By Eric Olsen
When Cheryl and I were assembling the content of our just released Best of Books by the Bed #1 (BrightCity Books), I asked contributors to expand or update their original contributions, if they wished. I took the opportunity myself to elaborate on some of the books I had included in my list of late-night readings, among them Niall Ferguson’s The War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (Penguin, 2006). I noted that this book is an example of what is sometimes called, in less-than-polite company, “disaster porn.” I also noted that I’m a huge fan of disaster porn, a sucker for anything declaring the end of this or the end of that, whether that end is brought on by environmental catastrophe, economic catastrophe, an asteroid the size of Oklahoma, a virulent new virus, zombies, giant lizards from outer space, a Republican majority in the Senate as well as the House, or, in the case of Ferguson’s book, a sort of inevitable Malthusian catastrophe punctuated with RPGs, roadside bombs, and backpacks filled with gunpowder and nails, all worsened by a failure on the part of a fat, complacent West to think much beyond the next quarterly financial statement.
Not by my bed, I then went on, but on a shelf over my desk, are still more works of disaster porn, including Anthony Padgen’s Worlds at War: The 2,500-Year Struggle Between East and West (Random House, 2008), and need I say that Padgen thinks the West is losing? Then there’s Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (Touchstone, 1996), and once again, goodbye West. Also over my desk is a copy of Jane Jacob’s Dark Age Ahead (Random House, 2004), goodbye not only the West but all of civilization; Death of the Liberal Class by Chris Hedges (Nation Books, 2010), adios liberals, and since liberals alone uphold Western values such as liberty, equality, democracy, etc., against the onslaughts of right-wing Republicans, goodbye West once again; and Why the West Rules—for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future, by Ian Morris (Picador, 2011), and need I add that Morris also thinks the West’s about to get its butt kicked?
You can no doubt tell from the list above that my particular obsessions lean toward books about the decline of civilization as we know it.
Cheryl says I could use some professional help. If so, I’m hardly alone.
In a review of George Packer’s The Unwinding, a “minor masterpiece of the social-disintegration genre,” Thomas Frank, Harper’s columnist and author of one of the premier examples of disaster porn, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, writes that Packer’s book is “a beautifully written, clinically observed story of the slow-rolling economic transformation that has, over the last 30-odd years, made vast parts of America into a destitute wasteland….” (You know this one’s on my Christmas list.) Then Frank goes on to tell us that in just the last 20 years or so, there have been more than a thousand titles published in the sub-genre that concentrates on the “collapse of the middle class and rise of the plutocracy” (which collapse-with-rise of course inevitably leads to the collapse of the West, the decline of civilization, the death of culture, and so on and so forth).
In the review, Frank goes on to list some of these thousand-plus texts, by sub-sub-genre. There are the “Greats,” he tells us, such as Paul Krugman’s The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century (W.W. Norton, 2004), and Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better (Dutton, 2011), which Frank includes, he says, despite Cowen’s ultimate optimism.
Then there are the “Ages,” including Jeff Madrick’s Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present (Knopf, 2011) and Thomas Byrne Edsall’s The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics (Anchor, 2012).
And the “American tragedies” such as The Betrayal of the American Dream by Donald Barlett and James Steele (Public Affairs, 2012) and The Looting of America: How Wall Street’s Game of Fantasy Finance Destroyed Our Jobs, Pensions, and Prosperity—and What We Can Do about It by Les Leopold (Chelsea Green, 2009).
And finally, the books that take what Frank calls the “scream-therapy” approach, including Beyond Outrage: Expanded Edition: What Has Gone Wrong With Our Economy and Our Democracy, and How to Fix It by Robert Reich (Vintage, 2012) and Greedy Bastards: How We Can Stop Corporate Communists, Banksters, and Other Vampires from Sucking America Dry, by Dylan Ratigan (Simon and Schuster, 2012).
Speaking of vampires, it was no doubt inevitable that someone would include them in the title of a book about doom, gloom, and the collapse of everything. And thus we also have zombies: Henry Giroux’s Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism (Peter Lang, 2010), which Frank for some reason doesn’t mention. Says one reviewer of Giroux’s book, he “makes clear how it is that Americans are living through what Hannah Arendt once called ‘dark times,’ times in which the violence and cruelty of human disposability remains hidden in the black light of an increasingly authoritarian public realm.”
“Two things need to be said about this tsunami of sad,” Frank continues. “First, that the vast size of it, when compared to the effect that it has had—close to nothing—should perhaps call into question the utility of journalism and argument and maybe even prose itself.”
Need one point out that the death of prose or the death of literature or the death of reading or death of journalism are likewise another sub-category of this larger “tsunami of sad”?
Frank’s second point is that “with few exceptions here and there, the components of this genre have been pretty damn dull.”
Ineffective? Dull? Then why’s disaster porn so popular?
In Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away, Eric C. Wilson, a Wake Forest University English professor, says that our morbid curiosity has an evolutionary function: Being well-informed about dangers and potential dangers helps us survive; finding points of empathy through which we can connect with those who have suffered allows us to build lasting bonds.
And there you have it, folks: The urge to write disaster porn, like the urge to read it, are fundamental to human nature and human civilization. Thus I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that our proto-human ancestors probably survived long enough out on the savannah to evolve into us and develop civilizations and things like writing and printing and disaster porn thanks in no small part to those alarmists among them who kept running around flapping their arms and shouting that the sky is falling, or that we will also survive, despite all these declarations of doom and gloom, thanks in no small part to this tsunami of sad.
Oddly, there are very few examples of disaster porn mentioned by the 25 contributors to Best of Books by the Bed #1. Of the nearly 250 books mentioned by our contributors, we have my mention of Ferguson’s War of the World, while my good buddy Don Wallace talks about Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Penguin Books, 2011). And that’s it. Maybe our contributors are an unusually upbeat, optimistic bunch. Or maybe they just have enough sense not to read books about looming disasters just before going to sleep, or trying. But I must say I’ve found a few pages of Ferguson late at night to be an excellent sleep aid.
What have I missed? What disaster porn is in your stash? Come on, don’t be embarrassed; you’re among friends.