpetually jack up their profits, into infinity.
Americans are made to live the way they do — a bleak, brutal existence of competition and adversariality — because their failed systems make them. In that way, America’s worse than the Soviet Union right now. The Soviet Union really did have shortages of basics. America doesn’t. Americans live this way — in a state of perpetual competition for the basics — because that’s the way they’ve been told is a good and just and noble way to live.
But it isn’t. The theory is false — the theory being more or less all of American economics, which basically says if we give people the basics, they’ll turn lazy and mean and violent and stupid. Not having the basics is what’s made Americans violent and foolish. Why? Because the price has been to destroy social bonds.
That might not sound like a big deal to you — “the destruction of social bonds” — but let me assure you, there’s little greater calamity a society can suffer. What is it called when I begin to distrust you? Regard you as an enemy? Someone who has to be vanquished?
America’s culture of rage has produced a hateful society. American society is so full of hate, it leaves the rest of us, who’ve lived elsewhere, exhausted and depressed, and plenty of Americans too. What do I mean by that? Do you really need more “evidence”? Weren’t the Trump years enough? How about two mass shooting in two weeks?
The first one, in Atlanta, was at the intersection of many kinds of hate — minority women were targeted. American life is permeated by rage and hate. And it spills over into violence. Real violence, like mass murder. All the time, over and over again.
And all that is because, at root, Americans live in a failed society, a failed state. Where artificial scarcities are used to control them. To force them into attitudes where everyone must everyone else’s competitor, adversary, enemy, not ally, friend, partner. Hence, America strikes the rest of the world — where friendship and warmth are norms, but in America brutality and cruelty are — as profoundly ugly and backwards and bizarre. It is.
I can’t think of any other society where rage and hate are as normal as they are in America, because people are made to compete, controlled by artificial scarcities — to the point that they are driven mad by them. Remember, we humans are deeply social beings. If we don’t have sociality — we begin to lose our marbles. And that is what appears to have happened to Americans. Not having sociality — true sociality — in society anymore, warmth, gentleness, friendship, has created the illusion that brutality, cruelty, selfishness, materialism, objectification, commodification, treating everyone else like something to be dominated, abused, acquired, discarded, are all normal. They’re normal in America, sure, but they’re not normal at all.
And when a society normalises dehumanization, brutality, cruelty, selfishness, isn’t it obvious to see how things like mass killings become, well, everyday events?
America’s a deeply unwell society. Americans still don’t really grasp it. They don’t feel how abnormal it is to live in a society where aggression and hostility are the only things that exist, because the only way people are allowed to regard each other are as rivals and enemies. All that’s normal in America.
But that, my friends, is why going back to “normal”
was never going to be good enough.