It’s always been a crazy life. The President doesn’t have a monopoly on self-induced chaos. The monster of history is one long tableau of illusions of rationality. Those demons are lurking in all of us. It’s just that we don’t have the codes to nuclear Armageddon at our fingertips.
Crazy life is at home everywhere. Albuquerque’s five-time world champ, boxer Johnny Tapia knew the craziness down to his knuckles and his bones. “Mi vida loca” was tattooed on Tapia’s abs just below an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe serene in her merciful grace. Despite all of his ups and downs, Albuquerque loved Tapia not only because he was a great prize fighter and a gentleman, but because his vida loca spoke to so many of us of how life tricks us and blindsides us and leaves us battered and dazed. But in the end Johnny’s vida loca took a happy turn when his childhood haunt, the Wells Park Community Center, named its gym after him. He didn’t know it though, as crazy life would have it. He died from heart failure several years before. His death made many of us feel acutely, once again, that life often seems to make little sense.
And Now La Vida Loca seems to have the whole nation in its grip with bewildering senselessness mushrooming over a narcissistic president suffering from a persecution complex and next to zero impulse control. Some even think this is the craziest moment in American politics if not American history as a whole. But I’m persuaded lately that la vida loca is not an anomaly but a principle character trait of the species. The illusion of control, of common sense, of predictability, all set us up for sucker punches right and left.
The craziest thing of all, though, is our profound desire to render the nutty into the normal, to “normalize” the whacky, to morph what we know is crazy as a loon into something we’ve all seen before, as if madness can be rendered sane simply because it happens all the time.
Allow me to make a brief list of some of the obvious craziness we’ve normalized, craziness that makes the President seem like a court jester easily toddled off to the sidelines.
The Great Madness, in my mind, was MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction, which guaranteed that a nation firing a preemptive nuclear strike would be assured that, in turn, it would be reduced to confetti. According to a 2013 piece by Zachary Keck in The Diplomat, the Great Madness allowed the world’s nuclear powers to accumulate 125,000 nuclear weapons since 1946, “97 percent of them by the U.S. and Russia.” The USA had built some 66,500 warheads, or 53% of the world’s total.
By 1986 the world’s stockpile had been reduced to 64,500. At present, the world’s MAD stockpile is now at a mere 17,000 intact warheads, still distributed mostly between the US and Russia, with small holdings by Great Britain, France, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, and China. The Chinese have some 250 operational hydrogen bombs, according to The Diplomat.
That is the world’s la vida loca. And we hardly think anything of it at all. It’s just the normal way of modern life. And yet one of those hydrogen bombs could flatten Manhattan, or make a crater out of the Los Angeles Basin, or turn Chicago into dust. A hundred such explosions, and the smoke and ash of all those cities towering into the atmosphere, could probably create a nuclear winter with enough radiation to literally end life on the planet. But to the normalizers that’s just doomsday talk. “Oh come on. Do you really think we’d be so stupid?” Given a vida loca of the modern world, I certainly do.
And, of course, in such an exchange, Santa Fe, the Los Alamos National Labs, Albuquerque and Sandia Labs would be first-strike targets. The illusion of rationality and common sense lets us live with it and keeps us far away from demanding Cold War nuclear pollution be removed from the New Mexican landscape.
The normalization of craziness comes in seemingly far more benign forms as well. Take the preposterous growth of computational power in less than fifty years.
“Your smartphone is millions of times more powerful than all of NASA’s combined computing in 1969” when it landed a man on the moon and brought him home, says the on-line zmescience.com. Talk about nutty. The software used in Apollo missions to guide safety and propulsion systems were being used for the first time, “and formed the basis for modern computing.”
The iPhone “is 32,600 times faster than the best Apollo era computers…You wouldn’t be wrong in saying an iPhone could be used to guide 120,000 Apollo era spacecraft to the moon, all at the same time,” says zmescience.
I spent the first 25 years of my life as a writer without anything even resembling a computer. I composed my copy on a manual typewriter. The pages I produced had so much liquid whiteout, rubber cement and whiteout tape on them they’d be too thick to be shredded. So for me the illusion of normalcy in social media and instantaneous web searching covers up the crazy-paced evolution of computers that has become in some ways both sinister and miraculous. There’s so much spam on my iPhone it’s like a lunatic robot has hooked on and is filling my electronic space with sawdust that’s also a million times faster than Apollo’s computers. The illusion of communication hides a crazy tsunami of digital pollution that mirrors the enormous islands of plastic waste swirling in the oceans of the world.
I find it crazy that a child in America can have 12 years of compulsory education and not graduate with a thorough, up-to-date, working knowledge of the U.S. Constitution, Supreme Court rulings and the ins and outs of state, local, and national governments. We’ve so normalized ignorance of how our laws work, that fewer and fewer of us have the basic intellectual wherewithal to understand the concept of “self-government,” the cornerstone of our freedom. That’s a kind of madness that can turn a democracy into the dark craziness of dictatorship almost overnight.
One last example of la vida loca, and there are, I would guess, thousands more, is the illusion of the public good when it comes to economic regulation. The normalization of craziness comes when you consider interest rates and the economic fate of millions of low or fixed-income Americans. The Fed lowers interest rates to next to nothing to stimulate business and basically wrecks the savings of the vast majority of consumers who depend on low-risk, government-insured compound interest from banks and credit unions to grow their meager stash. But no growth is possible at .005% interest. So those with a little money put away for the future are forced into the high-risk madness of the casino of the stock market where they might grow their savings by five or six percent a year, if they don’t lose it all in mad plunges in investor confidence.
La vida loca permeates all levels of modern life – from macro horrors of nuclear holocaust, to the resident of the White House tweeting like it was the Nut House, to the tiny tinkerings of finance that make or break the fiscal independence and security of vast millions of working and retired Americans who are not millionaires and who could never afford the risk of losing their savings in the market. The illusion of rationality is not unlike the Emperor’s new clothes. Once we see it, we must tell ourselves what we’ve seen – a façade of normalcy that is so often, behind the scenes, pure rubbish, crooked, outright baloney, ultimately dangerous and dangerously depressing.