As I mentioned in the previous post, I was up in Port McNeill over the weekend and drove home after teaching this afternoon and evening. McNeill is a long way from everything; this was the furthest up I’d ever been on Vancouver Island and it’s probably about as far north as I’m going to go for a while, barring a sudden need to instruct in Port Hardy all of a sudden (which I don’t think is going to be forthcoming anytime soon). I’ve spent most of the last two months on the road, actually, living out of my suitcase and generally being totally disconnected from my life in Victoria. Last week was strange, in that I managed to spend five nights in my own bed — the first time that had happened since the new year.
One of the interesting things about this travel is that I don’t end up paying much attention to the news. It turns out that unless it’s showing up in my RSS feed while I’m away, I probably don’t know it’s happening — I just don’t feel compelled to put the news on anymore. There are probably a bunch of reasons why this is true, starting with the fact that nothing ever really seems to change, but suddenly my not knowing what’s going on in the world seems like a great weakness, and things seem to be happening with a breakneck pace.
Consider this: When I left for Port McNeill last week, Libya was still a relatively stable country. Now it’s on fire and people are dying, and the situation is changing by the minute. In the time it took to drive from Port McNeill to Campbell River, an earthquake leveled big chunks of Christchurch, and Benghazi airport was more or less rendered inoperable, with Libyan airspace closed and refusing incoming traffic. Ambassadors began to resign their posts. A government — well, okay, a dictator — is poised to fall. I’m almost afraid of going to sleep. Who the hell knows what the world is going to look like when I wake up?
This is always true, of course. It just seems more true now, and more pressing now.
There are moments where it feels like we’re living in some kind of hyperreality, a state that is familiar and yet totally novel. The first time I really noticed it was after STS-107: talking about a Space Shuttle that “broke up on re-entry” — it was like being inside a science fiction story, and yet there it was, more or less live on TV, and unavoidably real. The idea of revolution in the Middle East, regardless of how it started, seems to underlie a lot of fiction, particularly of the action-adventure type, and often of the action-adventure gaming type, and now here we are. I was reminded, on the long and lonely drive that gave me an awful lot of time to think, of the line from “Modern Warfare 2”: “First Makarov turned the US into his scapegoat. The next thing you know, there’s flames everywhere.” Nobody scapegoated the United States here. But damn if there aren’t flames everywhere. If you don’t like that analogy, you can pick the opening to the original “Modern Warfare” where the deposed president of some unnamed country is driven to the civic square and shot on television. It hasn’t happened. Yet. But you can see it coming. Hell, you almost half-expect credits to start rolling over some of the footage we’re seeing.
My colleague, with whom I was traveling tonight, said that it felt like watching the OJ chase all over again. I pointed out that OJ didn’t have access to an air force and wasn’t shelling cities. But he wasn’t entirely wrong. I know in my head that this is mostly media coverage, and that the 24-hour cycle coupled with the immediacy of the Internet and particularly RSS feeds and especially Twitter feeds means that events can appear to be way out of proportion and seem more significant than they are. And I know that the combination of the entire Middle East in flames (or on the brink of bursting into flames) with a particularly deadly earthquake in New Zealand doesn’t mean anything at all — it’s just a stupid coincidence. But if you wanted to design a backdrop to a particularly violent and horrifying kind of early 21st century war movie, this might not be far off from what you’d choose.
I don’t mean to make light of the suffering, or trot out that tired old meme about how we process the world through the framework of entertainment and diversion — really, I don’t. I think I’m trying to process, for myself, what it means to be watching all of this, and to figure out why it all feels so surreal, and yet is completely unsurprising. It’s a very weird feeling, and I’m not sure what to make of it.
As an aside, I learned tonight the true meaning of the term “get-home-itis.” I never got it before — could never really understand how somebody really really really had to get home, to the detriment of their own safety and potentially the safety of their family. Driving through a blinding snowstorm (yes, really) around Woss, I finally figured it out, and when I did, I was awfully grateful I wasn’t driving at that moment, or flying myself home, because I knew in my heart that I would have been making bad decisions because of the desire to get home. It has been a strange, revelatory kind of day.