I was twelve years old when the world was supposed to end. They called it “Y2K,” and due to a potential computer glitch, expert analysts predicted massive blackouts, food shortages, and riots. The 21st Century was to be wholly different than the 20th Century, and the news advertisements leading up to this brave new world only intensified analysts’ fears. Chilling music underscored spooky graphics. Unanswerable philosophical questions scrolled across the screen as a cold, calculating voice told us when and where to tune in for an update. Was it true? Were we all going to die?
If the television was correct, my calm suburban upbringing would descend into George Miller-inspired levels of post apocalyptia on New Years’ Day. Entire neighborhoods would fall to a siege of less fortunate souls who would do anything for canned vegetables. These desperate people could kill, and if by some stroke of luck we weren’t invaded by the mobs, the icy chill of winter would freeze us to death.
It was a no-win scenario, and we, the viewers, were frightened into a corner, clinging tenaciously together as our boob tubes beat us over our heads with a combination of petrifying sermons and empowering sales pitches. In the final days before New Years’, our collective mortification swelling to a crescendo, there were a few lucky opportunists making bank, selling to the masses tools, gear, and survival equipment they would never need.
Anyone who lost a wallet during these final hours would call these opportunists “predators.” The newshounds who fed us our infotainment night after night called them “sponsors.”
It was on a cold January morning I realized I had been had. I woke up to find my home clean, well-kept, and perfectly normal. The television worked. My video games worked. My neighbors’ television sets and video games worked. And all our collective parents were their happy selves. None of the adults on my block had to go to work, and so they spent the first few hours of post apocalyptia sleeping in.
And the news?
The anchors stumbled through the day’s events as if nothing ever happened, as if we didn’t avert a crisis of global proportions. A couple of drunk people were robbed the previous night. Someone in Timbuktu went missing. Business as usual. And those made-for-TV movies depicting cataclysmic Y2K events were struck from public record, forgotten nearly as quickly as they were fast-tracked into production.
From then on, I began to notice a trend with our trusted television journalists. Each year there’d be some sort of earth-shattering crisis on the brink of disaster. Avian bird flu. Ebola. 2012. Our anchors would play the story up and slap the panic button. Experts would come on and spout off malformed opinions while pundits spun tall tales of massive meltdowns. Death would loom above us all like the Sword of Damocles, inert, much like our stagnant Homeland Security terror alert level. All the while, the music and the visual graphics would tighten a grip of paralysis around us.
And always, someone would be making a buck. If it wasn’t some business at our individual expense, it was at the expense of our tax dollars, juicing our healthcare system for overpriced pharmaceuticals we would never need.
And the viewers? We would be glued to the television, afraid of what was next to come. The ones who were supposed to be informing us were riling us up, appealing to our emotions, so we would never change the channel…
…or worse, click the “power” button.
If no global catastrophes could be had, the bearers of bad news would find other ways to arouse our emotional cores. They’d plea to polarized ideologies and beliefs. Radicals are going to take our Christmas trees away! Foreigners are going to hijack our country! Republicans are plotting! Democrats are scheming! Group A is devouring the rights of Group B.
“Not on my watch!” we’d scream, waving our miniature American flags that were made in China. And we’d take to the Internet. We’d bitch and moan and pick fights with strangers in the comment section of some random blog-turned-website that an angry, little person found a way to make a buck or two off of. No one cared about the blog four years ago, but the angrier this little person sounded, the more this person’s anger spread, until it powered an industry that fed off of our collective hatred, frustration, divisiveness, and madness.
“Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” A famous wise man once told us in a movie a long, long time ago. And as the years passed, our fears morphed into hatred, a hatred that was (and is) constantly fed.
We see it in our news every night. We see it on our social media feeds. We’re divided from each other, and in this way, polarized in our small-minded beliefs against demonized opponents on the other side of the spectrum, we are conquered.
Believe me when I say that someone is making a buck off of our collective suffering. The penny-pinching shadow is there, operating behind the walls that separate us. He’s prodding us with a stick when we need a little push, herding us into malevolent, manageable groups when the sponsors demand more viewers for their revenue.
Like the cast of Ghostbusters II, we are a people submerged in slime, and it’s feeding our worst emotions. This slime oozing from our television sets is whispering things to us, nasty things that make us think twice about trusting our neighbors. These whispers make us double-take when we see someone who looks a little different at the grocery store. These whispers make us afraid to communicate and connect with each other, and so we carefully cultivate our friends list by similar polarized ideologies.
It’s wonderful to be informed and educated, but when that “informed opinion” comes with pre-packaged emotional distress carefully crafted by the ones who should be accurately and correctly informing us of the day’s events, the lines between fact and fiction are blurred. Reality becomes a fuzzy mess, and in our stressed mental states, we begin to accept opinions and worldviews that isolate us from our brothers and sisters. Our openness dies when a TV pundit opens his big yap. And when we listen, we’re slowly broken off into groups, herded and corralled, as we wait patiently for our moment in the slaughterhouse.