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Was the World Collapsing? Or Were You Just Freaking Out?

Then, in this fragile landscape of trust, there were the courts. In the summer, the Supreme Court fully overturned Roe v. Wade, a decision long expected, but one that still seemed to shock even the people who wanted it — even after the surreal publication of a drafted opinion in the spring. The fact that it really did happen — that suddenly a woman had to drive into another state to get an abortion so that she wouldn’t potentially die from complications — not only carried that kind of real-life consequence in a thousand private moments of people’s lives, but also opened up a world of other possibilities about what could happen. Maybe the court would roll back marriage equality. Or sign off on “independent state legislature” theory, an obscure theory adopted by a group of right-wingers that would grant expanded powers to state legislatures in carrying out elections and risk destabilizing the entire system.

Accompanying all these events was a disorienting, high-stakes discourse about how to talk about conspiracy theories and antidemocratic threats, and about how much to do so. We know that what people say — what we say — on social platforms, and certainly in the media, shapes the way people perceive politics, but in a way that can be hard to measure — an awareness that can convert every piece or post into an opportunity or mistake. Writers argued that excessively focusing on democracy might alienate rather than persuade voters, or even corrupt institutions by intertwining constitutional and partisan concerns.

Then there was the world beyond discourse, where no one could control much of anything beyond one man. For months, for years, since the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the West’s tepid response to it, people had warned that Vladimir Putin would eventually launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine — then it happened. Not many people in Russia or anywhere else seemed to want this beyond Mr. Putin, but that did nothing to prevent Ukraine from becoming the kind of place where a boy has to figure out for himself that troops shot his mother and stepfather because nobody knows how to tell him, where people had to drink the water from radiators to stay alive, where reflecting on brutal deaths in one city, someone can find themselves grimly observing, “In theory, international bodies have the authority to prosecute war crimes wherever and whenever they occur.”

The quick transition of the invasion from something expected but hypothetical into something very real, with needless deaths and millions of Ukrainians and Russians leaving their homes maybe forever, opened up other dark possibilities. It seemed existential, first for Ukraine, then for the rest of Eastern Europe. The NATO alliance, if things escalated, could fracture. The possibility of China invading Taiwan — and the possibility of full-scale global war — suddenly seemed easier to imagine, and even expect. Nuclear weapons became something people had to think about, seriously. And more immediately, it seemed as though disruptions in natural gas, battery and grain production and distribution would crash countries far and wide.

The debate about whether post-pandemic inflation might be transitory gave way to whether this might be the 1970s with the pain of stagflation and energy shortages; then whether the crypto collapse might have 2000s housing-market flavors; what popping energy prices in Europe might do to politics there and beyond; and worst, whether grain prices would cause a wave of starvation around the world. On the Bloomberg financial podcast “Odd Lots,” the hosts frequently observe there’s been a “perfect storm” of crisis conditions: in shipping logistics, coffee prices, copper production shortages, the challenges of starting to pump more oil, seemingly everything has broken down or gone awry a bit all at the same time. Is this just a heightened period of unusual events, or a lull before interlocking pieces collapse?


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