Last fall, as we watched the last of the airplanes leave Kabul, my wife and I found ourselves discussing our memories of how the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had begun. Hers were oddly romantic. Growing up as she did in a solidly Republican household, she had found herself not only only assured of the righteousness of these conflicts but eagerly awaiting a strange and thrilling new life on the homefront.
In these hopes my wife would be disappointed. She had thought that a war would involve ration coupons and victory gardens and the recycling of tin, things she had read about in a children’s novel set during the Second World War. Perhaps her mother would go to work in a munitions factory, and she herself would be placed in the care of her grandparents to await the anxious news of her younger male relations enduring even greater hardships in faraway places.
“Actually,” she told me, “what I remember were malls.” To this day she recalls being surprised at how little her life was actually altered—not only did food and clothing and life’s other necessities not become scarcer; new cars were purchased, televisions became larger, cable packages expanded, and videocassettes were replaced with some kind of CD. War was something that happened on television, like American Idol.
My own impressions of those days are similar. The Bush years seemed to me to be of a piece with the 1990s. The digital revolution of the Obama administration, when broadband internet and smartphones became not only ubiquitous but technologies without which it was impossible to imagine even the most unremarkable facets of daily life, was far more sweeping than any change in American life that took place during the Golden Age of the War on Terror. (Does anyone else remember the Homeland Security Advisory System of blessed memory, with its hilariously color-coded “threat levels”?)
The war in Afghanistan is over. But the longing to which it gave rise, for some kind of shared experience of suffering—the privation and camaraderie remembered by our great-grandparents—is still with us. Nor is it the exclusive province of children. If anything, it seems to me even more pronounced among adults, especially those who do not already spend most of their days in imaginary worlds of their own construction.
This, I suspect, is one of the reasons that many people initially took the hysterical warnings about Covid seriously (at least after they decided that Trump was not a racist for suggesting that the border be closed). Even more so than the endless opportunities for self-aggrandizement the virus continues to offer our professional and managerial classes, it was the possibility that something—anything—might happen that led to our acquiescence: tanks in the streets; soldiers in radiation masks like something out of a video game dropping off food parcels on the thresholds of houses as frightened children look on with an admixture of horror and awe; a breakdown in internet communication; families tuning in to hand-cranked radios for news about the hordes of disease-ridden half-mutants having free rein of the highways; entire towns empty except for the ghosts of the fallen …
None of which, of course, took place. This was disheartening, at least initially, to a great many people, including some right-wingers, who believed that the virus offered the former president and his administration the opportunity to consolidate power in some impossibly final and lasting manner. (To me these fantasies read like a parody of one of the Star Wars prequels.)
Two years later we are living with the actual consequences of lockdowns. In newspapers we read about $60 crab cakes and historically high lumber prices. Baby formula is missing from store shelves along with almost every other good imaginable. Meats and eggs and used cars (where are the new ones?) are increasingly unaffordable, as are car parts, and inflation is said to be higher than at any point in the last 40 years. The only good deal these days is the price of a bet on one of the new mobile gambling apps, which, other than car insurance, seem to be the only thing advertised on television.
All of this is a good reminder that our sincerest hopes are often absurd, just as the visions of so-called dystopian fiction, with their hard moral clarity and grim protagonists, are a romantic lie. The truth is that we have been living in something not unlike those worlds for at least a decade. Our leaders tell us the same sorts of lies. We are equally capable of reflexive participation in our version of the Two-Minute Hate. The mad fideism with which the consensus that undergirds every aspect of our public life is devised and then abandoned does not make a meaningful impression on most of the population, and when it does, the protests against elite gaslighting are dismissed as “what-aboutism” or else ignored. We spend our time more or less voluntarily in front of the telescreen, which we carry with us in our pockets.
Meanwhile, there are no heroic resistance organizations, or indeed unheroic ones. Even the pathetic LARPing spectacle that took place at the Capitol a year ago seems to have been encouraged by federal agents, much in the way that a great deal of the rioting in 2020 appears to have involved non-local paid antinomians. Right-wingers and progressives both hope for some kind of grand moment of clarity in which the illusions of the present will be dispelled.
As far as I can tell the long-awaited deliverance is not coming. The future will look very much like the present but with slightly higher prices.
Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp and a contributing editor of The American Conservative.