The Parchment-Thin Veil of Civility

lord of the fliesby Glenn Fairman   6/13/14
‘Maybe there is a beast….maybe it’s only us.'”  •  “The world, that understandable and lawful world, was slipping away.” — William Golding, Lord of the Flies

It had all the makings of a Summer Cinematic blockbuster—where the seemingly arbitrary whim of nature casts her capricious lot on the urban Northeast and afflicts these high density communities with an untold malicious vehemence. Indeed, like some Olympian wrath brought on by mankind’s gross impiety, Hurricane Sandy has left her indelible and frightening footprint on millions of lives. But having scoured the Jersey Shore and decimated much of the power, transportation and communication infrastructure of America’s Greatest City, we as moral beings are once again granted a ring side seat for an equally stripped subterranean view of the human condition—an odyssey into the ethical default state of man when reduced to primal powerlessness and carnal frailty. How axiomatic then that once the artificial veneer of technology is exposed, our civility closely follows as the Ant Farm is shaken and its tiny creatures climb over one another in the primal urge for self-preservation. What began then as “The Day After” soon crystallized into William Goldings’s “Lord of The Flies.”

Indeed, the loathsome reality of what humans can descend to readily reveals their true visage, once pressure and scarcity are applied in significant amounts. Correspondingly, widespread looting and violence have been reported, and given the strained capacity of law enforcement to control criminal lawlessness, the thin whitewash of custom flakes away, revealing a Hobbesian will towards survival in which the fundamental directive is etched red in tooth and claw. Although there are some flickers of kindness and altruism, the very human necessities of lodging, food and fuel are finite commodities that, rightly or wrongly, are being used as levers for extortionate gain. As a case in point, on Craigslist, it is reported that gasoline is being sold for as much as fifteen dollars a gallon.

In the borough of Queens, fear has become a constant companion once the night and temperatures fall and people are left with no power and heating. To make matters even more terrifying, thugs dressing in the uniforms of City Utility workers, and identifying themselves as such, are knocking on doors at midnight– in places where few legitimate workers have been seen even through the daylight hours. To wit, huddled inside their darkened apartments, the cold and hungry have barricaded their doors against home invasion attempts and have armed themselves with guns, baseball bats, or even archery bows. With streetlights and traffic signals off-line, intersections are mass chaos and one takes his life in his own hands by driving in a vehicle where everyman has become a Road Warrior, a veritable law unto themselves. With many bridges closed, along with much of the public transportation in areas, a general feeling exists that government has dropped the ball, as if government of itself had the means to counter the rivers of water that dispose and make a mockery of paltry man and his tawdry planning.

But for some reason, it is not so much the brutalities of nature that assault our sensibilities, but the man-made terrors and indignities arising from callous disregard and malice. It is the New Jersey union workers that refuse the aid of non-union first responders in meeting the public needs: which flaunts the stench of callous group interest. It is those who take advantage of a bad situation and thereupon make it far worse. It is those hands that rob and loot the corner market or the fiends who use the cover of calamity to settle old scores or to enrich themselves. Please understand: I am not shining a beacon on this nastiness in order to cast aspersions on New Yorkers or the residents of New Jersey, but to amplify the truth that beneath our parchment-thin wallpaper of moral obligation, mankind, whether residing in Calcutta or the Hamptons, is a seething cauldron of self. Any major urban center in America, faced with an overwhelmingly catastrophic earthquake, flood, or even the detonation of a dirty bomb, will bring out self-interest, fear and despair in the best of us—and for the worst of us, transform our ethical countenances into that of cruel and clever beasts. Moreover, an apocalyptic war of “all against all” does not necessarily need to occur in order to bring this reptile out of its psychic lair, as any shopper at a department store on Bad Friday can readily attest to. Try as I might, I cannot deny that there is a savage living under my skin.

In an age where government does everything it should not and fails in doing what it ought, we must keep in mind that the glib courtesies of civil society are only a mask for a measured depravity entrenched deep within us all—and we should develop at least a modicum of self sufficiency should our time come. I would like to think that in a situation in which the stark horrors of survival were made keenly manifest, I would rise above the masses and do the selfless thing; but a loaded and cocked Smith and Wesson beside my bed is a testament to the fact that when push comes to shove, I am more than capable of doing what I “need” to do and perhaps ill-disposed in doing what I ought to do. How quickly our beautiful and vibrant cities, a tribute to our collective but synthetic material and social architecture, become as jungles where the hunter and hunted enjoin that timeless Darwinian dance for survival and dominance. How swiftly man assumes the posture of children in war paint, shedding his civility as a useless garment while rallying to the cadence of that primordial rhythm induced by Pig’s heads under torchlight.


Glenn Fairman writes from Highland, Ca.
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2 Responses to The Parchment-Thin Veil of Civility

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I had a look at that parchment-thin veil recently, and not in the way that you would suppose.

    No half-naked, fully dirty, violent boys were menacing anyone on the beach. Apart from violence, it was the most menacing thing of all: incoherence and blind self-satisfaction.

    Pity the schizophrenics and the mad. For reality to be physically harsh is bad, but for reality to not make sense can be even worse. When words and ideas fall to the ground and are scattered in the wind like so many playthings of happenstance, you wonder what kind of gravity there is, and must be, to hold us to the ground. And it feels like hell when, even for a moment, it falls away.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    That’s a very nice description of modern Western governance — it “does everything it should not and fails in doing what it ought” — perfect. Social cohesion (or the lack thereof) can be one problem in such emergencies. In 1977, the New York blackout led to massive rioting in many neighborhoods, but no such massive riots happened in the 1965 blackout or in a more recent one. Of course, with Hurricane Sandy there was a breakdown lasting several days, longer than most people have resources to survive on. Many of these people had grossly inadequate shelter, no transportation, no power, and (after a while) no food. Desperate situations lead to desperate actions.

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