Two-thirds of the way through his claustrophobic 2021 comedy special Inside, Bo Burnham briefly strips away all the humor and launches into “That Funny Feeling.” It’s an intimate, quiet song that draws its power from its lyrical conceit. His verses are constructed of modern contradictions (“stunning 8K resolution meditation app”) and phrases that at face value are absurd (“the live-action Lion King”), while the chorus once again contends with the titular feeling. Except Burnham does not name the feeling. Instead, he evokes a general notion that something is off. The song doesn’t work if the idea of a “stunning 8K resolution meditation app” doesn’t arouse something similar in you, too. It’s vaguely dystopian, disoriented, unmoored.
Burnham and I are roughly the same age. I was 1 when the Berlin Wall fell. I was 3 by the time the Soviet Union collapsed. Burnham and I are in the middle range of millennials, a generation born into the longest period of global American supremacy, and we’ve been deeply shaped by this stretch. In the West, it’s been understood as an era of stability; in the early 1990s, one political scientist even suggested we’ve arrived at the “end of history,” an argument that, following the triumph of Western liberal democracies over other arrangements of governments, there would be no going back.
And so it was for most of my life that history has been over. The general edicts of the rules-based order and liberal society have applied. The world was now unipolar, the US became the central axis around which the world spun. American wars no longer had specific ideological enemies; instead, they were fought against concepts — public opinion was mobilized to engage in a war on “terror.”
Two years before I was born, in the spring of 1986, German sociologist Ulrich Beck published the book Risk Society. Beck’s ambitions were high. He was grasping for a unifying theory, trying to name an ethos of anxiety and uncertainty, a pervasive vagueness of the age we were in. In the preface, he declares that he takes issue with the “post-” prefix; at the time, everything was “post-” — postwar, postindustrial, postmodern, postcolonial. Beck was unsatisfied with that frame because “post-” is a negative definition. It defines what something is not. That we are “postmodern” tells you very little about what has replaced modernity. Beck argued that we were actually in a “risk” society — a very cool, not-at-all-alarming name — an era of organizing ourselves in response to global, anonymous, invisible threats.
But Beck didn’t stop at naming it — he offered a way forward: a framework for how to live in a risk society. His fundamental question: “How can we cope with the fear, if we cannot overcome the causes of the fear? How can we live on the volcano of civilization without deliberately forgetting about it, but also without suffocating on the fears — and not just on the vapors that the volcano exudes?”
We have arrived at the mouth of the volcano. Two years after the start of a global pandemic that has killed millions around the world and nearly a million in the US and upended the lives of everyone on the planet, we find ourselves at a crossroads at every level of our lives. On a personal level, our friendships have been reordered. On a national level, technology has accelerated a complete breakdown in trust of institutions that once served to keep us together. Globally, a war in Ukraine has exposed the fragility of the rules-based order. Meanwhile, the collective reluctant action to fight the climate crisis has deepened instability and thrown into doubt the idea that we can avoid dire consequences. We are undergoing a colossal vibe shift that extends beyond taste, aesthetics, politics, fashion, or policy. The world as we knew it is not coming back, and it’s entirely reasonable that we may find ourselves plagued with a general restlessness, a vague notion of disorder. It’s that funny feeling.
They may have been days of anxiety and restlessness, but the early days of the pandemic were also a time of togetherness. This went beyond a performative online unity. There was a general sense that we were all vulnerable to a virus we still knew little about. Global economic machinery, for the most part, had ground to a halt. City streets were empty, save for the essential workers in hospitals, grocery stores, and other services required for survival. To let them know we appreciated the risk they were taking, many of us gathered on balconies and on sidewalks every night to bang on pots and pans as a chaotic expression of gratitude.
On social media and in news articles, experts told us to take care of ourselves, to check on each other, and not to let the social bonds fray. People held “Zoom parties” as a consolatory replacement for the real thing. We may be apart, we declared, but we’ll find a way back to each other. Beloved musicians asked for patience and promised, “There will be light after dark / Someday when we aren’t 6 feet apart.” Actors, uh, tried to reassure us.
But as the pandemic wore on, and waves crested and waned, a new set of politics started to emerge: the politics of risk. Many of us found ourselves gravitating toward friends who shared the same risk tolerance as us. Alliances formed based on how willing people were to spend time with each other IRL or how willing they were to maintain a digital relationship. Friendships weakened over differing ideas of what constitutes an acceptable hangout in the time of COVID-19.
On a deeper level, the pandemic has introduced an elevated tenor of personal politics. In this way, the pandemic enlarged politics, making it the most immediate thing about relationships. This process, which was certainly underway long before COVID — quite visibly so during the Trump presidency — has become even more acute as a willingness to follow health requirements became a kind of litmus test for friendship eligibility.
If the personal level of our lives is filled with fraying personal relationships, the national level is filled with decay. Consider the corrosive pretext of Donald Trump’s entire argument. He never said that the people in power are corrupt and that he should lead instead; that would, at the very least, be an argument for preserving the integrity of the institutions. No, instead, Trump’s core offer was that the very institutions he sought to lead were themselves unworthy of redemption. “Drain the swamp” was not a promise to purify; it was a promise to undo.
The world as we knew it is not coming back, and it’s entirely reasonable that we may find ourselves plagued with a general restlessness.
On the one hand, it’s a deeply cynical, destructive, and indeed existential argument. On the other hand, a lot of people bought it. The good news is that Trump is not currently president. The bad news is that on his way out, he dealt a near-fatal blow to those institutions when he encouraged supporters to “fight like hell” and march on the Capitol. Sure, the system held up and rebuffed Trump’s play. But the cost was deep disarray, a rattled political realm that has not yet fully contended with the image of one president tarnishing the system. In a democracy governed by unwritten norms, adding a dangerous precedent is one of the most destabilizing things you can do. And who knows who will be compelled to push the precedent further next time?
The more immediate question for American democracy is: Why did more people vote for Donald Trump in 2020 than in 2016? Surely they didn’t miss the news cycle of his entire presidency. It’s impossible to have missed him systematically subverting the institutions that governments rely on. So could it be that they bought the story that the institutions were unworthy of redemption? Did his presidency confirm something about decay in general social trust?
Consider the Edelman Trust Barometer. The public relations firm has been conducting an annual global survey measuring public confidence in institutions since 2000. Its 2022 report, which found that distrust is now “society’s default emotion,” recorded a trend of collapsing faith in institutions such as government or media.
Though it’s easy to be dismissive of Trump’s crass nihilist threat, it’s far harder to contend with the realities that enabled him to succeed. After decades of letting inequality worsen, those with their hands on the levers of American democracy suddenly found the will and drive to send thousands of dollars into the bank accounts of every American. US households grew their wealth by $13.5 trillion in 2020 thanks in part to generous government spending to keep the economy afloat. This may solve one big problem — how people were supposed to pay their rent and mortgages while work was closed — but it introduced a new one: Wait, so the government could’ve done this any time it wanted?
Soon it became clear that even the wealth gains of the pandemic were not equal. Because of an unexpected stock market boom, more than 70% of the increase in household wealth went to the top 20% of income earners. Generally, workers with higher incomes saw their lot improve due to the sweeping economic changes of COVID. Meanwhile, temporary pandemic aid programs helped reduce child poverty in the US before they were pulled back in late 2021.
It’s possible — at times rational, even — to conclude that successive American governments have not considered widening income inequality to be an urgent problem. It’s rational to conclude that successive American governments have been asleep at the wheel, content with general economic growth while not paying attention to where that growth was going.
That we have social language for this is a meaningful success of the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011. Its physical impact may have been short, but its rhetorical one is a reimagination of the public language of inequality. We have a 1 percent and a 99 percent — and by every imaginable metric, the lives of the 1 percent have been getting better, even during a global pandemic. Indeed, the richest Americans have gotten unimaginably richer during this period of great upheaval.
If there is comfort to be found in the vague promises to use the pandemic as an opportunity to rethink society — the vows for a “Great Reset,” the pledges to “Build Back Better” — the comfort is immediately undone by the reality that those very vows have been hijacked by anti-science, anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown people to claim baseless conspiracy theories that go as far as suggesting the lockdowns are deliberately designed to speed up economic collapse.
These claims are not unique to the US. There have been tremors in Canada, where a convoy of truckers and their supporters occupied downtown Ottawa for weeks and demanded the prime minister’s removal. On the other side of the Atlantic, they’ve popped up in the Netherlands, Germany, and France.
It’s difficult to imagine how trust in national governments can be repaired. This is not, on the face of it, apocalyptic. The lights are on and the trains run on time, for the most part. But civic trust, the stuff of nation-building, believing that governments are capable of improving one’s life, seems to have dimmed.
In February, the Republican Party declared that the Jan. 6 insurrection and the preceding events that led to it constituted “legitimate political discourse.” At best, this is a direct attempt to minimize the events of that day. At worst, the Republicans’ declaration implies that the US’s political institutions are fraudulent and that any form of protest — including insurrection — is valid. This may get the party votes in the upcoming midterm elections, but it’ll cost more than money: It’ll come at the price of further deterioration in public trust.
For months, US intelligence had been claiming that Russia intended to invade Ukraine. That the intelligence was right is heartening. But it also raises another question: Why didn’t the US do anything to stop it? America still prides itself on being the moral compass of the world, the keeper of the liberal order. Why didn’t it move to act? Why didn’t we rally NATO and its allies to action?
One thing we can deduce from the lack of action is that the plan, probably, was never to stop Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. President Joe Biden had long talked up his plan of targeted sanctions and diplomatic pressure. To put it another way, perhaps the US and NATO were going to let Ukraine fall and figure out what to do afterward.
Then Ukrainians started pushing back. In a deeply rousing display of resistance, Ukrainians — led by a charismatic and direct president — made the case that they want to join the global liberal dream they’d heard so much about. Far from folding in front of Russian military might, Ukraine’s people used social media to tell a coherent and deeply moving story of national identity. In essence, ordinary Ukrainians used the argument of Westernization as a weapon: Here we are, displaying the very values you preach and claim to defend — freedom, openness, transparency, and national pride — so will you come to defend us?
But in making the plea, Ukraine exposed a problem with the West. In the 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union — nearly my entire lifetime — liberalism has come to be taken for granted, the will to defend it withered. Three decades of not articulating what you stand for will do that.
Liberalism has come to be taken for granted, the will to defend it withered.
Meanwhile, Russia has spent years pointing out that the neat story America tells has actually been a lie. The West, so secure in its superior narrative and assuredness that history has ended, has regularly defied some of its own fundamental tenets. It has repeatedly violated state sovereignty (see: the Iraq War). It has overlooked certain crises (see: Palestine) in favor of strategic interests. And it has preached the transformative power of free trade while simultaneously cooking up extraordinary sanctions (see: Venezuela, Iran). All in all, the US may have claimed moral superiority, but Russia needn’t reach far to poke holes in it.
So now the rules-based order stands blemished, facing accusations of hypocrisy from its foes and disappointment from those who saw it as a beacon of hope. If liberalism stands for defending freedom everywhere, it sure isn’t eager to show it.
The immediate consequence of this is another protracted war with no end in sight. The medium term carries uncertainty and danger. It turns out that not only are the bad guys not gone, they may even be winning. Some parts of the West do not have the luxury of feeling distance from danger. In the long term, the aftermath of the war in Ukraine means we can no longer tell ourselves the idealistic story that has only barely held up for the last 30 years. The rules-based order that I’ve understood to be central to the world has been revealed to be ineffectual and incapable of fulfilling its promise.
In late February, there was a new panic about memes. After Russia invaded Ukraine, a batch of memes about surviving a pandemic “to be rewarded with World War III” made the rounds, followed by the usual admonishment. This has happened before (see: the escalating tensions with Iran in January 2020).
The panic about memes generally carries the same tone — that memes are an unserious response to a major event from a generation that does not know how to regard it with the appropriate weight.
But consider this: For millennials and younger generations, the last couple of years have carried a reordering of life on every level, from the personal to the global. Individual bonds are changing in the midst of a pandemic. The faint promise of a nation you can trust has waned. There is no obvious immediate, or even distant, way back to the systems that governed us and the contracts that bound us before the pandemic. That world, on every level, is gone.
So what’s next? In the immediate, more anxiety and disorder. We find ourselves posed with the question Beck once had: “How can we cope with the fear, if we cannot overcome the causes of the fear?” In the Atlantic, Ed Yong pointed out that recently, there was one day when there were as many people who died of COVID as there were in the entire aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A hundred thousand COVID deaths were deemed a tragedy in 2020. Now, the US is hurtling toward 1 million.
This normalization of death is set against the normalization of defeat — or at least tacit resignation — in the face of climate change. Scientists have perhaps begun to run out of synonyms and journal-approved ways of saying “a lot of people are going to die and life as we know it will change if we don’t do something about climate change now.”
On March 23, 2020, 12 days after the World Health Organization declared COVID a pandemic, the Harvard Business Review ran a piece titled “The Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.” It immediately went viral. On social media, people praised it for the way it summed up their inner turmoil and captured a sense that “we are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.”
But that feeling was localized, limited to a now-surreal stretch of time when some thought we’d only have to know terms like “social distancing” and “lockdown” for a brief stint. Two years later, grief has become the air itself. We are simultaneously grieving the former sturdiness of friendships, old relationships to government, and the familiar rules that governed the world. As one investment research firm put it in a recent paper, “The risk of Armageddon has risen dramatically. Stay bullish on stocks over a 12-month horizon.” There it is again. That funny feeling. ●