Awesome

Among the battery of inane phrases that are in common (over)use among young people generally, American young people particularly, and totally vacuous and infantile creatures in American sitcoms most of all, the word ‘awesome’ stands out. In sharp contradistinction to ‘unbelievable’, which has no meaning at all in most of the (ab)uses to which it is put – e.g. ‘your shoes are unbelievable’ – the adjective ‘awesome’ does have inherent meaning in many of the contexts in which it is liberally sprinkled. For instance, it is certainly possible for a movie to be ‘awesome’, i.e. to inspire awe, but it is also extremely rare. For every other movie you see to be ‘awesome’ is unbelievable. Not “like, unbelievable”, but unbelievable in the most literal sense.

The problem is actually twofold: one is the inability to use the right word in the right context. The other is more basic, namely to understand what the words you use and the concepts they express actually mean. ‘Unbelievable’ is an easy concept, so that a moment’s thought – were it ever to be given – would highlight how stupid and actually meaningless it is to apply it to items such as shoes and pizza.

But what about ‘awesome’? This is a much more abstract concept and, as noted, inherently rare. Many adults, let alone teenagers, have never experienced genuine awe in their lives. Indeed, one person’s awe – as in ‘awesome’ or ‘awful’ – leaves another person untouched, or in the grip of an entirely different emotion. What word would you use, for example, to describe the implosion of the Twin Towers on 9/11?

So we find ourselves in what are termed the Days of Awe, observing a dynamic that must surely qualify for either ‘awesome’ or ‘awful’, or both: the collapse of an ideology, that supported a culture, that supported a lifestyle, that was embraced by (at least) hundreds of millions of people, who enthusiastically pursued for a generation or two – and that is now going it, unlike its erstwhile Communist rival, in a massive bang rather than a whimper.

Because that is what the ‘financial crisis’ is actually about – and that’s why it’s still covered by the specialist reporters and analysts. The last thing anybody wants – not the media and not its readers, listeners and viewers – is to be brought face to face with the unpalatable truth, that ‘the world as we knew it’ is no more. So long as it is played as an economics and finance story, everyone can pretend that it’s contained in its niche and we don’t have to know about it if we don’t want to, because after all, it doesn’t have much impact on us…

Worse, because the whole mess is being covered by the money guys, the message that goes out is that it’s about their kind of stuff. Money, jobs, all the quantifiable things that can be printed with zeroes or ‘ions’ at the end, and make nice graphs. So the magnitude of the disaster, today, yesterday, this week, last month, is that x zillions were wiped off share prices… and similar drivel, printed in large red letters. And indeed they were, and will be and yes, It Keeps Getting Worse, and yes, this column and other analysts who refused to go with the herd predicted it. But that’s all within the framework of ‘business as usual’, which includes recessions, crisis and other unpleasant events. None of that is not ‘awesome’, it’s just part of life and you get on with it.

What is truly awesome is to see forces unleashed that are beyond the control of any human agency – even though they are themselves the bastard product of human ingenuity. Think atomic bombs – because the current disaster is the result of the proliferation and widespread use of ‘financial weapons of mass destruction’. They are currently destroying the source of income and the personal wealth of most of their inventors, designers, producers, marketers and deliverers. But they cannot stop there and so they are expunging a large proportion of the wealth of many other people who, for all practical purposes, are innocent bystanders.

The destruction of the wealth of individuals, households, communities, regions and entire nations is not merely a ‘financial crisis’. It changes the way those individuals and nations think and behave, not for weeks and months, but for years and decades. Last time this happened – the very name, ‘the Great Depression’ testifies to its lasting legacy – the impact extended over fifty years.

What is underway now is an epochal event. It is surely too soon to grasp its full magnitude, let alone guess its consequences. At this stage it is an emotional, rather than an intellectual event. It is truly awe-inspiring – and, it seems, the awe is not just ‘some’, but rather ‘ful’.

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