he word crisis is at war with itself. Definition 1a squabbles stressfully with 3a. Give irony its due: Crisis is a Greek concoction. Krisis meant decision, hence the first (Webster’s) definition: “the turning point for better or worse in an acute disease or fever.” A crisis was momentary. Turning points don’t last. Things improve, deteriorate or snap. Snapping can’t exist in continuum.
Cometh the 21st century and with it the Era of Hysteria, whose 9/11 and 24/7 heralds shook peril’s hand, a friend well met. They saw word and world differently. Why not prolong crisis for dramatic effect? As newly defined, crisis would wheeze compellingly. No page needed turning.
1a crisis soon yielded to 3a crisis, namely “An unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending.” Impending was friendlier to hysteria, since that which impends can impend indefinitely. Turning points were replaced by instability and inevitable bad tidings. 3a dwells on the “distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome,” while in 1a, bad things happens, or nearly, only to soon return the planet to regularly scheduled vanilla milkshakes.
In today’s 3a world, crises are normalcy 3.0. They add meaning to passing minutes and serve at the behest of a potential dread that keeps journalists rapt and is forever impatient for more (and worse) of the same.
Take the euro “crisis.” No longer a turning point or passage, like adolescence, say, it’s been 3a’d into insoluble affliction. The 3a world exalts setbacks, nicotine without cigarettes, and seeks to extend their rhetorical reach. Anyone in the precinct of a crisis is made to focus on bad tidings. Statistics and speeches that suggest insecurity are alarm’s caviar.
Not only does this bolster 24/7 news ratings, but it also makes for compulsive doubt, which is at the self-sustaining core of the 21st century media enterprise.
By circumventing the 1a definition of crisis, the more transitory one, the fever never breaks, since it exists to nourish crisis. It’s both lie and dye. The crisis of the month — this month the euro debt — incorporates the seeds of that which next impends.
3a suits Twitter times. It’s immediate and facile and trivializes perspective, which was once a physician’s tool to remind patients that just as quickly as fevers go up, they can also go down, a concept 3a scowls on. Why tell people that Italy and Greece are longtime nation-states whose overall sanctity is not at risk despite their immediate woes? No, a 3a crisis depends on advertising the abyss a flirtation.
Between definition 1a and 3a is 2, which explains crisis as a decisive moment. According to this literary definition, the decisive separates the mundane from drama, whether in a book or a league of nations. The decisive is a tequila shot, a reminder of vulnerability, an epiphany, something that divides good decisions from bad. Once again, resolution is built in.
But 3a is having none of it. 1a and 2 recognize crisis as an abnormality, a break from the norm. No public could, or should, be forced to endure a constant “state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending.” But while 1a and 2 reflected a world chastened by two world wars and waves of incomprehensibly awful tidings, 3a is a bold new bully. The closest the 1a world came to true 3a moment was the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which in many respects epitomized the flu-like nature of crisis: awful symptoms followed by gradual bettering.
But bettering has become unstylish, breaking the 3a spell, and 3a is cannibal, predator, cancer, and attention whore. It doesn’t so much narrate bad tidings as prey on them, and pray for more. It is crisis as a mandatory condition of an excitable postmodern spirit that can no longer kick down the door through global war.
3a chatter depends on placing the likes of Greece, Italy, and Silvio Berlusconi on so sharp a brink that large numbers of people are distracted from milk and cookies, if not stripped of reassurance.
3a is like a boy with a bullhorn and a stammer whose every word comes out with the sound of “wolf!” 3a, master of the universe, is a child.