“Corrupted Mind/World Interface”: The Black Plague of Our Time (Part II)

Let me cut to the chase. The following observations appear to me to indicate the presence of “Corrupted Mind/Body Interface” in our midst, and especially among our young people. I submit (and you can scroll back to my post for October 26 if you want to review the numerous symptoms in our recent history) that some of us Americans have lately approached critical moral issues around the globe with a suicidal irresponsibility, and that we have done so thanks to having lost our sense of how physical reality connects with the “noosphere” (the world of mind and ideas). You could say that all societies have always possessed a few members, at least, who struggled with bridging the subject/object gap. All of us as individuals face that struggle daily, in fact… but no more dramatically than we face—and meet—the challenge to get out of bed. Sane, mature people understand that they can’t fly from a ten-story window just because, minutes earlier, they were Superman in a dream. The number and extremity of cases in our ailing culture where people actually seem to be sleepwalking through some such fantasy suggests to me that a very distinctive epidemic has broken out.

Here are further symptoms, far more specific to our time and to our immediate neighbors than those I discussed before.

Mood-Altering Drugs: We have them in disturbing abundance. Yes, the New World natives were smoking nicotine of hallucinatory potency and drinking mescal that made them think they were walking upside-down… but the consumption was reserved for ritual occasions, and then mostly for shamans. Yes, we’ve know the God of the Vine for time immemorial; but there, too, drunkenness was usually considered a social faux pas when it surpassed certain limits on festive occasions. People seldom got pasted in a lonely room. Today we witness alarming spikes in the use of numerous substances whose effects drive the world far back from the individual’s awareness, and such use often knows no ritual kind of boundary. Indeed, it’s probably more characteristic of completely isolated settings today than social or celebratory ones. As a society, we’re escapist. I am tempted even to cite the proliferation of “dragon-master”, “time-traveler”, “shape-shifter”, and “witch” or “vampire” romances that are advertised on my Kindle every time I power it up—but I didn’t wish to appear facetious. As a public health crisis, drug and alcohol abuse scarcely belongs in the same category as adult comic books. Nevertheless, the difference is one of intensity. Both habits can be addictive, both develop a tendency to retreat from the world when it offers challenges, and both eventually allow unaddressed realities to metastasize into major problems.

Eating Disorders: In my youth, anorexia and bulimia were constantly in the news (e.g., when Karen Carpenter essentially starved herself to death). Now we seldom hear about them: our new crisis carries us in the other direction—yet in the same direction, ultimately. We eat too much, and we eat foods that immerse us in endorphins, presumably because we’re not very happy most of the time. Happiness is generally (if superficially) connected to social life. Girls of forty years ago were starving themselves to be sexually attractive (though I know that their self-torment rooted much more deeply than that); girls and boys of today are stuffing themselves because they have virtually no significant connections with the outside world at all, and they seek relief from the pain of “non-existence”.

Self-Neutering Sexual Habits: If a blank is inserted into the phrase, “drugs and _____”, the word “sex” is probably more likely to be supplied than “alcohol”. Certainly when casting back in our memory to the Seventies, those of us able to recall that shallowest of decades will dredge up the rapid decline of sexual morals at least as readily as the growing dependency on recreational drugs. I confess that at no time did I foresee the vector taken by the era’s libertinage; I figured that new couplings of increasingly bizarre kinds would degenerate into complex varieties of promiscuity ending in something like Huxley’s Brave New World. Instead… instead, the destination seems to be a kind of abstinence that would shock a monk. Wildly permissive and abusive opposite-sex arrangements apparently inspired a retreat into same-sex alternatives, which themselves are now morphing into sexual self-mutilation as confused young people seesaw between genders (or among them: we’re no longer allowed even to speak of a mere two). Sex with robots is offered as an option in some parts of the world. The most credible endpoint, though, seems to me to be that we ourselves will emulate the robot in having no sexual appetite whatever; and the sexual drive, however numerous and frightful the varieties of antisocial behavior it can fuel, has nevertheless always been a motive to learn socialization skills. Now our society is well along the way toward discarding it, utterly and for good.

Ineptitude With Oral Communication: Surely few indicators of “disconnect” with the external world could be more obvious than the inability simply to speak at an audible pitch and with basic eloquence. Believe me when I say that classroom teachers of a certain age all have a stock of favorite student gaffes (e.g., “for granite” instead of “for granted” and, of course, the dreaded “cereal killer”). These have grown more abundant and laughable in recent years… but the underlying truth isn’t really very funny. Our children are forgetting, not just how to spell, but how to talk. The lapse in skills includes even (I am convinced) merely producing an oral volume sufficient to reach beyond one’s elbow. Toward the end of my own career, I occasionally wondered if my hearing were going bad, given that I had to ask students to repeat themselves so often. Yet I noticed no signs of deterioration outside the classroom. I concluded that, over a span of three decades, young adults had largely lost the register needed to make their voices audible across an occupied space of twenty-by-thirty feet. Such encounters were as alien to their regular existence as parachuting or scuba-diving.

Neurotic Sensitivity to Insult: As the Word becomes a stranger to us, the few words remaining in our vocabulary must take on meanings they were never intended to bear. A monosyllable as neutral as “rope” can suddenly start an associative chain of dominoes falling… and at the end of that chain is “hanging”, as in “lynching”, as in “racism” and “KKK”. (We could get to about the same stopping point, by the way, with the word “chain”.) Now, to suppose that everyone who ever says “rope” is guilty of “hate speech” in “code” is to be suspicious to the verge of paranoid insanity… and yet, hundreds of college campuses and workplaces appear to have bestowed a kind of fearful veneration upon this folly. We are not even allowed the defense of insisting that we had in mind the word “rope’s” conventional meaning. The paranoids among us insist, in return, that we don’t know what we intended, because we have been subliminally programmed by our racist environment. We are held captive, in short, by the nightmarish fantasies in those who hear us but refuse to listen to us. We end up playing a part scripted in their impenetrably insulated heads which we can’t read, but which is nonetheless a particular crime of ours. The disruption of interface here, interestingly, doesn’t just put the “offended” completely at odds with the world: it justifies his or her extreme discomfort with the situation—it objectifies being at odds. “What do you mean, we’re not communicating? I heard what you said! Now I’m removing your right to say anything more! Don’t you dare say another word!”

Projection of Social Failures: I believe the more accepted word among psychologists is “transfer”—we have an increasing tendency now to thrust our social ineptitude upon others as the cause of our misery rather than to recognize its origin in ourselves. (I ended the previous item by noting that the “I know what you meant!” insistence on registering insult does precisely this.) If people of other races make us nervous, then the cause of our trembling is the presence of racists all around us. If we have unusual or ungovernable sexual appetites, then the cause of our extreme restlessness is the presence of predators or “gay-bashers” all around us. If an inclination to open hostility poisons many of our encounters with other people, then the cause of our elevated blood pressure is the presence of gun-toting rednecks all around us. Women demand that men not so much as “touch” them with a lingering gaze… and also that access to instant abortion under any circumstances be legally provided. Protesters scream that they want peace and safety… and welcome the support of masked thugs armed with bats and bottles. We seem to acquire our awareness of the horrors haunting the outside world by looking in the mirror… without, of course, having the least idea that it’s not a window.

Preference for Non-Human Friends: The growth in attachment to dogs and cats in Western society is really quite remarkable. I loved my Welsh terrier when I was a boy (though I never felt much attraction to felines, perhaps because of my allergies). Pets are fine. Who doesn’t like Lassie? But the prospect of young people, especially, devoting massive amounts of time and money to a pet or pets in progressive cities like Denver leaves me stunned. For the most part, these are persons of an age when they would have been married and tending to children in previous generations. Now they deeply mistrust “long-term relationships” and are so adverse to child-rearing that disposing of an unwanted baby after birth doesn’t strike them as murder (or so they claim)… yet their hearts melt at the thought of the fur ball that will greet them with a tail wag or a purr whenever they walk through the door. No degree of emotional negotiation or interpretation is needed to cuddle Mr. Mittens.

Dangerous Naïveté About Human Nature: It shouldn’t come as a surprise, when everything above is weighed, that we (or many among us) have only a pre-adolescent’s grasp of likely human motivations. Again, young men especially seem surprised that (for instance) a girl used for sex during a semester should think herself in a purposive, soulful relationship—or young women seem surprised, in the same scenario, that men have no manners and no nobility. College grads of both genders (let’s pretend there are only two) assume that police are Gestapo thugs, that soldiers are butchering mercenaries, and that business management always wants to push employees to the brink of starvation for sake of a wider profit margin; yet the same downy-cheeked cynics have no imaginative difficulty in picturing a world where only uniformed figures carry guns, which are only ever used to protect the helpless innocent—and where government bureaucrats daily spring to the defense of the oppressed without the least thought of power, promotion, or pay raise. The degree of emotional incoherence and retardation involved in trusting socialism—the practice of confiscating property by force and redistributing it as willed by an elite few (known in other ages as piracy)—to bring happiness to the world is mind-numbing.

Ignorance of How Things Are Produced: This category is probably best appreciated by viewing the next two… but it’s important to realize that our alienated, unsocialized citizenry doesn’t simply lack connection to other human beings. Its ignorance of the material universe is an integral part of the paranoid isolation we have been describing. How many of us believe that putting a plastic outlet cover on sheetrock somehow draws clean, inexhaustible energy from the Spirit World? How many have any inkling that solar panels are produced with Rare Earth Elements mined in miserable locales of the Third World commonly called “cancer villages”? Apparently some do not understand where babies come from, despite having been saturated in “sex education” since Kindergarten.

Qualitative Imbecility: Of course, babies are not “made” in the fashion of solar panels. My final example above leaks from a vast ignorance about how economies function into how natural cause-and-effect works. I’m sure that high school students today are much better equipped with hardware in chemistry or biology class than my generation was; and, we must hasten to add, they have the Internet. There is scarcely any plausible way to explain their degree of ignorance about the basics rhythms and connections of the natural world, then, if we do not posit that their daily, practical experience of that world is alarmingly deprived. How many understand that a year of unusual weather patterns offers up virtually no relevant data to the study of climate? How many grasp that deadwood left untrimmed in a grassland or forest becomes tinder for major fires? Why do so many not comprehend that human cultures (which are natural phenomena in many ways) annihilate each other unless allowed some degree of isolation? This stuff isn’t “rocket science”.

Quantitative Imbecility: Plenty of young people are more proficient at math already than I ever was on my best day… but plenty more can’t seem to reach an elementary proficiency. Related to our nation’s special instance of cultural collision… why is it hard to grasp that resources of all kinds are limited for handling Mexico’s itinerant laborers? Does the fact that so many of our citizens cannot correctly write out “twenty-three trillion” in numeral form mean that our debt problem is solved? Is there something about the volume of illegal immigrants pouring into our sanctuary cities that college students cannot connect with congested traffic, deteriorating infrastructure, increases in infectious disease, rises in pollution of all kinds, and escalating crime rates? Or why do these students and their parents believe—why did they ever believe—that the Big Brotherly FAFSA applications they were required to fill out upon completion of high school would lead to “free money”? Why, as a society, can’t we count? We’re no more obtuse, one must assume, than our forefathers. Could it be that we have lost touch with the world’s “thingness”—that we no longer have direct experience of plants receiving too much water, of fireplaces lacking sufficient chopped wood, of gutters too high for a certain ladder?

I have perhaps already been prolix, so I will end my list here rather arbitrarily. I’ve written enough, surely, to promote the point that our awareness of the world is being challenged today in ways unknown to other times. We lack common sense to a degree that, as far as I know, has no parallel in any society’s general population.

Last week I happened to read two explanations of why more than fifty percent of millennials appear to view socialism favorably. David Limbaugh blames academic propagandists; Tucker Carlson blames the student debt crisis. I myself have to believe that much, much more is going wrong. The “millennial mind” (if I may be pardoned the phrase) is being won over to suicidal folly neither by professorial harangues nor by economic self-interest. Its collective attitudes and outlook are far more deeply embedded than such causality can explain. The disease eating away at us has gnawed all the way to the bone.

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