February 6, 2003

Patterns of Fire in the Skies

A reporter called me on Sunday to ask me what I thought the national mood was in the wake of the Columbia disaster.

Getting called like this is becoming increasingly odd and distant from even a generous accounting of my expertise. I’ve commented in the past for reporters working on popular culture, nostalgia and television—I’ve sort of become Robert J. Thompson’s understudy—but now I’m getting all sorts of general questions about the national mood, reality programming and about anything else you care to name. I’m cool with it: most of the reporters who call are interesting people, often working on interesting stories. I don’t feel especially expert on some of these queries, but if I’m going to blog, I might as well talk as well.

On the “national mood”, at any rate, there is something to be said. Not what that mood is, but what it means to ask that question. I take it for granted that there is no such thing as a single “national mood” about the Columbia disaster (or many other events). Almost all of us felt sadness about it, of course. In speaking of a general mood, however, we affirm first what Benedict Anderson noted about nations, that they seek to assert a simultaneity of experience through mass media, that we are all living in the same moment, and second, we propose to find meaning in the unfolding of events, to impose orderly narratives on the disorderly progress of history.

Seven lives lost in space do mean more to me than seven lives lost in seven different car crashes. No insult to the victims of car accidents, but we place death and tragedy within larger narratives and structures of feeling all the time. My father’s death was more devastating to me by far than the death of my grandfather, not merely because of a closeness between my father and I (and a distance between myself and my grandfather) but because of the suddenness and unexpected nature of my father’s death. The picture in my mind, the powerful story, is about him dying alone on the floor of the men's room at his law firm office, an hour before anyone else got to work. That picture matters vastly more to me than the simple, banal, predictable and statistically ordinary fact that he died of a heart attack brought on by a lifetime of Type-A intensity and stress. The death of one boy from starvation and abuse in New Jersey has a different meaning to me than the death of a well-loved and well-cared for child in an accident: both tear at my heart, but they are different stories, different meanings. Similarly, some of the ways that Americans have seen meaning in the Columbia disaster make sense to me even if I don’t think they’re a literal description of the hidden causes of the crash.

Like many Americans of my generation, space exploration plays a very special role in the architecture of my imagination and aspirations. A loss of astronauts—especially when it threatens the space program’s future—has a sharp and special pain to it. (Even though I freely concede that the shuttle program and the International Space Station were and are a mistake within the overall context of the space program.) Of course, there are also very real and sharply pointed discussions to be had about causes and procedures, in which we might hope to understand and so prevent future disasters.

In a more general sense, it was hard not to feel that this event was the sad overture to what is almost certain to be a year overflowing with tragedy, that the geist of our time reached out and ripped the Columbia from the skies as a foreshadowed taste of funerals to come. You can have that sense without judging this taste of bitter loss, just as farmers sometimes sense in their bones a season of coming storms. What can you do but endure? Obviously there is no real connection: coincidence is usually just that. We connect events like an artist connects lines and shades on a canvas. You find such a picture of synchronicity resonant or you do not. It's not wrong or right in some absolute sense.

This is why I find conspiracy theories offensive at moments like this. Partly they’re offensive simply because they're such badly conceived arguments. Whether it’s the Columbia or Paul Wellstone’s plane crash, to explain the event through conspiracy is either to assert that everything we are seeing about the event through our normal channels of information is wrong—in which case the conspiracy theorist’s own sources of information are equally suspect—or the conspirators possess technological, organizational and logistical abilities that vastly outstrip anything we ordinary folk witness in everyday life. In either case, there isn’t any point to talking about it if it’s true, because if it’s true, there’s nothing to do about it anyway—it’s like human beings complaining about the power of the Olympian Gods. If we can do something—if opposition is viable—then the conspirators don’t possess the powers attributed to them, in which case the conspiracies attributed to them can’t possibly be true.

The deeper reason I find conspiracy explanations of something like the Columbia accident or Wellstone’s plane crashing offensive is that they misunderstand the search for meaning. Finding meaning and connections in events is about interpreting them imaginatively, about creatively knitting together the separate strands of time that divide our lives, a gift to others groping in the random darkness of time. A conspiracy theorist takes an interpretation and mistakes it for an empirical statement. You can say, “Wellstone’s death makes it feel as if the Democrats are cursed, a dark cloud of misfortune and malevolent disregard hanging over them.” That’s completely different from saying, “The Bush Administration conspired to have his plane crash”: you’re not talking about what something means then, but making a statement about what is true and not true.

The standards are different in that case. It’s human to try and make things make sense. It’s stupid to leap from that to claiming that everything happens for a reason, always already at the willful command of some sinister structure whose visible face appears to us only and accidentally in oblique glimpses of tragedy and suffering. Sometimes dreams just die, and souls are lost. Sometimes the heedless rush of events masters us, rather than the other way around.