I’d not really been sure what to make of the Barbie Latza Nadeau or Ryan Broderick takes on the sudden and somewhat mysterious spread of the letter “Z”, in both creative and mundane ways, as the symbol for Russian aggression in Europe—or maybe I just chose to not let it make much of an impression on me because stop already, everything—but by the time I got to Masha Gessen I was sobered.
It took only a week for the “Z” to become the symbol of the new Russian totalitarianism. But totalitarian symbols are usually created at the top. The red flag and the swastika—the two main visual symbols of twentieth-century totalitarianism—emerged from years of ideological, aesthetic, and even spiritual movement-shaping. The “Z” is a different animal, a ready-made symbol picked up by a society that has already reconstituted itself as totalitarian. From now on, though, it will probably function as any totalitarian symbol of the past did: as a visual battle cry and a symbol of belonging. Soon enough, its absence may be interpreted as a sign of disloyalty.
Not long after Russia invaded Ukraine (and amidst Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling), someone with whom, post-Twitter, I text about politics and television put it bluntly: “Going from Trump to Covid to this is a lot.” I thought about that as I was watching this run of stories about the latest in fascist graphic design and branding.
That observation about all of this being “a lot” made me realize a little more overtly how, even setting aside my personal obstacles, I’ve been in a state of hypervigilance since the summer of 2015. Of course, being in a state of hypervigilance “only” for seven years actually is a position of privilege; as a society we inflict a more or less continuous state of hypervigilance on any number of individuals and groups who don’t happen to be, like me, a middle-aged, straight, cisgender, white man.
These past seven years, I realize now, have been spent suspended in a kind of perpetual present and a kind of fixed startle response. Everything kept being bad, and then getting worse, and at some point you just sort of shut off the part of you that thinks anything better could possibly come along. Despite which, it’s nonetheless jarring all over again when the next worse thing happens.
In high school, I had an English teacher who thought that the era of The Day After miniseries and the movie Testament called for nothing less than making us read Alas, Babylon. As a class, we rebelled and refused. I mean, how much of being reminded that at any moment madmen might kill us all in global hellfire did she expect us to take? Hurt, she had us just work on our New York Times crossword during the time she’d set aside for the book. If you’re a child of the nuclear Eighties, it understandably might be more than a bit unnerving to see Russia threaten on live television to use nuclear weapons against anyone who interferes with their invasion of Ukraine. So, I made a playlist, because I thought that the only way out of the way I felt in that moment was to go through it all. Again.
This is no way to live. It’s no way for any of us to live. I can’t but wonder if the reason it shook me so hard to have Putin, not once but twice, threateningly remind everyone that he has nuclear weapons isn’t just because I was a teenager in the Eighties but because after Trump, and then Covid, well, why wouldn’t nuclear war be next—because after Trump, and then Covid, the next worse thing starts to sound like a surething.
The problem with a steady state of hypervigilance where some next worse thing actually comes to pass is that it becomes increasingly difficult to tell when you are catastrophizing and when you are being realistic.