Everything Falls Apart

It’s spring in the northern hemisphere, the time when influencer moms rev up for Easter’s filtered pastels, peppered here and there with the earthy painted colors of Ukrainian eggs. This year, with the people of Ukraine bloodied and bombarded in an unprovoked war of aggression, Americans aren’t as revved about the pastels.

You’d think that with the widespread lifting of COVID restrictions we’d be able to manage the cognitive dissonance of celebrating locally while mourning globally. But it’s hard to laugh. No one can seem to get the satire right, even when the president of The Force of Good once played the piano with his dick. I keep waiting for someone to stage “Springtime for Putin” à la The Producers, but so far nothing.

Of course, Americans were unhappy before Putin raised the specter of a nuclear spring and World War III. The cause was and is inflation, and if you believe the polling, it’s all Joe Biden’s fault. Strange, that belief, since the economy is doing pretty good despite inflation and higher gas prices. A February Gallup poll (pre-invasion) found that 42% of Americans rated economic conditions as poor, about the same as the 40% who said as much in April 2012, when the recovery was sluggish.

Whatever this thing that’s ailing us, it’s moved in and it’s big. It’s tempting to compare with the malaise of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, back when America was really stuck. It wasn’t just barges in the Suez but the Cold War, geopolitics, and the machinations of oil cartels. Carter was elected in the shadow of Network, the movie with Peter Finch’s “mad as hell” soliloquy, which has been sampled to death in everything between hip-hop and metal. At this point it’s a relic. You don’t have to open your window and scream; you can scream by thumbing fifteen words on Twitter.

Assuming there’s a heart to this matter, you have to keep peeling back the artichoke leaves. Before the unifying obsession over inflation, there was consensus among the left that our democracy is under siege. Last December, the Times’s Thomas Edsall did a useful summary of wisdom. “Unlike the threat to democracy posed by a military coup,” Cornell’s Michael Macy told him, “the threat posed by authoritarian populism is incremental. If the water temperature increases only one degree per hour it may take a while before you notice it is too hot and by that time it is too late.” Macy identified the most likely outcome as “increasing polarization is political paralysis in which the parties are more interested in preventing the other side from winning than in solving problems.”

More recently, David French in an Atlantic newsletter broke down partisan opinions on two topics—taking Ukraine’s side in the conflict and getting vaccinated—and found the Republican/Democrat split almost exactly the same, showing among the right wing a “constant, intense contrarianism rooted in deep antipathy against perceived ‘elites’ or against the ‘establishment’ on the left or the right.” He goes on: “Find someone who believes Trump truly won the 2020 election, and the overlap with anti-masking activism (especially pre-vaccine) and vaccine skepticism is almost guaranteed. Find someone who believes in the basics of the QAnon conspiracy theory, and you’ll find an election conspiracist and likely a Ukraine skeptic.”

This nationwide division is where all the deep and structural theories really fly—all the books written during Trump’s presidency and now the second wave in the aftermath of January 6th. But the heart of the matter isn’t the division based on education and culture. There are still many more layers. And as you peel them away, you start to see this unbreachable chasm begin to narrow.

The place where it narrows is called “conspirituality”—an overlap between new age and far-right ideas. George Monbiot laments in The Guardian that “on an almost daily basis I see conspiracy theories travelling smoothly from right to left. I hear right-on people mouthing the claims of white supremacists, apparently in total ignorance of their origins. I encounter hippies who once sought to build communities sharing the memes of extreme individualism.”

One of the most intriguing areas of this overlap is astrology, given how aggressively it has spread into mainstream belief over the past decade. Within the world that I know, you can declare yourself as being into astrology without seeming on the fringe. And that’s strange because, like QAnon, astrology is belief in magic. Both share a complex taxonomy based on nothing but claims. Both devise elaborate stories around some core facts and then cite their invented complexity as evidence of truth.

Astrology seems harmless—until it begins to distort the facts of real-life events to confirm a predicted narrative. Since 2020 and the COVID lockdown, there have been major celestial events that astrologers think portend major global changes. You can look them up, but they involve Saturn squaring Uranus and the Age of Aquarius and out with the old (violently) and in with the new. There’s a big deal to do with “Pluto’s return” in April and the U.S. Declaration of Independence. To me, these stories sound a lot like the pagan cycles of destruction and rebirth that Thomas Hardy alluded to in his fiction.

There are some seemingly nice British astrology ladies who normally grow microgreens but have been indirectly rooting for the Trump insurrectionists. Why? Because they (and the Canadian truckers against vaccine mandates) are these astrologers’ designees for the positive power of Uranus. They and their confreres habitually blame natural disasters on Saturn, Uranus, Pluto, and Neptune and not on the release of carbon and methane into the atmosphere over centuries. If you follow the rules, astrologers say, you can leverage even the adverse effects of planetary movements to your personal advantage. But every other microgreens lady has her own rules. There is no orthodoxy, only endless light-years of magic.

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James wrote that religion in its broadest sense is “the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” From the 1930s to 2000, around 70% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue, or mosque. 2020 was the first year on record that the majority said they did not. So you have to wonder: What unseen order are people adjusting themselves to? I am fascinated with how belief in magic (from astrology to QAnon) has so efficiently filled this vacuum, this need for an order around which to twine our spiritual longing.

Putin’s ground invasion has brought those of us who were alive in the 1980s back to a world of tactile things, albeit sinister tactile things like 40 miles of tanks—a world we thought would never again happen given the digital arc toward singularity. The invasion reminded me of a song from my college days, Hüsker Dü’s “Everything Falls Apart.” I was never into the band until years later when Bob Mould left to form Sugar (the best guitar sound ever), but in 1983 Hüsker Dü sang about what we all thought would happen to the post-1945 peace. America was supposedly enjoying the “morning” of a McDonald’s commercial, and the following year Ronald Reagan would be reelected by a large margin. So there was no internal breaking apart.

Still, in a March 8, 1983, speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and called the arms race a battle between good (us) and evil (the Russians). Luckily, we avoided a global war. But in less than seven years, the Soviets were untethered from communism and Americans were becoming untethered from God and religion. In some sense, these parallel instances of things falling apart have defined the moment we face right now, when no one knows what on earth to believe. §