The Culture of Death in a Chicago Elevator

I work in a building with an in-elevator video system. This morning, a tale of russian cultists, 29 in all threatening to blow themselves up in their sealed cave if anyone interrupts them as they wait for the end of the world this spring. “Who cares” erupts loudly from the only other person in the elevator, a guy in a business suit. I was “It’s always good to talk them off the ledge” I replied and off I went to work.

You had to be there to catch the contempt, the utter disregard for the sanctity of life in his simple words. He was wondering why his life was being inconvenienced by these russian religious fanatics when he could be getting his stock news on his elevator ride. That was how little their lives meant to him. It was the culture of death in a nutshell. These 29 people (I later learned 4 were children, the youngest under 2 years old) were just meat to this guy and not only that, he had to share the sentiment so we could all join him in being unhappy at the inconvenience. We could have found out about the Dow 15 seconds earlier. And what about Britney? Don’t these Captivate Network guys have any sense of proportion?

The Culture of Death, where the rubber meets the road, will have a suit on more often than not, will be ‘respectable’ more often than not, and, more often than not, will insist on you joining in. That’s creepy, and not as theoretical as it was yesterday.

16 thoughts on “The Culture of Death in a Chicago Elevator”

  1. In early June of ’89 my boss’ boss loudly asked “why should we care?” when the subject of Tiananmen Square came up – in the context, not just of the impending massacre, but of (spurious) reports of movements of military units around Beijing directed by commanders possibly unsympathetic to the regime. Nuclear civil war in the most populous nation on Earth? Why should we care?

    Of course, there were lots of who-cares types around on 4/19/93, too …

  2. There’s a bit of difference between the Tianamen Square situation and some End Of Days loons holed up in a cave in a forest in Russia. Regardless of the outcome the latter situation will not, and cannot, have any discernableimpact on the occupant of an elevator in the USA. The former had a very considerable impact on most everyone in the world.

  3. You had to be there to catch the contempt, the utter disregard for the sanctity of life in his simple words.

    I read this more as a short and not-so-sweet lesson on human nature – specifically, that in the vast majority of cases, human being A’s regard for the well-being of human being B is a direct function of A’s relationship to B.

    Put another way, we homo sapiens tend to care deeply about the well-being of our own flesh and blood. Perfect strangers on the other side of the planet (such as these Russian cultists), not so much. Outright enemies, even less. Other relatives, friends, professional colleagues, co-religionists, fellow community members and fellow nationals lie somewhere in between those extremes.

    With that in mind, the sentiment behind this other guy’s remark is probably a lot closer to the norm – and has been for a lot longer than the “Culture of Death” has been around – than most civilized folk would care to admit.

  4. In fact the attitude was identical. Item in the news – the world news – involving impending death; response of aggressive indifference on the part of someone who resents being told about it. Tiananmen had, in reality, “no discernible impact” on us, any more than whatever is about to happen in Nikolskoye. I think TM is onto something here, something that goes very deep and cuts across the usual political boundaries bandied about by most people who use phrases like “culture of death.” Those of you who brought your Bibles may turn to Proverbs 24:10-12.

    Actually, it is possible that Tiananmen had a discernible impact on me about a decade later. I helped interview a job candidate seeking a position on my team (software test planning at a major telecommunications firm beginning with the letter “S”). He was Chinese, originally from Shanghai. Grew up, was educated, lived and worked on the mainland until ’89. Next date on résumé is ’92, when he turns up in the States. I didn’t ask where he spent those three years – it wasn’t germane, and in any case I once heard, secondhand and many years earlier, the tale of another co-worker who was in Phnom Penh in April of ’75, and that was quite enough of that sort of thing.

    (We hired the applicant; I remember him telling me later that the first time he ever ate Szechuan cuisine was in … Mississippi.)

  5. This is a side track. Russia, despite its distance from the intellectual currents of Western Europe, has produced a number of fairly odd sects. Here are just 2:

    The Doukhobors originated in Russia in the 17th Century. They rejected secular government, Russian Orthodox priests, icons, all church ritual, the Bible as the supreme source of divine revelation, the divinity of Jesus, militarism and wars — they were pacifists.

    The Doukhobors were harshly repressed in Russia. Two-thirds of the Doukhobors migrated to Canada in 1899 for its isolation and tolerance. The Doukhobors’ passage was largely paid for by Quakers, who sympathized with their plight, and by Tolstoy, who gave them the royalties from his novel Resurrection, and raised money from wealthy friends.

    Although the Doukhobors were initially welcomed by the Canadian government, Doukhobor practices regarding communal living and child education, led to conflict with authorities.

    In the early 20th century, a radical faction of the Doukhobours, the Sons of Freedom, protested against materialism, governmental land seizures, compulsory education in government schools and the death of their leader, using mass nudity and arson. Confrontations with the Canadian government and the RCMP continued into the 1970s and eventually led to the government-backed, forced internment of Sons of Freedom children in a residential school in British Columbia.

    Today an estimated 30,000 Doukhobors live in Canada, and perhaps another 30,000 in Russia. The Doukhobors no longer live communally. Doukhobors do not practice baptism. They reject several beliefs considered orthodox among most Christian churches, including original sin, church organization & liturgy, the divine inspiration of scripture, and the literal interpretation of resurrection, the Trinity, and heaven and hell. Some avoid the use of alcohol, tobacco, and animal products for food, and involvement in partisan politics.


    The Skoptzy were a secret sect in Russia. The name derives from a now-archaic Russian word meaning “castrated”. The sect’s distinctive practice was castration. They believed that, after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had the halves of the forbidden fruit grafted onto their bodies forming testicles and breasts. The removal of these organs was intended to restore the Skoptzy to the pre-lapsarian state.

  6. Adam Smith said that a person who knew that he was going to have his finger chopped off tomorrow would pace the floor all night in dread. But if he knew that the entire Empire of China was going to be consumed by an earthquake, he could discuss it calmly and sleep like a baby.

    This type of thing is nothing new. What may be new is openly saying something callous about people in danger. But that is a matter of vulgarity more than substance, as bad as vulgarity is.

  7. maybe it’s just a coping mechanism. if a person truly cared about every bad thing happening to people around the world, how long before they experienced emotional collapse ? besides some cheap sentiment at the expense of your fellow passenger, how much do you really care about the people in the cave ? at least the elevator guy didn’t use the cave people to further his writing career.

  8. I would ascribe this attitude to a certain social ‘care fatigue’. At some point people need to stand or fall on their own merits, and the homeless that infest downtown Chicago, the welfare abusers and entitlement graspers that demand a liberal portion of productive citizens’ wallets, and in this case, addled religious fanatics with death wishes mildly imposing on one’s time and thoughts: this attitude seems to evince a certain Social Darwinism. I for one sympathize with it.

  9. Actually, giving a rat’s ass about anyone beyond one immediate genetic kin evolved only in the last few hundred years and then only in the developed world. Most people in the undeveloped world still live in cultures which endorse cheating, stealing from and even killing people from different extended families, even if they live just over the hill.

    The ethics of the developed world no doubt evolved out of our great material abundance and dependence on multicultural trade. We’ve learned to care for and cooperate with those distant or different from us out of self-interest. People still trapped in a world of want and with little outside interdependence learn to take what they can when they can just to survive and they expect everyone else to do the same thing.

    I think these cultural values represent the strongest impediment to developing the undeveloped regions of earth. For such cultures, corruption, nepotism and cronyism are not vices but virtues. People who commit these acts are heros who take care of their kin. Getting people to transfer loyalties from family to country or other abstract institution is very, very hard.

    I imagine the jerk in the elevator made his statement not out of any callous disregard for the lives of the cultist but rather out of a desire to seem strong and independent by evincing a point of view contrary to our shared ethical ideals.

  10. You are not going to change the hears and minds of those you find annoyingly repellent, and you will find odd behavior in most places of the world, and thus you have to ask yourself: how do I deal with this sort of behavior? pointing it out might well take a lot of your time and will do nothing more than allow you to vent among those who are not even where the behavior took place.

  11. “giving a rat’s ass about anyone beyond one immediate genetic kin evolved only in the last few hundred years and then only in the developed world”

    Er, um, I think it’s a little older than that–consider the story of the Good Samaritan.

  12. The Good Samaritan was an exception. Tribalism was (and remains for many) the rule. We should admire TM Lutas’ideal, but surely we feel decreasing intensities of sympathy as we move out from our family, our friends, our city, our state, our nation. If we don’t, I suspect we aren’t taking our responsibilities seriously enough.

  13. The Culture of Death is a label. The culture is universal and ancient. One of the reasons christianity won so decisively against Rome was the strong christian stand against infanticide which won them converts among women as well as raising rescued orphans who had been left to die of exposure.

    The culture of life in america has long been supported by the institutions of society. I think that we may be heading back to a time when support for it will be an insurgent activity.

  14. Pst314,

    I think it’s a little older than that–consider the story of the Good Samaritan.

    The ideal is very old and shows up in many cultures and many religions, The implementation of the ideal took a long, long time. All modern great religions spread as they did in large part due to their ability to foster greater cooperation between people because they induced their adherence to treat all humans as family.

    However, I think it took specific conditions of environment to make such ideals practical. Sadly, the tale of the Garden of Eden and similar tales in other religions all reinforce one key idea: humans are inherently selfish. We cooperate only when it is our interest to do so and exploit otherwise. Growing economic interdependence and the need to form larger and larger groups for defense provided the practical incentive for more cooperation. That in turn created the environment that allowed the religious ideals to flourish.

  15. When I saw the BBC world report, the sense that I came away with was this: The cultists would ignite their gasoline stocks in only one circumstance, i.e.: if their retreat from society was interfered with. It seems to me that if one is concerned with their safety, knowing that they have more than enough food and medicine to outlast the supposed doomsday, the safest thing to do is leave them alone.

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