Is the World Going Insane?

Is it me, or is there a kind of madness sweeping over the world? Certainly for a very long time people have been (among other things) violent, selfish, and engaged in social policies that are, to say the least, not particularly rational.

Now, however, there seems to be a kind of free-floating disconnect from reality, patterns of speech and behavior that literally make no sense. Consider:

A woman loads her two kids into her car and simply drives into the Hudson River.

Twenty-four (yes, twenty-four) Filipino men celebrate Easter by...being crucified. One has done it every year for more than three decades—in thanks, he says, for surviving a three-story fall 35 years ago.

A United States senator tells (knowingly?) an enormous untruth on the Senate floor. When he is called on his mistake, his office reassures us that what the Senator said "was not intended to be a factual statement."

The worst day of tornadoes ever recorded sweeps through the South, leaving 350 or so dead. Seventy percent of Texas is in a drought. And more people in that part of the country believe in the literal truth of Genesis than in the literal truth of global climate change.

In the same vein, Australia hasn't had decent rainfall in years, and we don't even want to talk about sub-Saharan Africa. Throughout the world food prices are rising precipitously, with extreme weather events one of the key reasons. And my university, which produces some of our nation's best-trained engineers, invites the head of Exxon Mobil (which has spent millions to convince people that global warming isn't happening) to be its commencement speaker.

And just today, in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden, I hear various U.S. spokespeople saying that we'll be all set to leave Afghanistan when we've made sure "the country can defend itself." Since it is we who are foreigners, and the Taliban is almost entirely made up of Afghanis, this statement leaves me, once again, in a state of near hysteria.   

I could go on, but instead I'll just ask you, dear reader, if you ever listen to the news and wonder if the world has gone mad?

Before we get into causes, let's pause and admit how frightening this is, for at least two reasons. First, crazy people are, well, crazy: unpredictable, out of touch, capable of saying and doing things that don't belong in an ordered, safe world. For such people the usual motivators don't motivate. The woman who wants to kill her children cannot be dissuaded by saying, "Stop, for God's sake, those are your own kids." The freelance crucifixion victims are not interested in the fact Jesus said we should help those in pain, not willingly create suffering for no purpose.

Politicians, who have enormous power, seem to inhabit a world in which what you say and "the facts" have only the most distant of relationships. And the global warming skeptics won't be convinced by a rational discussion of science, greenhouse gases, and looming, disastrous feedback loops.

And sometimes, in a way, it gets worse, for sometimes I wonder if I'm as crazy as everyone else. I write my books and articles while the temperature slowly rises. I say I follow an eclectic spiritual path that teaches the importance of compassion and kindness, and when I'm frustrated I can get petty and self-righteous. Isn't there some fundamental reality that I've lost touch with, as well?

Maybe we are all a little, or more than a little, overwhelmed. Dealing with climate change will require such an enormous transformation of our economies and lifestyles that it will be comforting for many to leave their heads buried in the sand until the very last moment.

Politicians desperately need to raise funds, are hounded by the media, and live in a public space virtually defined by phrases meant to be emotionally affecting rather than descriptive of hard truths or actual moral virtues. Raising children in a world of rapidly changing culture, technological invasion of the family, and endless "things" that most of us don't need, not to mention the vastly diminished sense of community, is enough to drive most of us at least a little nuts.  And being the world's only Superpower is such a grave responsibility that it's not surprising U.S. spokespeople are driven out of their minds by the sheer power they wield.

Almost a century ago, Leon Trotsky, a leader of the Russian Revolution who was subsequently hounded from the Party and then assassinated, made a stark prediction. Humanity, he said, faced a simple choice: "socialism or barbarism." A world dominated by mammoth corporations, and its flip side of violent religious fundamentalism, however, looks less like barbarian hordes than it does the inmates running the asylum.

5/5/2011 4:00:00 AM
  • Mainline Protestant
  • Spirituality in an Age of Ecocide
  • Crucifixion
  • Global Warming
  • Mainline Protestantism
  • Osama bin Laden
  • Roger Gottlieb
    About Roger Gottlieb
    Roger S. Gottlieb ( is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. His newest book is Spirituality: What It Is and Why It Matters.