Just as there are fundamental laws of nature, among which can be counted the laws of conservation of energy, mass, and linear momentum, so too are there fundamental laws of human nature, which may be said to include the law of conservation of hysteria. It was the literary critic Elaine Showalter, in her provocative 1997 study Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media, who demonstrated how a “constant cultural negotiation” takes place over the collective psychopathological “symptom pool as a whole and the legitimacy of its contents.” The “quantity of hysterical energy” in our shared symptom pool, Showalter convincingly argued, “does not decrease but flows into new channels and takes new names.” Thus, we find a more or less static quantum of hysteria distributed throughout the human population, which in different historical and cultural contexts will assume the form of various psychogenic or sociogenic disorders. Neurasthenia gives way to generalized anxiety and chronic fatigue syndromes; railway spine and shell shock are transmuted into trauma and stressor-related disorders; once-common nonorganic ailments like hysterical leg paralysis and la belle indifférence are replaced with updated conversion disorders; and iatrogenic contagions like multiple personality disorder cede the field to more au courant manifestations of dysphoria.
The same goes for the body politic, which is subject to a related law of conservation of public hysteria. Popular delusions, causes célèbres, moral panics, and identitarian conflicts come and go, borne along by fluctuating news cycles. There is something genuinely manic about our media environment, something mesmeric but deeply unsettling, always stirring us up and giving us fits. It is little wonder that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe labeled political commentators “the excitable ones.” “A constant flow of news invades life today,” wrote the Colombian philosopher Nicolás Gómez Dávila, “destroying the silence and peace of humble lives, without abolishing their tedium.” We are never short on partisan rancor, a new culture war is always in the offing, and there’s always an election, a landmark Supreme Court ruling, or an ambiguous police shooting to bring things right back to a fever pitch. With only so much room on the front pages, even in this era of infinite scrolling, and with our attention spans more and more attenuated, the Feiler faster thesis has been all but confirmed, as the increasing pace of modern life and the swift succession of news cycles become inextricably intertwined.
Recall how, a generation ago, the Satanic Panic, Band-Aid, and the Free Tibet campaign were omnipresent one minute and gone the next, replaced by novel conspiracy theories and new causes for humanitarian handwringing. One does wonder what happened to all those satanic cultists, though, or if they still have droughts and famines in the Horn of Africa and cultural genocide in Tibet, but time marches on I suppose. Recall how the relatively tranquil pre–9/11 salad days were dominated by the infamous tabloid coverage of the 2001 “Summer of the Shark,” during which shark attacks actually declined year-over-year. Within a few months, there were more pressing issues at hand than a few hungry Carcharhinidae in tropical waters. News stories, like thorns, pierce us acutely, fester for a while, then work their way back out again, soon to be forgotten. Kony 2012 and the #BringBackOurGirls campaign might seize the spotlight for a short time, but the depredations of the Lord’s Resistance Army and Boko Haram are soon largely consigned to oblivion outside of Uganda and Nigeria. We closely follow, blow by blow, the dramatic events of the 2011 First Libyan Civil War, at least until Muammar Gaddafi is sodomized and executed on camera by the Misrata militia, but the Second Libyan Civil War (2014–2020) is far too prolonged and complex, and there’s no obvious villain, so we find ourselves drawn instead to the horrors of the Syrian Civil War (with the possible exception of libertarian Gary “What’s Aleppo?” Johnson). The equally hellish Yemeni Civil War, the Central African Republic Civil War, the Myanmar Civil War, and any number of other ongoing conflicts are meanwhile relegated to lower rungs of the league table of international concern, while in February of 2022 Ukraine rockets instantly to the top.
We are all witting or unwitting participants in a never-ending cultural negotiation over what is worthy of our collective attention, however profoundly consequential or thoroughly idiotic it may be, a negotiation guided in no small part, of course, by the interests of the politico-media complex. The end result is our own particular zeitgeist, punctuated with what is increasingly being called the “Current Thing,” a term used to describe that heady admixture of current events and conventional idées reçues. Inevitably, there will be those who, as the well-worn meme has it, reflexively “support the current thing,” as well as those who reflexively oppose said current thing, which is hardly more impressive. There are even some individuals, I’m told, who form opinions based on reasoned judgment and the thoughtful consideration of relative merits — but enough about that dying breed.
“Current Thingism,” if we must use such an infelicitous neologism, is itself hardly new, being part and parcel of modernity and its tendency towards presentism, that phenomenon described by the fin de siècle German sociologist Georg Simmel as “the temporal dissolution of everything substantial, absolute and eternal into the flow of things, into historical mutability, into merely psychological reality,” wherein “every moment is supposed to be taken to be so important as if life existed for its sake.” Such conditions make Current Thingism unavoidable, though the ubiquity of social media, media bias, and elite capture have obviously served as further catalysts. In an Aug. 8, 2022 essay in the American Conservative, “The Tyranny of the ‘Current Thing,’” Adam Ellwanger bemoaned the perfervid state of “Current Thingism,” blaming it for many of our present ills, given its tendency to elevate “one political concern over all the others, which justifies inaction on other matters that may, in fact, be more urgent.” The “monomaniacal focus on a particular issue,” like the novel coronavirus pandemic or the invasion of Ukraine, Ellwanger contends, serves to forge an artificial consensus and push the issue “beyond the realm of debate entirely.” Ellwanger does not go into how an undisputed Current Thing like SARS-CoV-2 can produce disparate consensuses in, say, Sweden, the United States, Australia, and China, or even in different parts of our federal system, but the point is well taken, and some consensuses, scientific, political, or otherwise, can blind us to the faulty reasoning we saw bear noxious fruit in the form of lockdowns, school closures, mandatory masking, and mRNA vaccine mandates.
It is a rather sad reflection of the fractured and dysfunctional state of our political life, though, that any broad consensus — like the 73 percent of American respondents agreeing that the United States should continue to support Ukraine in its existential struggle against Russia — is seen by some commentators as inherently suspicious. Ellwanger, for his part, insists that “the fact that so many of the self-professed defenders of Our Democracy are so adamantly devoted to the Current Thing calls their motives into question,” before suggesting to his readers: “The next time you see an American flying a Ukrainian flag, ask yourself: could they find the nation on a map?” This supermajority of poor, deluded American sheeple, unable to find Ukraine on a map, but brainwashed into supporting its cause, and incapable of having any other concerns about inflation or gas prices or border security — this is a pretty uncharitable characterization, and one which frankly raises concerns about the entire discourse surrounding Current Thingism, however receptive I would ordinarily be to the argument that constantly shifting, and all too often hysterical, media narratives are decidedly detrimental to the body politic.
At the very least, it should be noted that there are more than a million Americans of Ukrainian descent, the vast majority of whom are perfectly capable of finding the land of their forebears on a map, and who are unlikely to appreciate Russia’s predilection for setting up torture chambers in temporarily occupied Ukrainian towns, looting museums, abducting children, and launching cruise missiles and incendiary munitions straight into apartment blocks, hospitals, theaters, and playgrounds. They are likewise less than receptive, unlike some on the fringes of the American political spectrum, to Russian genocidal rhetoric about George Soros–funded Jewish Banderite Nazis, and invasion justifications predicated on the supposed existence of clandestine Ukrainian “bioweapons labs” breeding weaponized birds infected with “Slavic DNA-targeting” pathogens, or whatever nonsense the Russian Ministry of Defense is currently spouting. I can assure Professor Ellwanger that the members of our local Ukrainian-American cultural association, and the congregants at our local Slavic churches who have been tirelessly organizing rallies, public prayers, charity bake sales, benefit concerts, collections of millions of dollars worth of humanitarian supplies, and preparing accommodations for Ukrainian refugees, can both fly the blue and yellow Prapor Ukrainy and “find the nation on the map.” I suspect a great many other Americans who have become invested in this ongoing tragedy, to the point of taking the time to display their public support for Ukraine, have probably at some point come across the occasional article or news package giving them some notion of where Ukraine is (next to Russia).
We are free, all the same, to debate policy particulars relating to the war in Ukraine. Tucker Carlson, for one, regularly does so, though even he has apparently evolved from his earlier incendiary stance of “Why do I care what is going on in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia? I’m serious. Why shouldn’t I root for Russia? Which by the way I am” and “we should probably take the side of Russia if we have to choose between Russia and Ukraine” to the more measured position that what Putin is doing “in Ukraine — while I think historically significant, certainly significant to Ukrainians — is not more significant to me than what gas costs.” Carlson, like Ellwanger, presumably just maintains a different set of political priorities and can proceed accordingly.
That said, many of the complaints about Current Thingism, particularly in the Ukrainian arena, seem to stem from a certain ressentiment about the breadth and depth of the Western pro-Ukrainian consensus. There are admittedly some, like Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser under Trump, who are willing to go on The Mel K Show and proclaim the war criminal Vladimir Putin and the increasingly unhinged dipsomaniac Dmitry Medvedev to be “bold leaders who have everything at stake in terms of protecting their country,” and Volodymyr Zelensky to be “a foolish person, a dangerous fool,” or those like Thierry Baudet, a member of the Dutch House of Representatives, who has openly declared, “I hope Russia will win, I think it’s fantastic that someone like Putin exists.” Michael Weiss of New Lines Magazine put it best: “To be honest, I prefer this blunt confession to all the undercooked efforts by Putinistas on the far right and far left who deny they’re stooging for him or an outright Russian victory.” Others who are like-minded but more cautious, and less prepared to risk voicing similar or perhaps slightly milder sentiments in the public square, doubtless feel cowed by the current political environment and prefer to rage against the Current Thing as a form of displacement. (READ MORE BY Matthew Omolesky: Keep Fighting, Ukraine. You Will Prevail.)
Regardless of one’s views, it seems impossible to gainsay that the war in Ukraine is a “historically significant” or even epochal event worthy of being a Current Thing, if we must call it that. It is the largest European conflict since the Second World War, and figures to grow rather than decrease in scale. Tens of thousands of soldiers have fallen in battle, thousands of Ukrainian civilians have been killed, millions of Ukrainian refugees have been uprooted, and hundreds of thousands of Russians have fled their increasingly despotic homeland. Entire cities have been flattened, priceless works of art have been destroyed or plundered, the Black Sea is saturated with sea mines, and Ukraine’s rich agricultural land is decimated and riddled with land mines and shrapnel. Nuclear power plants are caught in the crossfire, and bloodthirsty Russian nationalists are raising the grotesque specter of nuclear war. The conflict has caused mounting global energy and food insecurity, has prompted diplomatic realignments and the expansion of NATO, and has pitted radically different political and economic systems against each other in a Huntington-esque clash of civilizations. Are the people of Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and other countries who are caught up in all this, as they host millions of Ukrainian refugees while tirelessly supporting their beleaguered ally, themselves guilty of “Current Thingism”? Haven’t they heard about inflation? Maybe there were people in 1938 complaining that all this talk of the Anschluss and the Sudetenland was just Current Thingism detracting from more important matters like commodity prices and public budget deficits, but, ultimately, we should acknowledge that some things are Current Things for a very good reason, and that not every captivating news event is the Summer of the Shark or a cynical ploy to distract people from other worthy issues.
There are two ways in which one might conceivably combat the phenomenon of “Current Thingism,” aside from simply grumbling about it. The first is to engage in news avoidance, which actually has increased markedly in recent years. (Maybe some people were inspired by Morrissey’s 2017 single “Spent the Day in Bed,” which urged listeners to “stop watching the news.”) There is also the option of becoming an unworldly gnostic Perfectus embracing trans-materialism, or a Buddhist ascetic practicing the 12 dhūtaguṇas, the better to shake off your earthly defilements. You could even practice sokushinbutsu and enter into a state of mummification while still alive, if you like, and then never have to deal with obnoxious newspaper headlines ever again. You could just succumb to taedium vitae, and disregard the Current Things since the universe will eventually experience heat death and achieve a state of maximum entropy anyway, rendering the course of human events an ultimately trifling matter. The possibilities are endless. Or, instead of calling people with allegedly misplaced priorities “NPCs” only interested in the “Current Thing,” you could engage in what used to be known as a “policy debate,” and work to challenge our collective idées fixes and replace them with your own set of Current Things. Elon Musk actually tried to do that recently, in his own idiosyncratic way, with his ludicrous, one-sided plan for “peace” (capitulation, rather) in Ukraine. He was then subjected to intense criticism in the marketplace of ideas, defended by his fanboys and pro-Russian elements, and when his Twitter poll came out differently than he hoped, he simply declared that it was all the work of nefarious bots. Not exactly Attic orators holding forth in the Athenian agora, but it is what it is, and we take what we can get.
Ukraine is evidently something of a special case, which has frustrated those like the Critic contributor Daniel Barnes, who in his Oct. 4 piece “Armenia’s Lonely Plight” lamented the “complete lack of an international response” to the clashes that took place between Armenia and Azerbaijan back in September, “despite the unmitigated aggression from one side” (Azerbaijan). “When there were reports of war crimes by Azerbaijan (white phosphorus use, torture and killing of prisoners, intentional targeting of historical monuments), nothing was done.” The West, Barnes notes, has supported Ukraine nearly to the hilt, but not hard-pressed Armenia, leading him to wonder: “Why has the West abandoned its principles now?” Why, at the risk of sounding flippant, is Armenia’s plight not a Current Thing? Anyone who has seen the dreadful footage of Azerbaijani soldiers callously executing a group of unarmed Armenian prisoners, or has read accounts of the grisly mutilations of dead female Armenian service members, realizes that this has proven to be a savage conflict altogether worthy of international attention.
Barnes should be congratulated for his attempt to elevate the tone, not just complaining about Current Thingism but educating his readers about the deep historical background and present state of a conflict that has indeed been unfairly eclipsed of late. It must be acknowledged, however, that there are reasons why a conflict or other newsworthy event might not attain the coveted status of global causes célèbre. The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict provides a useful fact pattern in this respect. Here we have two nations that many Americans might legitimately struggle to find on a map — though if someone chooses to fly an Armenian flag, I would graciously assume that he or she probably can — but if they are able to do so, they will find some of the most bizarrely constructed borderlines in geopolitical history, products of the brutal First Nagorno-Karabakh War (1988–1994), an engagement marked by pogroms and war crimes perpetrated by each side and followed by an unstable, decades-long frozen conflict that was always bound to return with a vengeance. Unlike in Ukraine, the aggressor in the Armenian-Azerbaijani clashes is, according to international law, the aggrieved party, given that the Armenian enclave of Artsakh (formerly Nagorno-Karabakh) has never been recognized by any United Nations member states. The 2008 UN General Assembly Resolution 62/243, which called for the withdrawal of all Armenian forces from occupied territories of Azerbaijan, was passed over the objections of Russia, France, the United States, and the OSCE Minsk Group, and indicated a considerable level of support for Azerbaijan’s cause, if not necessarily its adopted methods.
Making matters worse for Armenia is its membership in the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Unlike NATO, this is a largely useless intergovernmental organization, seeing as member states Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are routinely shelling each other, Kazakhstan has sought security guarantees from China rather than Russia while refusing to recognize Russia’s attempted “annexation” of Ukrainian oblasts, Kyrgyzstan just canceled the ironically titled “Indestructible Brotherhood-2022” CSTO joint military drills, and Armenia itself is complaining of the CSTO’s unwillingness to aid them in their fight against Azerbaijan. Effectively a Russian client state, with all the paltry benefits that entails, Armenia is simply unable to look west for meaningful support.
Azerbaijan, however, has played its cards rather better, biding its time, growing its economy and armed forces, allying itself with military heavyweights Turkey and Israel, and signing a July 2022 agreement with the EU to double natural gas deliveries to Europe in the near future. In “Armenia’s Lonely Plight,” Barnes complains that “now we are in bed with the dictatorship. Azerbaijan ranks near the bottom in all practical freedom rankings: freedom of the press, freedom of religion, governance et cetera. Yet, whilst we sanction those next to them on the list, we are friends with Azerbaijan.” Shouting into the geopolitical wind, Barnes demands to know “Why don’t we care?” and “Why has the West abandoned its principles now?” The answer, as he is no doubt aware, is simple: raison d’état. As Tucker Carlson argued, the Ukrainian invasion is “historically significant,” but so is the cost (or mere availability) of fossil fuel. European leaders realize this, and are willing to do business with a much more reliable, and slightly less violent, partner in the form of Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev. So there you go — they are addressing two Current Things at once. Not so monomaniacal after all, though whether you approve on moral grounds of this exercise in Realpolitik is another matter altogether. Thus the lonely plight of Armenia has largely failed to make the cut, though we remain free to argue otherwise, and can and should do our best to raise awareness of the humanitarian toll of Azerbaijani aggression.
Sometimes a Current Thing is a matter of global and indeed epochal importance, entirely worthy of our attention. Sometimes it is a product of hysterical contagion, or cynical media bias, or even outright stupidity. And sometimes it can crowd out the marketplace of ideas, inhibiting debate. But Current Things will always come and go, subject to the law of conservation of hysteria, and it is up to all of us to distinguish between what is and is not worthwhile, to reject presentism and place events in their historical and cultural context, and to balance humanitarian idealism with skeptical realism in the best interests of national and international security. To merely decry “Current Thingism,” and to accuse one’s ideological opponents of being nothing more than servile “NPCs,” risks reducing crucial policy debates that affect millions of souls to the puerile level of meme-making. Facile argumentation only devalues our already debased cultural negotiations.
And with that, I think I can relieve myself of the obligation to write the words “the Current Thing” ever again.