In America, we don’t have snow showers anymore. Those meteorological events are now known as Snowmageddons, Snowpocalypses, or Polar Vortices. We’ve even begun to name them, like hurricanes. Each season, as newscasters brace for the arrival of Winter Storm Mephistopheles, inching along the map with its Judgment Day payload of fluffy white powder, most Americans see through the hype, but we’ll ransack grocery store shelves anyway. After all, it might be weeks before another thrill like this comes along.
When something truly unnerving arrives, like a global pandemic, America serves up just the right pitch of high-octane, Hollywood disaster-flick pandemonium to make the whole thing a bit zanier and more camp. The world depends on us for that. We invented the genre. China may have unleashed a deadly and mysterious new virus but Americans have long infected the planet with our sense of drama.
That’s what we do. Americans are in the business of entertainment, not only with our films, but our politics, vapid celebrities, and gregarious displays of mass hysteria when a crisis hits. Or, when there’s no crisis at all — like a vote recount, a sex scandal, or the release of a new iPhone — America remains Earth’s favorite reality TV show.
We can’t help it. We’re exhibitionists by nature and a highly theatrical, expressive people. When a camera is rolling, average Americans, more than other nationalities, know the game, and we’re ready to perform. Local news stations across the US provide the world with its greatest viral video stars. If you doorstep a stranger in Possum Gulch, Arkansas, at a Gristedes on the Upper West Side, or outside a housing project in Nashville, Tennessee, chances are you’re going to meet a real character who’s eager to put on a show. We’re that way off camera, as well. I recall, in my early twenties, living in a cramped London flat with four Brits and three Americans. If we all were gathered in the common room the Brits would sit back, utterly amused, and watch the Americans interact, as though we were a sitcom. ‘You’re like an episode of Friends’, one said. ‘You’re like cartoon characters’, another said. We know, thanks!
We’re also extremely cheeky, something that sails over the heads of many Europeans and American leftists. We know when we’re performing, even if our audience doesn’t. Some of our best, unscripted comedic moments often are mistaken for stupidity or savagery, especially in the American mainstream press and foreign media, programmed, as they are, to look upon the common American with abject disdain. Perhaps, some distant day in the future, American leftists may look back upon the Trump presidency and suspect their unbridled, infantile rage caused them to miss out on some joy and hearty laughter, but that may be a bit optimistic.
Which brings us to the great toilet paper run in the era of the Wuhan Chop Fluey. I can’t be the only person who watches videos of women socking old ladies in the face at the supermarket over a four-pack of Charmin and thinks, ‘they’re having a good time’. Even those scores of people raiding the dry goods aisles, hoarding cases of paper towels in their basement, plotting some hair-brained, price-gouging scheme on eBay that will ultimately fall flat, tend to make me smile. What’s more American than impulsiveness mixed with wild ambition that blows up in your face? That’s the spirit of a truly entrepreneurial society — sometimes it works, most often it does not.
New York, where I live, is perhaps the most cinematic setting on Earth for the apocalypse. This week, just about everyone, except business owners, will admit the ghostly streets and eerie silence along our grand, steel canyons is, well, kind of awesome. The only language we have to describe our present reality comes from referencing the Hollywood films our culture churns out. ‘I’m in Times Square and it’s like I Am Legend’, a friend texted me this week. ‘I wish it was always like this’.
We also love the orgy of despair. Our friends on the left have been wallowing in it like pigs in shit for the last four years and they still can’t get enough. During the Chinese coronavirus outbreak, our highly esteemed news organizations run headlines filled with doomsday language assuring Americans that life as we know it is over. ‘This is really important’, they tell us, ‘things will never be the same again’. The rest of us have leaned-in to the End of Days, as our viewing habits reveal. The 1995 film Outbreak, starring Dustin Hoffman, about a global viral pandemic, shot into the top-10 most watched items on Netflix this month, alongside the zombie apocalypse series The Walking Dead.
Things will return to normal, and quite quickly. Americans simply get distracted too easily. If actual lockdown occurs, it won’t be long before we decide it isn’t a big deal. And, even if it is, we’ll soon tell ourselves that old people probably deserve to die. The end of civilization will dissolve into a general sense of, ‘I’m bored, grandma’s kind of a bitch anyway, let’s go get hammered’.
Real-life stagecraft is effortless for Americans perhaps because the story of our nation is a great drama, one that continues to captivate the world and us. The great experiment is ongoing and it’s always exciting here. Why would you ever want to live anywhere else?