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The masochism of catastrophe


All this I swallow, it tastes good, I like it well, it becomes mine,

I am the man, I suffered, I was there.

I take for my text the Wikipedia entry for the Baltimore Orioles 2018 season:

The 2018 Baltimore Orioles season was the 118th season in Baltimore Orioles franchise history, the 65th in Baltimore, and the 27th at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The 2018 Orioles lost more games in the season than any other MLB team in 2010s decade history. They had hoped to improve upon their frustrating 75-87 record from the previous season and stay competitive, but instead they finished 47-115; the worst record since the 2003 Tigers and finished last place in the AL East for the second year in a row. They were eliminated from the AL East contention with their 82nd loss to the Red Sox in a double header on August 11. They were eliminated from the playoff contention entirely with their 87th loss to the Indians on August 19. They suffered their 100th loss of the season on September 7 against the Rays, the first time they did so since 1988. On September 18, They lost 6–4 to the Blue Jays to set a new franchise record with their 108th loss and posting their worst record in franchise history. On September 22, they reached the 110 loss mark with a 3–2 loss to the Yankees. On September 26, they lost the first game of a doubleheader against the Red Sox to set a new overall franchise record with their 112th loss; the old worst mark was 43–111 (.279) in 1939, when they were known as the St. Louis Browns.

After their 113th loss to the Astros on September 28, they failed to reach the 50 win mark, the first team to fail to do so since the 2003 Tigers who went 43-119 (.265). This loss also ensured that they lost their season series against all American League teams.

Other notable moments included:

[Here follows a long litany of statistical disasters]

Obviously this entry was composed by an obsessive Orioles fan, who invested a great deal of time and effort in chronicling the team’s disasters. A surreal note is added by some characteristically officious Wikipedia editor, who affixes the following kafkaesque complaint to the top of the article:

This article is written like a personal reflection, personal essay, or argumentative essay that states a Wikipedia editor’s personal feelings [ya think?] or presents an original argument about a topic. Please help improve it by rewriting it in an encyclopedic style.

I’m sure the Jeremiah of Camden Yards will get right on that.

Anyone who has ever been an obsessive fan of a sports team will recognize the kind of fan who seems to derive a kind of masochistic pleasure in reveling in his or her team’s failures (It may be worth noting that, at least in the world of sports, this kind of fan is in my experience invariably male). Still, I suspect some element of this kind of fandom lurks somewhere in the heart of most fanatics, and not merely in the world of sports.

We are all familiar with the sort of political activist who seems to positively revel in the most negative interpretation of every event. For this person, total disaster is either already here or just around the corner, and anyone who thinks otherwise is hopelessly naive.

Not surprisingly, this orientation is epidemic among extremists: Only a complete social revolution, or a return to the social arrangements of the 17th century, can save society. Since this is obviously impossible, a clear-eyed realism requires continual despair.

Such people appear to get some sort of profound psychic satisfaction from contemplating the catastrophic circumstances all around them, and from trying to convert others to their viewpoint.

It’s a platitude to note that the leftist who will only accept True Communism and the reactionary who demands a return of the rule of the one holy and apostolic Church have much more in common with each other than they do with their less utopian and apocalyptic brethren.

What’s less remarked on is that the revolutionary and the reactionary are both often what I would call masochists of catastrophe — that is, people who appear to derive some sort of deep satisfaction from brooding on the impossibility of achieving the kind of social change they would consider satisfactory.

This frame of mind obviously lends itself ultimately to nihilistic quietism, and/or a desire to see the world that they hate burn to the ground, if only to confirm that they were right all along.

A final note for now: the climate change crisis is a fertile breeding ground for masochistic catastrophism. Indeed, in an eminently predictable development, many climate change denialists seem to be transitioning seamlessly to this frame of mind, as the evidence for severe climate change becomes increasingly difficult to deny.

But climate change can and does bring out masochistic catastrophism among leftists as well, since it lends itself particularly well to the view that capitalism has always been fated to destroy civilization, with the silver lining to this development being the satisfaction of contemplating that capitalism’s most severe critics were right all along.

Again, I suggest that almost everyone has at least a little tendency toward the masochism of catastrophe, although most of us aren’t tempted to write the equivalent of a long wikipedia entry about the 2018 Baltimore Orioles, or a long blog comment about how the Democratic party will inevitably betray the people in favor of the lords of capital etc. etc.

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