Situational Awareness

When Stephen Curry was named MVP in the NBA Playoffs, more than a few sportswriters praised his “situational awareness,” a term I’d coincidently been thinking about in relation to warfare.

I’d just had a conversation with someone who’d served in army communications in Afghanistan, and he talked about how when social media took hold in the aughts, after any kind of attack or explosion, soldiers would stupidly post to say that they were safe. “No situational awareness” was his verdict.

Curry’s situational awareness makes perfect sense. Given his height disadvantage, he needs to be exceptionally aware of his positioning on the court. People say that his amazing physical and mental abilities are beyond human, but I think they make him ultra human, or Uber human. For our biological ancestors, being hunted for food by sabre-tooth tigers and the like, situational awareness was a prerequisite for survival.

From Afghanistan to the NBA and to every photo of bombed-out Ukraine—like the one with a large apartment building half gone in the distance and in the foreground a girl in dirty pink Crocs sailing upward on a playground swing—I’ve been thinking about how situational awareness is going dormant among Americans.

Back in my twenties, I rented a studio apartment in a rough neighborhood, and the agent advised me to “walk with intent” as he handed me the keys. But he might well have said, “Be situationally aware”—know who’s around you and what they’re doing. You can only do this when you recognize risk.

One of the problems with Americans in 2022 is that we are risk-illiterate. Republicans—for whom casino capitalism is an origin story—are a lost cause: the winners can seal themselves off in wealth, and the losers can arm themselves to the teeth.

But the left has its own risk delusions. The white professional class of which I am marginally a member expects “fairness” at all times and under all conditions. They do their civic duty by voting or serving on a jury and expect a fair return on investment. No risk can penetrate their Zip code bubble of comfort. Conversely, those who have long been marginalized from fairness take a lot of risks, hoping that in their own case things will turn out OK.

If you look at situational awareness in terms of sex, death, and money, we are in bad shape.

In regard to sex, we are now fighting fiercely about what words we can and can’t use to describe ourselves as people. There is conflict between right and left but more troublingly within the left, and it’s hard to tell which is more explosive. It has moved beyond the territory of the minority demanding “Call me this” to the minority telling the majority that “You can’t call yourself that anymore.” As George Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English Language”: “The worst thing you can do with words is to surrender to them.” Within the left, few people understand where they stand in relation to the majority of the left let alone the majority of the country.

As for death, we do know how we stand on risk, with the more than one million lives lost to COVID: Que sera, sera. And now we have a Supreme Court actively ensuring that any troubled teenager can buy and use a semiautomatic weapon in every state.

Hours after the Highland Park shooting on July Fourth, the Washington Post asked people waiting for the DC fireworks on the Mall if they were afraid. One 20-year-old Vanderbilt student said that her generation has been “desensitized” to violence. “I don’t think it instills the same fear as it does for older generations, which is really sad.”

Someone with situational awareness would have said: “Yeah, I’m afraid of getting shot, but fear is not going to dictate my life.” Saying that it’s sad that you’re “desensitized” to violence doesn’t bode well for empathy or efforts to change the status quo.

Money is probably where all of Americans’ situational awareness goes to die. One of the many attempts to explain why retail investors (i.e., regular people) gambled on cryptocurrency and lost billions came from Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times. He attributes their behavior to FOMO, what we’re all supposed to know as fear of missing out. Of people who unwisely jumped on the bandwagon, he asks “Can you blame them?”

That’s an unfair question since you shouldn’t blame anyone for suffering a loss. But, yes, these individuals have to take responsibility for their choices. There has to be some public opprobrium to make people stop taking on more risk than they can handle, because it seems that personal financial loss is not doing the trick.

Americans don’t just have a problem with financial literacy; they have a problem differentiating accountability for their decisions from the notion of being blamed for their results, probably because “blame” on a public platform can be more damaging to our lives than even a personal financial setback.

However bad we are at situational awareness individually, we’re much worse in groups. You look at those videos of large flocks of starlings over Rome—beautiful moving paintings in the sky—and marvel at the situational awareness of every bird. And yet there is a dark side to the dark birds: What if the flock is going in the very direction of risk?

I recently listened to Ezra Klein’s podcast discussion with financial journalist Rana Foroohar, who described the years since the 2008 recession as “a sugar high”—cheap money with the Fed’s low interest rates. The only thing this surplus money did was make rich people richer. There was massive inflation in the asset economy but the not the core economy . . . until the pandemic. Now we’ve lost touch with the value of everything as we watch unprecedented inflation proceed, quite disconcertingly, aside steady job growth.

If Americans had any situational awareness, we would stop buying things and let the market cool. But we’re not able to stop the sugar high.

The way the risk game goes is like this: Republicans make a mess of the economy and Democrats labor to clean it up. And right when they put the broom away, they’re voted out of office. By all estimations, this will happen in November. §