The era of watching on in horror

A few weeks back, in an attempt to locate a source of stress and exhaustion rising in me like a metaphor I can’t be fucked conjuring up, my therapist asked me a handful of on-point questions. 

“What have you been focussing on at work this year?”

Well, recently it’s mostly been: genocide, terrorism, kidnapping, ethnic cleansing, war, racism, systemic racism in settler colonies, sexual assault, billionaires subverting democracy, the climate crisis, the horrors of social media, the horrors of traditional media, Rupert Murdoch, the politicians I don’t like, that discombobulating time Pauline Hanson called me a racist on Twitter, and thousands upon thousand of murdered children.

“I see,” she said, clearly seeing. “And what measures do you have in place at work to deal with all that?”

I explained there was a sense of jocular toxic masculinity and a relatively lax drugs-at-work policy.

“You need to take a month off.”

I can see that, I said, also clearly seeing that. 

As I’m the sort that likes to take medical advice seriously, I intend to spend most of January in a kiddie pool drinking beer. I urge all of you to find your equivalent happy places and stay there as long as you fucking can.

Like most years that comprise the contemporary Watching On In Horror epoch, the realness of reality in 2023 had the potential to break anyone still capable of giving a shit. It was an onslaught of righteous powerlessness in the face of barbarism, and – perhaps even harder to stomach – brutal indifference towards it. The veil of comfortable Western propaganda, the sheet that usually sits so snuggly over our eyes so we can sleep at night, is tattered and torn. When the world is this heavy with sorrow and guilt, the mere act of bearing witness exacts a toll. 

I disclose this snippet with my head doctor, not for sympathy, or to make out like I have it tougher than anyone else, but because I believe it is helpful to talk openly, honestly and without embarrassment about personal mental health struggles. Because quite often these struggles are not really that personal; sometimes they’re near-universal. We just don’t know this unless we talk about it first. The pandemic taught us this – or perhaps re-taught us this (our species’ short memory will kill us). And, more to the point, if we can normalise the carpet bombing of children, normalise ecological collapse, normalise the rort that is our economic system, surely we could also normalise looking after our brains and souls while they attempt to endure the world we have dumped them in? 

It’s the feeling of powerlessness, mostly, I think. The search for the correct words or deeds in the correct order that will make the tragedy stop. 

When the world weighs this much, refusing to make yourself numb (all the time, at least) is an act of love. Not letting exhaustion destroy your empathy is resistance. Rejecting the dehumanisation of inconvenient humans is rebellion. It might not blow up the Death Star, but it keeps the fight alive for another day. If we cannot cling onto pieces of our humanity, it is over. 

Because the machinery of war, the profiteers of environmental ruin, and the conspirators behind the theft of our collective wealth – our lawless, self-interested, plutocratic lords of capitalism – are allowed to exist only because they manufacture within us our acceptance, our acquiescence, our ignorance, our approval and our apathy. They create and spread the stories that keep them rich, that keep them un-guillotined. And stories have always been the most powerful weapons of mass destruction.

It is crucial to understand, this deep into the Decline, that our governments are compromised – not just the Liberal Party, Rusties! – our media is complicit, and that behind every single existential crisis humanity faces you will find an insultingly tiny group of people who have profited in ungodly ways from the ruin. Vampire capitalism gorging on the future of the world. And you’re either going to do something about that, or you’re not.

We stand atop a boiling rock pockmarked with crumbling democracies, eroded social safety nets and education systems, weaponised misinformation disguised as credible news injecting status-quo PR into the hivemind, myth-making for cruel, wealthy assholes. All of this works to cloud humanity’s picture of itself, destroying our ability to perceive – and then fix – the fucking mess we’ve made of the place. 

And upon this boiling rock, shrouded in mass delusion and apocalypse profiteering, humanity has “opened the gates of hell”, according to UN Secretary General António Guterres just a few extremely long months ago. 

“T H E  G A T E S  O F  H E L L.” 

I do not know about you, but I miss the days when the UN’s statements didn’t sound like the opening scene to a movie co-starring The Rock and a large assortment of machine guns. “We must make up time lost to foot-dragging, arm-twisting and the naked greed of entrenched interests raking in billions from fossil fuels,” Guterres said. He is alarming in his language but also extremely correct about who is actually to blame for this whole gates of hell thing

Put simply, war and ecological collapse are so monstrously profitable that fossil fuel CEOs and arms dealers will always have enough power to buy entire media-political systems, and enough incentive to ensure that war and ecological collapse never stop happening. This is not because bad people exploit loopholes or because greed corrupts our frail, fallible human souls – it is inherent in the world we have built, because our economic systems reward disaster. If we continue to stand back and allow the market to be our divine arbiter, our god of death, we will not make it. At last month’s COP28, the big ‘let’s solve climate change’ conference, held this time in the astronomically wealthy oil state region, it was decided not to mention the phasing out of fossil fuels in the official statements. Can you blame people for being cynical? For protesting? For souping paintings and blocking bridges and losing faith?

No one is coming to save us but ourselves. And we have a kink for self-harm. 

Anthony Albanese, son of a single, working class campaign slogan, is the type of Prime Minister capable of inspiring a loss of faith in parliamentary politics as a solution to the world’s problems. If the radicalising phenomenon of no longer believing in something or someone could take corporeal form, it would call itself Anthony Albanese and it would pretend to listen to Triple-J.  

Vile Prime Ministers like John Howard, Tony Abbott and, lord help us, a dark-reality future Peter Dutton, do not cause people to lose faith in politics in quite the same way. We get what we expect with these people. When we vote for them, we are scared, confused and wanting to hurt others. We semi-consciously elect bullies, so when these cruel men go out and inflict pain on the disadvantaged for us – while making us feel scared about it – it does not deflate us in the same way as someone like Albanese. Because if he is truly the best alternative to the self-interested, heinous dolts in the Liberal Party murdering the notion of decency while robbing (and fucking) its corpse on the way out the door, then my god, man, we’re kinda screwed, aren’t we? 

Albo’s inspiring pointlessness is not solely felt amongst traditional Labor voters – Albanese appears to also be inspiring himself to not believe in the things he once did, too. 

Take Palestine, as a desperately timely example. Once upon a time, Albo believed the Palestinian people deserved the dignity of not being ethnically cleansed from the Gaza strip. 

Many weeks into the wholesale civilian slaughter-fest at the hands of the IDF and a bloodthirsty Netanyahu regime – 2 million people are currently displaced – Sky News, a noxious smell fuelled by stupidity, hate and fear, “resurfaced” footage of a younger Albanese attending a “free Palestine” rally. Shock, horror, traitor, they screeched.

Sky News dug this up to accuse Albanese of thought crime for ever having held the position that Palestinian people are, ya know, people. I am bringing it up for the opposite reason. If a Prime Minister cannot urge an ally to stop slaughtering children for two entire fucking months – the civilian death toll topping 20,000 before a meek joint statement was issued with New Zealand and Canada – then what autonomy from American hegemony does he have, what morality does he adhere to, and what point does he ultimately serve?

By some intangible metric, in the political arena, where bullshit weighs more than reality, he is still substantially better than the alternative. He says mildly better things as he approves new fossil fuel projects; he masks the contempt and fear with a little more grace as he seeks ways around the High Court’s ruling that indefinite detention inside Australia’s offshore gulag system for refugees is unconstitutional. But in the real world, where carbon is real not just a campaign slogan, where indefinite detention of refugees is both unconstitutional and fucking barbaric, and where the massacre of thousands of Palestinians has his acquiescence, who gives a fucking shit? Does it really matter which political football team he captains when the entire sport is barbaric, ineffective and compromised? 

With the failure of The Voice, his commitment to pumping new carbon into the atmosphere, little headway in the on-going cost of living crisis, AUKUS and the military-vassal-state-for-the-Empire role it places Australia in, a disgustingly weak and hypocritical stance on the genocide of Gaza, and his excitement for the looming “stage 3” tax cuts for the wealthy, he is creating a noxious brew capable of polishing away plenty of rust. 

Perhaps, ultimately, this will be his purpose, his greater good: illuminating and driving yet more voters away from the major parties, institutions so inherently captured by carbon, by war, by ungodly concentrated wealth, as to be relatively pointless at best, actively harmful most of the rest of the time.

Heartless, voiceless, gutless, pointless.


That’s what I’ll be trying not to think about in the kiddie pool this summer, vaguely aware of the cricket score, girt by empty craft beer tinnies, 90s skate punk blaring.

Merry fucking Christmas, be excellent to each other. 

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