Mad World

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If the nightly news has a theme, it’s that the world has a shortage of happy people. Maybe that guy with the Molotov cocktail is mad because a general overthrew his government, or perhaps he’s simply upset referees let NBA players get away with traveling. It’s hard to tell since fire is an inexact method of self-expression. Even if arson did lead to democratic reforms or better basketball fundamentals, societal angst wouldn’t go away. Anger is as much a part of the human condition as love or hyperbole. I see proof of that at least a million times a day.

Setting stuff on fire might not solve all of my problems, but there’s no way to know until I try.
As the world improves, we focus our lingering irritability on increasingly petty targets. Men were once angered to the point of war by tyranny and oppression, but now the grievances are gone and only the outrage remains. Eventually, those who are mad enough to fight and die for a cause will have to settle for battles over toothpaste flavors and the names for various shades of white. World War III will be waged between the armies of off-white and eggshell. Even the pickiest interior decorators won’t know who to shoot.

There was a time when people actually had a reason to be angry. If a present-day politician makes the wrong call, the nation’s credit rating might take a hit; but if a Roman emperor slipped up, barbarians sacked the capital. It’s OK to be mad at the government when a policy change leads directly to everyone getting murdered. The stakes are much, much lower on modern debates over health care or the minimum wage, but it’s hard to tell that given the language used by people on both sides of those issues. When protesters say a law will doom America, they mean “slow its economic growth,” not “result in the wholesale slaughter of the entire population.”

If the Federal Reserve doesn’t get the interest rate exactly right, the Visigoths will overrun Wall Street.
Protesting itself is a luxury. If citizens can publicly express how mad they are, things can’t really be that bad. In places that are truly terrible, all the whiners end up in prison camps. Only the most cheerful are left standing, which is why the happiest place on earth isn’t Disneyland; it’s North Korea. It’s hard to take seriously an American who screams about being oppressed when he’s freer to criticize his own government than practically anyone else in the history of the world. If a guy can afford to fly across the country to march in Washington D.C., then most likely the greatest hardship he’s ever faced is being stuck with an older version of the iPhone. Browsing the Internet on a 3G device is basically the same thing as being homeless. Everybody today is furious about something, but a little context would downgrade that outrage to mild annoyance or possibly even moderate satisfaction. People are too angry, and that makes me angry. Let’s shout about it.

All this rage will never go away because society evolves faster than biology. The same hormones drive our feelings today that did a million years ago, even though life now is infinitely better than it was back then. The rage a soccer mom feels when a barista messes up her coffee is exactly as real and intense as what a caveman experienced when a woolly mammoth ate his entire family. Yes, the animal was a herbivore, but dietary preferences always take a backseat to revenge. An elephant never forgets or forgives. We lack the emotional skill set to appreciate our improved circumstances, and as a result we overreact to everything. It’s like trying to renovate a house when the only tool at our disposal is an atomic bomb. Pounding in those nails could prove problematic.

That’s not to say out-of-control emotions are always bad. Anger is what makes us great. If humans were content by nature, we’d all still be vassals on some feudal lord’s estate. I can’t imagine a world in which the majority of the world’s riches were held by the top one percent. OK, so the wealth distribution is exactly the same today, but we at least get to enjoy our income inequalities on a much higher plane of luxury. Every man, woman, and child alive now lives better than the richest kings in Europe 1,000 years ago. Entire armies fought and died for the same spices we can pick up at any grocery store for 35 cents. King Ferdinand purchased all of Spain with a pound of paprika. That was enough flavor for 100 lifetimes since no one lived past 20.

People in the Middle Ages didn’t even mind dying young. The alternative was to spend extra decades with no cable TV or Wi-Fi. The only entertainment options were to watch acting troupes or to stare at family members as they slowly died from the plague. A horrible death was always a more pleasant diversion than legitimate theater. Even though monarchs had unlimited wealth, the only things that money could buy were slightly less bland food and a prettier coffin. People had every reason to be upset, which is why they had beer with every meal. It was cheaper than Xanax.

The best way to deal with any problem is to not be conscious for it.
Today, medicines for anger and depression fly off the shelves, even though threats like the Black Death and stage dramas were long ago banished into obscurity. Even the lowest classes can now afford a satellite dish, and cheap medicine keeps the elderly around longer than any of us would like. Only a few years ago, “retirement home” was still a synonym for “cemetery.” Now, factory workers can expect a decade or two in which they do nothing but sit around and bother everyone with the mysterious old person smell science still can’t explain. The poor of the 21st century live better than the richest popes of the 1500s, and that includes the papal harem. Internet porn trumps a painful death by untreatable syphilis any day.

Anger drove mankind to make the social and technological changes that created the modern world, but our primitive emotions won’t let us calm down. Even when things are as good as they can possibly be, people will still be outraged over increasingly minor injustices. Someday, rioters will throw bricks at each other over if standard five-day weekends are really long enough or if welfare recipients deserve three space Lamborghinis instead of two. Life will be awesome, and people will be furious about it. Now is a good time to start hoarding blood pressure medication.