A few weeks ago, I wrote about what it is like living in a country that is prone to natural disasters. Someone responded by saying that they hoped that the recent string of non-natural disasters in the United States never become normalized. That reminded me of an idea I have had for a while: the fact that two events in recent history which are generally regarded to be very grave, if not outright disasters, have never been fully addressed.
While I was thinking about writing that, Hurricane Florence came ashore in North Carolina. Originally a Category 4 major hurricane, it weakened to a "regular hurricane" right before landfall. For a few days, it was the top story, as reports and photos of wind damage and storm surge captured the public attention. For about a week, around a half million to a million people were living in a drastically different world: a world without roads, electricity, and where food and water were rapidly dwindling. But the hurricane was weaker than it expected to be, and it didn't hit near any big cities: there were no images of skyscrapers with all their windows shattered out or jet planes flipped over on their backs. Instead, there is now around a half million people scattered in small cities and towns across North Carolina, dealing with damaged homes and environmental hazards from record flooding. And the United States is a large country: the number of people who are directly dealing with the worst of the storm represents about 1 out of a thousand people.
And this story seems in a way to retell the story of two other things that happened in the United States, things that radically changed life in the United States and our place in the world, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the 2008 financial crisis. These were gigantic, costly, terrible, and demand long term changes in our thinking, and yet on a daily level, people could live through this period without directly confronting them. Some people might think that sounds terribly insensitive, self-centered, even chauvinistic, because plenty of people were hurt in the war. And millions of people lost their homes as the housing market floundered. In Iraq, the civil war led to over a million deaths. And the global recession, caused by financial shell games, changed the lived of people all over the globe.
Which is my point exactly. I am not saying that these things weren't terrible, but that for most people in the United States, they weren't immediate.
The best way to look at this is to compare what happened with similar events in the past. During World War II, for example, 16 million people served in a nation with a population 130 million. For the population most likely to fight in wars, men between 18 and 30, participation would have been well over 50%. 400,000 people died, and another 600,000 were wounded. Let me try to put these numbers into terms that, while not precise, probably give a feeling for what that means in real terms. If I was in high school in 1939, in a class of 30 men, probably 20 would have been in uniform, 1 would have died, and 2 would have been seriously injured. And 10 would have seen the war directly, witnessed bombed out cities, seen people killed, been separated from their families, and otherwise have direct, immediate, and hard to deny experiences of the war. And even people who didn't leave the United States would have had the war permeate every aspect of their life, with material shortages and rationing being normal parts of life. War affected everyone, and it was direct and undeniable for almost the entire population of the United States.
The Great Depression is another example of something changing people's lives in a way that it is hard for us to understand today. At the height of the Great Recession, the unemployment rate peaked at 10% percent for one month. In comparison, the unemployment rate during the Great Depression was double that, for around four years. In areas affected by the dust bowl, large sections of the population, maybe one third, turned into internal refugees. People lived in vast squatters camps, called Hoovervilles. It is a little harder to put in terms of statistics, but my own experience with people who lived through the depression is that they lived in a world of scarcity that it is hard for us to understand. My great-grandmother and my grandmother were loathe to throw anything away, because they remembered a time when a mason jar was something hard to come across. Like World War II, the Great Recession affected the basics and fundamentals of life in a way that it is hard for us to understand.
I don't know anyone who died in Iraq, or in Afghanistan. This is not because I was particularly sheltered, or part of an "elite" group that doesn't fight wars. I do know people who served in Iraq (although, honestly, those who I can think of served in somewhat abstract capacities: one of them was a Navy lawyer). I know a man who came back from Iraq with unspecified long-term injuries. But statistically, if you have 7,000 deaths (the total of Iraq and Afghanistan), and the average person knows 1,000 people, there are 7 million people who know someone killed in these wars. The average American hasn't been directly effected by knowing someone who was killed. The same is true with the Great Recession: I know a lot of people who lost their jobs. I know a lot of people who "moved back home". I know a lot of people (including myself) who were frustrated, and stagnant, and underemployed. But I don't know anyone who packed their family into a jalopy and drove to California. During the entire time that these events were taking up the headlines...there was still grocery stores full of food, there was still new consumer goods and electronics and iPhones and video games, there was still jobs, even when they were bad, there were not curfews or rationing or blackouts, I was still free to move around the country and go to school...in other words, in my personal life, and in the lives of most people I knew, there was little direct effect from these events.
In many other places, the choices that the United States made that led up to the war and the housing crash would have long term consequences. In a less powerful country, launching a preemptive war that turned into a years-long guerrilla war would have taxed the country much more financially. In a less rich country, the type of speculation of the housing bubble would have scared investors away from that country for years. In the United States, neither of those events seems to have provoked the type of instinctive learning that World War II and the Great Depression did. When pressed, people will speak in general terms of how those things were bad: maybe how "The Elites" or "The Media" or some other abstract force caused these bad things. But it is very hard to get a concrete answer about how those things effect people, and how they want things to be different.
To me, there is just this tremendous... lag, things have changed, everyone can sense they have changed, but in a way, we are still Wile E Coyote, running on air, never looking down, and never having to grasp what is going on. The world continues in an odd form of irreality, with events being real, but their consequences always being one step removed.