A tent city can be made to disappear, but Occupy’s unanswered questions won’t: How is no one in jail for the mortgage catastrophe? How can anyone preach “pure” capitalist gospel after the 2009 bailouts? How does a society that claims exceptionalism tolerate such staggering income inequality, and the awful loss of promise that is its greatest cost?
Filling the silence was a primal howl that had been building in America even during the boom. By 2006 reality shows like Top Chef and Project Runway, which promised to make you a better consumer, shared cultural space with Man vs. Wild, which taught you how to trap and eat lizards in primordial jungles, offering the fantasy of the stronger, more capable and fulfilled person you might become if magically delivered from everything around you that was making you miserable.
This year we went deeper into antisocial dreams. In 2010 The Colony succeeded as apocalyptic reality show simulating viral apocalypse. In its finale, one contestant, an increasingly paranoid carpenter, hid in a patch of tall weeds when simulated government agents offered help, assuming that their incompetence had been translated into the story line. It drew 2.3 million to the Discovery Channel at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday night, only to be outdone this year by The Walking Dead, whose pilot drew 5.7 million to AMC with a vision of apocalypse as pure cliché—the Sheriff, the Rich Elitist, the Crotchety Old Man, the Token Black Guy—all bickering before a legion of hopelessly dehumanized zombies in stunning anticipation of the Republican debates.
There were biological rites. Bin Laden’s assassination was pure death ritual, Delta Force-like spider monkeys on a primal raid. The web demanded pictures of a corpse, and when none were released people simply Photoshopped their own, mutilating an eye here, bruising flesh there, mouse clicks crushing human skull. They went viral—not exactly real or unreal, more the feeling of the one thing rubbing against the other.
The Royal Wedding was a fantasy-fertility spectacle in which Kate Middleton, the gifted AIDS researcher, finally succeeded in her long struggle to escape the upper middle class. Twenty-four million people watched, ratings so good that Kim Kardashian pretended her own marriage six months later. She drew 4.4 million viewers, made $17 million, then filed for separation, at which point a minor miracle occurred: after a decade of abuses and betrayals by elites, there was still, somehow, enough American capacity for belief that people claimed outrage at Ms. Kardashian’s disregard for the sanctity of marriage. But she was soon forgiven. And why not? With Kim’s Fairytale Wedding: A Kardashian Event, she’d let people abandon themselves for a two-part, four-hour E! stupor, and that was worth something, because in 2011, mainly, there was no escaping the present: there was way too much of it coming way too fast, conning, pleading, plotting, perverting even alpha into omega.
Wild monkeys will soon be joining the ranks of Fukushima’s heroes. The monkeys will be unleashed to test radiation in the site’s forbidden areas. One assumes they’ll be strapped with Chinese-made HD cameras, in the spirit of the day. The footage will be shaky, but that will let us know it’s real. We’ll watch as they go yapping, loping, hooting, meeting modern horror with primal awe. And maybe a few will pause in their heroism to find each other in the isotopic wreck, to mount and caress and conceive in naked assertion of life over death—
They’re up to the 92nd floor of One World Trade Center, which will replace the twin towers, whose destruction a decade ago began this whole regrettable era. They added 40 new stories this year, almost one a week. What everyone knows but won’t say is that we loved the old buildings only in the negative, as shafts of light on summer nights. They were violent in their homogeneity, in their Bauhaus rejection of history, “a pair of fangs” at the end of Manhattan, as Norman Mailer put it when arguing against them ever being built, rightly predicting that if they did go up, they’d be working for the devil.
But the new structure keeps surprising with its beauty. You’ll be downtown at night and you’ll look south and see its light-dotted form, fragile but determined—like a flower coming up through the snow.