American News

When the Bunker Becomes Home, Sweet Home

When faced with the threat of COVID-19, some Americans are ready not just to hunker down, but to bunker down.
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© Boris Rabtsevich

March 27, 2020 17:22 EDT

Writing for Forbes, Halah Touryalai reports on one characteristic behavior that has come to the fore in recent weeks in the US, as it tends to do in any time of crisis. More than people from other cultures, Americans have acquired the reflex of creating space around themselves whenever they feel even vaguely threatened. The greater the sense of danger, the further they will seek to retreat from society in the quest to define their comfort zone. 

Now we learn that “Americans, who are now largely sheltering in their homes and apartments, are developing a bunker mentality, hoarding food, supplies and now firearms.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Bunker mentality:

A state of mind that prefers antisocial distancing to social distancing

Contextual Note

French President Emmanuel Macron was the first to cry havoc with the words, “We are at war.” Days later, US President Donald Trump somewhat hesitatingly called himself a “wartime president” as a preamble to extending even further his already exaggerated executive powers. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in an effort to sound less narcissistic, modestly resorted to a simile rather than a metaphor to describe his role as a military leader: “We must act like any wartime government and do whatever it takes to support our economy.”

The phrase “whatever it takes” sums up Johnson’s equivocal style of leadership. It could imply a Churchillian resolution to rise to the occasion and achieve the extraordinary. It could even demonstrate an ambition as forceful as Macron’s and a lust for power as great as Trump’s. But it can also mean something closer to Woody Allen’s resigned and helpless “whatever works.” Johnson sometimes appears like a character desperately using half-hearted bluster as a way of making sense of a confusing, ungovernable world.

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War may be an uncomfortable metaphor for the leaders of nations that had, until recently, believed in the lasting neoliberal peace of our developed consumer societies capable of facing any challenge. But it makes sense that governments across the globe should claim to be at war with the coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease. It is clearly an “invisible enemy” and it manifestly has no intention of negotiating a truce. The virus is a clearly aggressive foe with a simple but very effective battle plan.

Still, this has turned into a very strange war. Governments are busy mobilizing resources, often with the embarrassing realization that — despite their massive material wealth, their multinational corporate monsters, their big data and artificial intelligence — they are seriously underequipped. And rather than asking the population to go to battle against an enemy that is suspected of having penetrated the totality of their social airspace, with the exception of their private dwellings, most governments in the West have now ordered their citizens to take a holiday inside their own usually well-equipped homes and watch the war on television or the internet.

There is always a point at which the parallels suggested by metaphors break down. In the past, the idea of wartime meant a call for everyone to stand up to the enemy and to double down on work. It didn’t mean taking time off and cowering in the shadows. Nor did it mean trying to defeat an invisible enemy by becoming invisible. 

The idea of retreating to one’s own home and remaining there until the danger passes has revealed starkly contrasted behaviors across different cultures. The insistently social, always musical and operatic Italians have reacted by breaking out in song, as they commune musically with neighbors from the safety of their balconies. The Jacobin French have been united in collectively applauding the unseen health workers mobilized to protect the vulnerable. In the US, many people have chosen a different response, more closely associated with battlefields in wartime: the bunker mentality.

This has enabled us to understand that there are, in fact, two contrasting types of bunker mentality in US culture. Like many other issues, they reveal a class divide. The US likes to think of itself as a classless society, governed by the principle of upward and downward social mobility within a sprawling middle class, from which some (the winners) emerge with wealth and honors, while others ( the losers) fall anonymously to the wayside. One of the embarrassing things this crisis is revealing — this time in broad daylight — is the importance of the divide that separates the winners from the losers. Worse, it leaves much of the middle class on the side of the losers.

In August 2019, The Daily Devil’s Dictionary highlighted the bunker mentality of the winners, conceived as a response to a failing political system and the threat of planetary disaster. Those who could afford to anticipate a climatic or nuclear doomsday were already active preparing perfectly-equipped underground bunkers designed to allow them to survive for years in the bowels of the earth, disconnected — except via video cameras — with any form of earthly civilization that continues to exist. But whether civilization survives or not has no importance, so long as the person with the means to live in a bunker can get to the bunker in time and has enough reserves for a lifetime underground.

Now, as Touryalai reports in Forbes, the losers — incapable of investing in luxurious underground lairs — have their own bunker mentality. Sensing that enforced shelter or quarantine may represent the final stage of evolution of the individualist culture fostered in the US over the past two and a half centuries, the bunkered losers have focused not just on the goods required to survive for several months, but also on guns.

It’s unclear what purpose the guns might serve, although the conclusion of the Forbes article, a quote from a gun shop owner, provides a reasonable hypothesis: “Once you’ve amassed your toilet paper and frozen meat, you need to protect it.” But protect it from whom? This, of course, begs another question: How can an individual homeowner and gun owner use weapons to fend off the kind of enemy they feel threatened by? It certainly won’t work against an invisible enemy. Will it work against the usual suspects: an invading army, the United Nations (with its black helicopters), the federal government or a posse of neighbors?

The more likely response is that, knowing they can only last weeks or months with their current reserves, the new bunker dwellers realize that they may have to fight their neighbors or pillage stores to ensure their future survival.

Historical Note

The bunker mentality is firmly rooted in the specifically American concept of individualism whose history stretches back to the origins of the nation. The 17th-century English poet and Anglican divine John Donne, a contemporary of the Massachusetts Pilgrims, insisted that “no man is an island, entire of himself, every man is a piece of the continent.” The Pilgrims chose to break away from both the British isle and the European continent. Breaking away from existing society became a theme and a meme of US culture.

The social and political belief system that subsequently developed in the US saw no interest in following Donne’s advice. Instead, it veered toward the idea that every man is an island. It nevertheless accepted the proviso that islands sometimes need to exchange goods and even help each other, principally against common enemies. To ensure that connection, all the islands required to reestablish contact with each other in case of need were boats, and certainly not bridges. That mentality may, incidentally, explain the scandalous state of disrepair of bridges and roads as well as other forms of collective infrastructure in the US.

The bunker mentality in US culture thrives on the combination of two concepts: private property and space. As Thomas Piketty explains in his latest book, “Capital and Ideology,” the idea of private property as an absolute concept displaced the more traditional notion of property as something that also had a social dimension. The notion attached to the privacy of private property has the status of dogma in the US belief system.

Stanley Kubrick’s film, “Dr. Strangelove,” exposed the darkest side of US political and military paranoia. At one crucial point in the movie, a British officer on an American airbase asks a soldier with a machine gun to destroy a Coca Cola machine because he needs coins to pay for a call to warn the US president to provide a code that could prevent an imminent nuclear holocaust. The soldier objects, citing his understanding of ethical priorities: “That’s private property.” 

Americans understand property as an absolute, inviolable right, a virtual attribute of the person rather than an object or feature of the environment, even though US law grudgingly admits the concept of eminent domain and even of asset forfeiture. Edward T. Hall, the anthropologist and cultural analyst who created the science of proxemics, explained that, in comparison with other cultures, Americans require more space, more distance between themselves and others to feel comfortable. This is true even in intimate social situations, where the level of trust in the others present is high. In situations of fear where there is the perception — real or imaginary — of the presence of a threat, the need for space can become obsessive.

The idea planted in Americans’ minds of the absolute and exclusive nature of property combines with their requirement of space in the face of any threat to produce the bunker mentality that has become evident in the current crisis. US history contains many notable examples of the bunker mentality. Some of them were positive and creative.

Henry David Thoreau wrote the book “Walden” in which, isolated from society, he explored the idea of simplicity and harmony with nature, free from the corrupting influence of others. Thoreau’s friend and to some extent philosophical rival, Ralph Waldo Emerson, drew attention to a complementary feature in US culture that also contributes to the bunker mentality: self-reliance. It was a major component of Emerson’s philosophy and the title of his most famous essay. To live in a bunker one must achieve self-sufficiency.

But most examples of the bunker mentality have been negative and sometimes extremely negative, with a tendency toward antisocial misanthropy. One extreme case was that of the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, who retreated to the woods to vituperate against society and its technology, while occasionally taking a few lives by planting explosives in packages sent through the post.

The idea of barricading oneself in one’s house with an arsenal to defend one’s life and property may seem like an absurd response to the novel and totally invisible coronavirus. But there’s a certain cultural logic to it.

At one point, Donald Trump, though he denies it, appears to have suggested using nuclear weapons to attack hurricanes. Some might attribute the reflex of taking arms against a sea of troubles — whether in the form of a virus or a hurricane — to the American penchant for creative thinking. A more accurate explanation might be sought in the frontier mentality cultivated in so many Hollywood movies, in which the hero always ends up shooting his way out of danger. It has become difficult for some Americans to imagine the resolution of any problem without the agency of guns and explosives.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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