I ventured from my small declining city in farmland to the cheerless suburbs for some Christmas shopping. I wasn't immune to the consumerist spirit of Barnes and Noble. Items that I would typically ignore or mock were oddly appealing. They were potential gifts. As gifts they promised a momentary escape from profit and loss, supply and demand. Even though they lied, I couldn't help but believe them. The day after Christmas, they will have lost their potential as gifts. Sinking back down into the swamp of over-production, they will have become bargains. So much extra and unwanted stuff, they will slide into overstock and only a week or two after the New Year turn into trash.
One series of such items features the motto from WWII Britain, "Keep calm and carry on." There is a "keep calm" calendar. There are mugs, tshirts, shopping bags, refrigerator magnents, and mobile phone cases repeating the injunction. Why are we so enjoined?
To say that the slogan traveled from the UK where it was an ironic and affectionate nod to the Queen and British resolve mistakes geneaology for explanation. Lots of things travel through communicative capitalism's meme flows. Not all of them get their own mugs and calendars.
I think the call to "keep calm" is everywhere because we are in a crisis, over the edge, living the end and one step from total panic and chaos (for a slightly different demographic the analogous meme is YOLO). It repeats a British slogan because the British handled their decline much better than we are. They offered a kind of social welfare--national health, housing, education--that eased the pain a bit.
I started thinking about the demand for calm down during my yoga class today. The instructor mentioned the Connecticutt shootings and then told people to focus on the positive. She advised the class not to turn on the news and to be mindful of our breathing.
I don't think the instructor is an idiot, bless her heart. She's just repeating what she's heard over and over and over again for a decade, since the world ended and instead of joining the rest of the world as one of many facing common problems the US suffered a psychotic break.
For some, this psychosis manifests itself via an intransigent attachment to the power the country no longer has, except for its nuclear arsenal which gives it its remaining power, the power to destroy. For others it manifests itself via the delusion that we can go back, become Keynesians again, return to the social democratic road we didn't take. For still others it's in the desperate hope that they can seize enough--money, weapons, things--to keep the rest of us so far away that we can't do any damage (I talk more systematically about US psychosis in the last chapter of Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies).
The mistake of zombie movies and Mayan calender fans is that they think of the apocalypse as happening relatively quickly -- although it's worth noting that a zombie apocalypse takes longer than an asteroid, so maybe there is some cultural learning here. The apocalypse isn't fast --it's slow, perpetually and momentarily displaced like so many chemo treatments or anti-aging creams, Snow Crash not Omega Man, Feed not Dr. Strangeglove, Super Sad Really True Love Story not 2012.
Do we really expect the areas of New York demolished by hurricane Sandy to be rebuilt in a way that can provide something like a quality of life for poor and working class people, for people who were living in public housing or other low income areas? Or is it more likely that the city will use the disaster as an opportunity to continue its steady banishment of low net worth individuals in the name of development? If we keep calm, they will keep on, keep on expropriating and exploiting because nothing is stopping them.
Do we accept that the families of those slaughtered at Sandy Hook elementary school will recover, will come back stronger and better than ever? I don't and I think that suggestions of healing and recovery and celebration and moving on and requiring a waiting period for the purchase of semi-automatic weapons perpetuate the fantasy that everything is basically okay, that the system is sound, that if we remain calm and soldier on we will get through this thing together. That's the biggest lie of all because we are not together and we have not been together. We persist in a lie that violence is freedom and inequality is freedom and the unrestrained exercise of financial power is freedom. We even have a motto for this persistence.
Keep calm and carry on.