There’s a fire burning underground in St. Louis County.
This is not a metaphor. There is, quite literally, a rolling trash fire that’s been burning there since at least 2010. We’re hearing about it now because someone at radio KMOX got a hold of the county government’s evacuation plans, in case this fire advances another 1000 feet into the neighboring toxic waste dump. Yuppers. It’s actually possible that a 5-year-old, continuously burning trash fire might ignite a dump that is not only an EPA superfund sight, not only contains illegally dumped toxic chemicals from the 70’s, but even has remnants of nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project in the 40’s.
The landfill that’s been burning all this time (Brighton), and the toxic waste dump (West Lake), are both owned by the same company – Republic Services. Here’s the crazy part – and this is a straight quote from the AP article:
For years, the most immediate concern has been an odor created by the smoldering. Republic Services is spending millions of dollars to ease or eliminate the smell by removing concrete pipes that allowed the odor to escape and installing plastic caps over parts of the landfill.
Everyone says there’s nothing much that can be done about this kind of thing. It’s underground, it’s not dangerous (or it wasn’t until it got close to a toxic waste dump, which, if ignited, will likely make any air breathed in the area, well, toxic), it’s just inconvenient, and it’s happening in a part of the country without much money. Most of these fires happen in empty or abandoned mines. We all know how important the folks who live in mining towns are to the mine owners once the mines have been tapped out. And, of course, Republic Services is being sued by the county for violating environmental laws, which has done nothing whatsoever, of course – the suit was launched in 2013, but they still haven’t actually gotten into court.
When I lead by saying “this is not a metaphor,” I was lying. Any writer worth his salt would want to exploit this sucker to tell a tale. (There’s also a whole play for someone to write here – or maybe the play is about Centralia, PA, where a similar fire ignited in 1962 and utterly destroyed that community – the 2013 Census reports a population of ten in Centralia.)
But, as a writer, which crisis do I hold this up against – there are just so many options! Police/African American relations, economic iniquity, frustration with our elected leaders, our elected leaders frustration with their own inability to actually achieve anything… the options are legion. Since today’s Columbus Day here in the States, why not talk about entitlement? White, male entitlement?
I asked my brother, who is a lifelong computer geek, about 4Chan the other day. He’s been on it since it was a little room in which people who posted code could talk about how to use the code, whether it was ok to use the code, and other morality surrounding code. Over the years, the little room grew, and subdivided, and grew some more, until it became a bunch of big rooms, each filled with collections of deeply like-minded individuals. Because most of them have something in common (being computer folk) and because the Internet allows us to create purely self-reinforcing communities, their conversations, regardless of the topic, tend to be fairly circular, and empowering. This is not unique to 4Chan – all of us who are active on social media, read blogs, or follow computer-delivered news tailor our input to suit ourselves. I’d be surprised (and, actually, quite pleased) if I discovered any white supremacists or serious tea-party members in my Facebook feed.
The horrible thing that’s happening in one channel on 4Chan is that a whole lot of like-minded, hyper entitled young men have found each other, and started encouraging each other’s entitlement. They call themselves “The Beta Revolution,” and they are one of America’s underground fires. Their rage started from the garbage notion that, because they are who they are (mostly white men), they deserve to certain privileges. They deserve lovers, whether or not those lovers are interested. They deserve a job that they like and that pays them well. They deserve the life they want to lead, regardless of how that impacts those around them.
Christopher Columbus was a representative of a similar worldview. He saw the Taino people and the Americas in general as a means to providing a better life for him and his people, regardless of the needs of anyone else.
The Betas see guns, roofies, and rape threats as means to provide them with what they want. Their threats seem to be unprosecutable online, which leaves them free to build up enough momentum to move out of the chat rooms and into society, where some of them chose to kill as many people as they can who they imagine stand between them and their desires. They call themselves Betas because they think that, once they rid the world of the Alpha males, they will win all of the accolades, women, and comforts they feel to be their birthright.
There are lots of reasons they have these feelings. Contemporary Western culture has a terrible track record when it comes to representing women as complete, self-determined humans with the right to make choices about their lives and partners based on free will. Our entertainment media (games, movies, books, cartoons) are saturated with images of men becoming heroes through acts of massive violence. And the American Dream of advancing in society through merit and hard work has proven to be disappointing, as we watch the options for the working class to succeed diminish with each subsequent generation. They’re getting fairly clear messages from our culture that they’re not wrong.
My brother tells me that lots of these guys are proficient coders who either can’t find, or refuse to work at, real jobs. They’ll spend 300 hours figuring out how to trick extra lives out of an X-Box game, but can’t motivate themselves to put in 40 hours a week making health-care software more efficient, or working on an algorithm to track sweater sales. And who can blame them? How boring is that stuff? We are taught to pursue our dreams. We (white middle class boys) are often told, “Work hard enough, and you can be ANYTHING you want to be.” And then life comes along and kicks us in the nuts. Because it doesn’t work that way. Good intentions and hard work do not automatically translate into getting us to anything we want. There is no code to crack that will make women like you – you actually have to be likable, and interested in them. And even, then, it’s no guarantee – human beings aren’t like that. I’ve worked hard my whole life, and I can say that I’ve succeeded. But my roof leaks, my bank account is often so empty it echoes, and I started going bald at 27. That’s life. I work with what I’ve got, try hard to get gigs that excite me, enjoy the privileges I have, love my family, and do my best to enjoy my time. Because I know I’m not entitled to more.
And today, I have to stop and think that much of this goes back to the way Europeans came to the Americas. We came as conquerors, we took what we wanted, and it worked. I believe that this approach has been ingrained into the majority culture in the United States.
The problem is, that approach only works when we can pretend that the other humans involved don’t have equal value, or equal rights. And most of us have evolved beyond that pretense. Christopher Columbus lit a fire built from an outdated notion – a notion that most of us understand is trash. But if we don’t put it out for once and for all, life here in America is just going to keep getting more and more toxic.
(original AP article about the trash fire: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/10/08/world/st-louis-girds-catastrophic-event-underground-fire-burning-since-10-get-near-cold-war-nuke-waste-cache/#.VhruvxNViko)