When the World Turns In

The global impacts of our increasingly insular culture

Henry Wismayer
Jul 25, 2018 · 7 min read
Photo by Slava Bowman on Unsplash

“There’s a ton of news right now, a lot is going on, and we have all these 24-hour news networks, and we could be covering everything. Instead, we’re covering three topics. Every hour is Trump, Russia, Hillary, and a panel full of people that remind you why you don’t go home for Thanksgiving.”

— Michelle Wolf

A few years ago, when the political horizon looked very different and the bags beneath my eyes were half as deep, I received lots of correspondence from aspiring writers. Seldom would a week pass without a familiar email pinging into my inbox — usually some preamble of admiration for a piece of mine the writer pretended to read, followed by a supplication for advice on how they might do the same for a living.

Perhaps it was to be expected. In those days, I’d carved out a modest niche as a travel writer, and there was envy in that lifestyle, with its carefree itinerancy and slow takes on foreign people and places.

Around five years ago, the emails dried up. Part of this was undoubtedly due to the diminution of my own output: I’d had kids, traveled less, so my reputation as a shoestring Marco Polo was less prominent.

But I couldn’t help wondering whether the tapering off said something else about the shifting priorities of the upcoming generation, who now had so much shit to worry about that considerations of how to blend paid work with experiential urges seemed irrelevant against the pressure-cooker backdrop of how they were going to pay off student debts, obtain stable work, afford a mortgage, survive.

And in its turn, this apprehension fed a hunch, which has since grown with each passing month, that the world is gradually turning in.

Let me take you back to where we were in the summer of 2005, a time before smartphones and Twitter, when Donald Trump was still an innocuous cartoon-character tycoon on NBC.

In early July of that year, the world joined hands for Live 8, a series of charity concerts scheduled to coincide with the G8 Summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, where leaders from the world’s most powerful nations were meeting to discuss the most pressing priorities of the day. Top of the agenda was a subject encapsulated in Live 8’s aspirational slogan: “Make Poverty History.” Tens of thousands packed the concert venues, and a television audience of 2 billion looked on at home, and before the music began to play, we all watched Live 8’s promotional video, in which celebrities like George Clooney, Cameron Diaz, and Bono stood somber-faced against a white background, intermittently snapping their fingers, each snap symbolizing the preventable death of a developing-world child.

Four days later, as the G8 leaders ate canapés 400 miles away at the Gleneagles Hotel, a city rejoiced at the news that London had pipped Paris, New York, Madrid, and Moscow to be named host of the 2012 Olympic Games. At the time, it felt like international validation of what we already knew: London was globalization’s great urban success story, the place where multiculturalism worked. The following day, four men claiming allegiance to al-Qaida blew themselves up on the city’s public transport system, taking 52 commuters with them. And I wonder, looking back, whether London’s idea of itself — of the ur-city, cradle of tolerant coexistence — ever recovered.

Because, 13 years later, how times have changed. I don’t think I’m speaking only for myself when I suggest that the chances of the next G8 conference focusing on the alleviation of African poverty seem remote at best. In a democracy, political impetus emanates from whatever most preoccupies its constituents, and how often do we think about those African kids now? They are still dying, in case you were wondering. According to UN figures, one in 12 children in sub-Saharan Africa perish before reaching their fifth birthday. But you would scarcely know as much to read the papers or watch the daily news in 2018, because this stuff barely registers amid the cacophony of the central pantomime: the return of Western nationalism, and the dissolution of Gleneagles’ united front into a more hostile, suspicious, and disunited world.

We are rarely challenged to consider the world beyond our most pressing interests, anxieties, or frivolous curiosities.

What’s happening in China? In Africa? In South America? Unless you’re one of the very few people who still consumes their current affairs old-school, thumbing the newspaper cover to cover, there is a very real chance that you don’t have the first clue.

How many people watched Al Gore’s 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, and felt exercised to engage with the civilizational threat of climate change?

How many watched its 2017 sequel?

This suggestion that we in the West have become more blinkered over the past decade raises two obvious questions: First, how has this increasing insularity come about? Second, can we divine any societal impact?

In answering the first of these, we are compelled to acknowledge the impact of two era-defining narratives that have disrupted the outward-looking, globalist attitude symbolized by Live 8 and London’s multicultural apotheosis. The first is the financial crash of 2008, which, even if it didn’t quite dump millions of people into abject penury like its 1930s precursor, burst the bubble of complacency that had formed around the free-market capitalist model. It is a lot harder to care about invisible foreign children when we are wracked with anxiety about incoming bills and the economic viability of our own children’s future. To look outward is the luxury of the calm and comfortable.

The second (arguably even more significant) is the rise of violent Islamism, which has resuscitated the specter of foreign threat and the fearful perception of the outside world as a hostile and hateful place, where to be different is to be an enemy. For many, the Western conviction that globalism and multilateralism in pursuit of mutual benefit represented an inevitable final destination for the world’s nation-states fell to pieces at 8:46 a.m. on 9/11/01, when American Airlines Flight 11 collided with the North Tower of the World Trade Center. This moment, and the worldwide blight of Islamist atrocity it presaged, broke the seal on European and American hatreds that had been largely dormant since World War II, and it looks like it will be the task of generations to rebottle them.

The wellspring of current liberal despair is that our latest chapter of economic insecurity coincided with the rise of a retrograde foreign dogma. Together, these two narratives have torpedoed the Enlightenment idea that the bounty of the free market would eventually persuade every country into the fold of liberal democracy. More alarmingly, the liberal conviction that national borders are arbitrary constructs, and that people, irrespective of ethnicity or language, are ultimately the same, has started to sink with it.

Underscoring these two major narratives, we must also acknowledge the paradoxical influence of the internet on the way that we ingest and process news from the world around us. We can argue all day about the chicken-and-egg nature of the news cycle — whether editorial decisions are responding to public appetites or actively manipulating them. But there can be no denying that the relentless tempo of the modern news cycle has decimated our attention spans.

With the metrics that once determined a story’s prominence largely supplanted by the race for clicks, social media algorithms now feed us a conveyor of stories according to our specific tastes. As a result, we are rarely challenged to consider the world beyond our most pressing interests, anxieties, or frivolous curiosities. In Yemen, more than a million people are at risk of famine, while most of their Western neighbors are talking about whether they can hear “laurel” or “yanny.”

The implications of this attenuation of the public gaze aren’t difficult to compute. The anthropologist Jack David Eller unpacked the dynamic with crystal clarity when he wrote:

Insularity is the foundation of ethnocentrism and intolerance; when you only know of those like yourself, it is easy to imagine that you are alone in the world or alone in being good and right in the world. Exposure to diversity, on the contrary, is the basis for relativism and tolerance; when you are forced to face and accept the Other as real, unavoidable, and ultimately valuable, you cannot help but see yourself and your “truths” in a new — and troubling — way.

It is a fair speculation that the resurgence of nationalistic sentiment that has accompanied the political earthquakes of recent years, Trump’s presidency chief among them, could never have been achieved were it not for the two narratives, coupled with shifts in news dissemination, gnawing away at this relativist faculty.

What’s happening in China? In Africa? In South America?

In our growing insularity, and the concomitant fear that insularity evoked, the architects of those nationalist tremors saw an opening. They nurtured that insularity and then exploited it over and over again.

Opponents of Donald Trump’s regime will point to his volatility and the instability he instigates as evidence of his incompetence. But this analysis ignores the fact that the instability tends to serve his agenda, not undermine it. One of the great weapons of populists is that they are chaos agents, and the chaos they bring preoccupies people to such an extent that they can no longer work out what’s true, what’s important, or what’s beyond the next hill. By keeping attention forever focused on the American psychodrama and the momentous struggle between progress and reaction, Trump stokes the fires of his American Carnage.

It would take a brave oracle to predict where this process might take us next, but history tells us this much: A myopic population is a more pliable one, and parochialism is the despot’s best friend. Until we can break out of this impulse to turn inward and recalibrate our priorities accordingly, the deck is loaded in the favor of the mad and bad — the strongmen whose hollow promises to keep us safe grow more appealing the more we fear and turn away from the wider world.

In the meantime, I’ll look forward to a time when young people feel able to spend their twenties as I did, discovering with each dusty bus journey and bar-side conversation the last truth they want us to know: that the world, and the people in it, aren’t so scary after all.

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