The World is Coming Unglued

I don’t know exactly what I mean when I say the world is coming unglued. But I feel it. It’s a premonition, a tremor in the fabric of the reality that until recently I thought was more reliable and solid.  I also have a better sense of what it means for the world to be “glued”—a sense that everything coheres and sticks together.  The world is “glued” when what I experience and what other people experience is pretty much the same world.  But that’s not true anymore.  More and more people are curating their own reality, their own sense of what is true and real.  Social media and conspiracy theories help accomplish this, and along with peoples’ general disconnect they are a juggernaut careening through daily life distorting everything in their path.

I read recently that quite a sizable percentage—perhaps more than 30%–of Americans believe in one or more conspiracy theories, going all the way back to the assassination of President Kennedy and the first moon landing.  Perhaps the Kennedy assassination was the moment that the glue that held us together first really began to soften.  I was a freshman in college at the time, and I remember standing in the television room of the freshman commons with a bunch of my classmates, watching Walter Cronkite fighting back tears as he announced that the president was dead.  To this day it is not entirely clear (at least to me) what actually happened, and who was really responsible. But that day we all sensed something ominous, a feeling that the world we knew and trusted had cracked open and could not be closed up again.

I have friends who still strongly believe that the 9/11 destruction of the twin towers was an “inside job,” that people high up in our government knew it was going to happen and let it happen.  These friends are highly educated—one is an eminent psychiatrist—and have access to all the relevant information.  But they believe what they believe, and there’s no amount of argument I can muster to talk them out of it.  Could they be right? I don’t think so, but the glue that could help us agree on a definitive to that question has melted away.

As a response to the recent proliferation of wacky conspiracy theories, a GenZ-er in Memphis, in 2017, posted on Facebook a satirical conspiracy theory that “birds aren’t real.” According to his theory, birds have all been killed and replaced by drones which the government now uses to spy on all of us.  Though it started as a joke, the movement grew, and not everyone who joined it knew or believed it was a joke.  Apparently as of 2021 there are hundreds of thousands of members; maybe they get the joke, maybe not. So, are birds real or not? You and I may think they are, but who knows? 

That’s the point: what we know as “reality” is a fragile thing.  Many years ago I had a dire brain infection and fell into a deep coma.  Inside the coma I was awake and dreaming; my brain was concocting a stream of visions about what I thought had happened to me, all of them absurd by waking standards, but compellingly real to me in the coma.  It seemed that my brain—unable to connect in any way with the waking world—was creating its own reality based on a lifetime of memories. The brain, it seems, always wants to create a coherent reality with whatever information it has. In one vision I was in a sushi restaurant, lying on a gurney, pleading with the kimonoed waitress to help me wake up.  She told me I would have to eat some special sushi which they kept in the back for this purpose.  In another I was lying on the floor in a cabin of an ocean liner while a sergeant in the Australian army (yes, seriously) was singing an old army marching song to help me stand up.  When I did actually wake up in the hospital, still hallucinating and surrounded by beeping medical equipment, I looked up at the television hanging from the ceiling and saw it as a frowning nurse, scolding me.  Which were real, my many coma visions, the frowning nurse, or my wife who I could dimly see sitting next to the bed trying to explain that I had been very sick? I didn’t know.  My world had come unglued.

Our hold on a shared, waking reality is a lot more fragile than we think, especially when we are frightened.  During the Black Death in Europe in the 14th century, no-one knew what was causing everyone to sicken and die, but one widely shared theory was that the Jews were somehow responsible for it.  A lot of Jews died because of this theory.  We recently experienced an echo of this phenomenon during Covid, when many people heard (and believed) the idea that the Chinese were behind it, causing a rise in violent attacks against random Asian-Americans. 

Is it possible that the world has always been more or less unglued, and we are just now (or again) predisposed to notice it? Or is that itself just another conspiracy theory? I wake up each morning and read the New York Times, which I believe is my anchor on what is real, but there are many people who believe that the Times is utterly untrustworthy and full of lies, and prefer to trust Fox News or what their friends tell them on Facebook.  How do we know who is right? Do we vote? Let’s not get starting about elections and voting—another conspiracy rabbit hole.  It seems that all of us are now fated to swim in a ocean of melted glue, and the best we can do, it seems, is try to stay afloat and breathe some air.  Where this will all lead I dare not think.  One thing I am pretty sure of: if something really bad happens, like a climate catastrophe that kills millions, the scientists will explain it however they will, but many people, I fear, will just look for somebody or someone to blame.

3 thoughts on “The World is Coming Unglued

  1. I just told one of my kids on Sunday that I felt I was living in the wrong century for many of the same reasons you list here…”unglued” is a good way to put this feeling of being lost somewhere that is controversial for no reason I can put a finger on. It’s very strange and I hope temporary.

  2. Thank you for this. Regarding your reference to conspiracy theories, I found this pertinent:
    On May 11, 2022, the “Los Angeles Times” ran an article titled “Vast domestic spying network alleged.” Information culled from a “…two-year investigation released Tuesday by the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy & Technology.” According to the report, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been “accused of overreach in its surveillance tactics directed at immigrants and Americans alike…the report paints a picture of an agency that has gone well beyond its immigration enforcement mandate, instead evolving into something of a broader domestic surveillance agency, according to the report called ‘American Dragnet: Data-Driven Deportation in the 21st Century. ICE officials not did respond to a Times request for comment…”
    “…Formed in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, ICE was given sweeping powers…”
    “…ICE has driver’s license data for 3 in 4 adults living in the U.S…”
    “…In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill in 2020 that promised to protect utility customer data from exposure to federal immigration officials. But ICE found a way around the law, purchasing access to hundreds of millions of Americans’ utility records provided by data brokers Thomson Reuters and Equifax…”
    As someone who has intrinsically distrusted Republican politicians since coming of age, this is entirely consistent with my apprehension of their mentality. Some of that party’s leaders might, in fact, file this report under “Mission Accomplished.”

  3. Unglued seems to be the apt word for what so many of have been experiencing recently. Hopefully the beginning of 2022, I thought of this year as coming out of sheltering and finding a more stable environment. Traveling through \airports, which I have always done throughout my years, I found a feeling of uncertainty, a lack of joy to come back to America. It is a time we must not fall asleep but strive for all of us to to keep aware and alive.
    Cousin Flo

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