There’s this guy (there’s something inherently old-school Bronx about that phrase “dairs dis guy”) I know who I barely knew in high school. I’m not sure what clique he was in (cliques weren’t as numerous and appearance/affinity-based as they seem to be now), but I was in a tiny clique of military brats (kids who had traveled about every year as their military parents were assigned to new duty stations) in a military base town with a strong southern identity (antebellum houses, racial segregation, covert racism until it wasn’t covert, a lack of good blue-collar jobs, except on base). We liked the idiosyncratic music of the era – early King Crimson, James Brown, early Yes, The Chambers Brothers, early Jethro Tull, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Sly and the Family Stone, The Nice, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Spirit, Cream, Buffalo Springfield, and many others. We were for civil rights and against the Vietnam war in the vague ways that teens are when they don’t understand (our positions were correct but we didn’t understand the breadth and depth of why).
Fast forward 45 years and I receive emails from him occasionally and they are usually rife with predictions of imminent catastrophe. Some of the emails will be calm until suddenly they are laced with fact-free, unsupportable conspiracy notions. I know the players he writes about and the history behind the topics he chooses to highlight and they are, for the most part, unhinged rants. He sent me one of these “DOOM TOMORROW, HIDE IN A BUNKER!” (not a quote) emails recently and an image sprung to mind.
The phrase “hair on fire” refers to people who are so terrified of what they believe is happening in the world that they have reached an ignition point in their concern and their hair has spontaneously burst into flames. Figuratively. Or at least I hope it’s figurative. I mean, I hope they have not doused their follicles with lighter fluid and crackled a match to life but I don’t hang with “hair on fire” people so I’m not sure. Has anyone seen large packs of people actually walking around (literally this time) with their hair on fire? I want to know. Please report them to (1) the local fire station and (2) me, then (3) whomever else you’d like to inform.
The image that occurred to me is that if there are people out there who are breathing in these conspiracies and then propagating them through email, text, conversations, comment sections on websites, blogs, ham radios, semaphore usage, morse code, or otherwise on a persistent basis, their hair may no longer be on fire.
They have fashioned themselves a crown of flames. A permanent adornment, although not a healthy or rational or circumspect one. They have chosen to exist in a permanent state of fear, hyper-alertness, suspicion, dread, horror, when I do not see a rational basis for this sort of behavior. It is concerning that there are people in this country, in particular, that have chosen to inculcate these kinds of apocalyptic beliefs into their lives. I feel for them and wish I could alleviate what must be substantial personal pain but I cannot do that for anyone. Only those who have imbibed the tincture of fear can stop their dependency on it.
Lest you think I am living in a fantasy world, let me assure you I am not. I will compare my daily experience with some of the horrors of the last hundred years, give or take a couple. This morning, I woke up in a climate-controlled apartment, fed myself exactly the food I wanted, along with some coffee, cleaned up and went to the gym, exercised, talked to friends at the gym, went to the post office, and came back here. Everyone I saw was courteous enough, some exceptionally, some in a perfunctory way. People drove on the correct sides of the road, used turn signals, stopped at stop lights, drove when the lights turned green, did not speed (at least egregiously), did not yell and scream at each other, did not shoot, knife, bludgeon, impale, drive over, spray each other with chemical or biological weapons, bomb or set each other on fire. It was sunny, although humid. Nothing extraordinary happened. At all. Just like in MOST villages, towns, cities, regions, states, countries, and continents around the world. I am relatively sure that some crime was going down somewhere in this country, as in all countries. Some of it may have been violent crime. And certainly, hideous displacements of ordinary people is occurring in a variety of countries around the world. A good bit of that are sequelae to America’s invasion of Iraq, but a good bit of it is also due to post-colonial governments that have been coddled by their colonial “partners” (Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Holland, Portugal, the U.S., Italy, Russia, whomever I’m leaving out) in the aftermath of outright colonialism. The colonial “masters” retreated to their home countries, leaving a dictator, a strongman, well funded so that their sycophancy would continue. In exchange, whatever natural resources were being lumbered or dug or drilled out of the ground using ill-paid local labor would continue to flow to corporations with headquarters in the home countries. The dictators and their extended families and friends would live a life of exorbitant luxury. The local labor would live in the dirt. Those who wouldn’t put up with it were branded unpatriotic, populists, unionists, communists, socialists, traitors, terrorists, insurgents, and revolutionaries. Many of them – and their extended families and friends – would end up tortured (not “enhanced interrogation techniques,” brutal, medieval-style torture) and/or hacked to death or riddled with bullets by colonialist-funded, colonialist-armed police and military personnel controlled by the dictator.
Those post-colonial dictators rule some of the countries in turmoil around the world. And a lot of that turmoil is also a delayed reaction to a very arbitrary set of lines that were drawn, principally by Britain and France, but with help from the U.S., at the conclusion of World War I. There were a couple of agreements signed called the Sykes-Picot Act and the Treaty of Sèvres that disposed of the Ottoman Empire and carved up much of what we call the “Middle East.” The Ottoman Empire had lasted from 1299 until 1922 – 623 years – and very much had a colonialist-like relationship with much of the region, out to the western edge of north Africa, but it all came to an end as one of the outcomes of WWI. People in those countries have, for the most part, lived under dictators ever since. And they are not happy. Some of them are irrationally unhappy and are trying to restart a tin-pot version of the Ottoman Empire, which was a caliphate. Does that make their violence less heinous? Absolutely not! Violence is humanity at its worst, whether it occurs during the American Civil War, Japan’s war against China and southeast Asia, Russia’s serial absorption of once-independent countries, Napoleon’s wars, or any other violence, large or small, interpersonal or intergovernmental.
But the state of the world at the moment is generally okay, excepting the horrific violence occurring within Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, Mali, the Central African Republic, wherever the Lord’s Resistance Army is at the moment (and I’m relatively sure that I’m leaving some current disasters out). That seems like a huge exception – and it is – but the world is not on fire. Your town is not on fire. Your country, unless listed above, is not on fire. Your hair is not aflame unless you personally have placed a crown of flames up there.
Consider WWI: there were 17 million deaths and 20 million wounded. As WWI wound down, Spanish influenza kicked up and killed 50 million people around the world. About 675,000 Americans died in this pandemic, more than died in the American Civil War, which was responsible for about 620,000 deaths. There were other wars between WWI and WWII, but when WWII occurred, between 60 and 80 million people died (the higher number includes deaths due to war-related disease and famine). Americans, Europeans, Chinese, Indians, Malaysians all endured enormous hardship – food, gasoline, metal rationing, insufficient supplies compared to pre-war living standards. In India a famine in 1943 wiped out between 1.5 and 4 million citizens, largely due to the British army taking about 60% of the harvest to feed British efforts against the Japanese – an important duty, but one that mercilessly squandered many Indian lives. During and after WWII about 60 million Europeans became refugees, either fleeing various ethnicity-based violence or being forced out of countries where they had lived for centuries. It’s a grim read, but I can’t recommend Savage Continent highly enough. During the Vietnam War, between 1.5 million and 3.6 million people died due to the conflict, including deaths in Laos, Cambodia, North and South Vietnam and allied combatants (Americans, Australians, etc.). Vietnam was a very bad place to be for 20 years or more.
Now, I am pretty sure that for all the families and individuals attempting to flee the insanity in Iraq, Syria, and other countries, the best place in the world for them is their home town or city. Their culture is there, their friends are there, their history unspooled across the millennia before these current horrors. The way for refugees to stop fleeing their countries of origin is for those countries to return to sanity. Not “sanity” as defined by bellicose authoritarian families who are corrupt to the core and corrupted still by their old colonial masters. True sanity, where everyone works together to rebuild what was lost and collaborates on a system of government that represents everyone.
Unless your daily experience is radically different than mine, unless you are currently in a conflict zone or in a gang-driven neighborhood in your city, your hair is not on fire, you have no right to don a crown of flames and shout “CRISIS!” from the rooftops. You do have a responsibility to try and calm the fearful and help them return to a pattern of rational behavior. We all need calm, civil, rational voices in our world and in our countries, in our regions, states, and towns, and we need those voices to speak firmly, but without hate, confidently but without judgment, imbued with hope and a desire to resolve all the world’s many problems together. Carry on.