It’s often a mark of seriousness, even during extraordinary events, to opine that people are overreacting and nothing much will change. Our complacency is unsurprising. Most Western elites have spent their careers in an era - and from a privileged demographic and geographic starting point - where nothing really did go that
wrong. But this is ahistorical: as John Gray points out in this excellent essay
on what he calls “apocalypse”, whole ways of life do
vanish - sometimes violently and quite suddenly.
Hysteria is seldom helpful. Godwin’s Law
has become legendary because wild analogies are tempting, but harmful. I believe Trump is a terrible president, but I still periodically reread Scott Alexander’s unpopular but wise 2016 essay You Are Still Crying Wolf
for a sense of perspective. And yet. Sometimes, as Gray shows, the apocalypse does
arrive - and the fashionable thing remains to downplay it. There are always comforting arguments for accommodating it or denying its character, as Anne Applebaum’s long and brilliant new essay
So how does apocalyptic change happen? Adam Elkus posted a superb piece
this week, in which he argues that the apocalyptic becomes possible when people gradually come to believe that the old rules no longer apply - or, in his words, when there’s “sustained breaking of expectations and disruption of the ability to simulate the future”. We’re living through perhaps the most sustained - and universal - breaking of expectations for generations. As Elkus concedes, the base case is that nothing cataclysmic will occur. But history is a terrifying catalogue of the exceptions.