The acclaimed actor and playwright offers a brief, disturbing meditation on the “story of civilization.”
“I’m upset about what my species has turned out to be—the species that went mad and destroyed the planet,” writes Shawn (Essays, 2010, etc.) in this jeremiad about the state of humanity. Anyone who has seen the author’s plays knows that he is drawn to the dark side of existence, and the current political climate has darkened his mood further. After spending a night watching TV news in a hotel room, he wonders if the world will ever stop rewarding “people like Trump, whose frighteningly bloated, distended, almost-bursting egos and paranoid eyes scanning the horizon for enemies seem to thrill so many people.” That’s all the impetus needed for Shawn—who grew up privileged in a fancy New York apartment with rooms “full of ashtrays and bourbon” and with a father, New Yorker editor William Shawn, who believed that civilization was justified because it produced Beethoven—to expound upon the ills of modern society. He packs a lot into 80 pages, including discussions of the Islamic State, Yemen, Osama bin Laden, 9/11, Marxism, and the diminishment of morality. The world, writes the author, is divided into the lucky and the unlucky. The latter have a perpetual grievance against the former, which is why no one should be surprised when, say, followers of Islam rise up against Western powers or when British and European Muslims react against “the suffering of fellow Muslims in Gaza or Iraq or Syria or Afghanistan.” Shawn offers suggestions for a better civilization but with the caveat that he doubts such a world will ever come about. Though the narrative structure feels random at times, readers can’t deny the veracity of the author’s claims, and many will share his anger when he writes about “egomaniacs who are always ready to scoop up power for their own warped purposes.”
Not an optimistic picture but perceptive and forcefully argued.