It’s been a hell of a few days, huh? In the Kremlin, and presumably those other capitals where the potentates scheme to undo everything that was achieved in the wake of the Second World War, the tyrants must now be celebrating. If you’ve been paying attention, you may feel like everything’s unravelling. I know I do. But let’s take stock. Let’s do a “40,000 foot” synopsis. Maybe it’s not so bad. From a detached, Olympian perspective, at a remove that lets us see the whole wonderful forest, not just the trees, how’s it looking?
Right, then. Let’s start at the head of the rotting fish. America, hamstrung by foreign military entanglements foisted upon it by hubristic neo-conservatives, is now run by an idiot installed with the help of a hostile foreign power, its government shut down – in what kind of political system is it even possible for the government to shut down? – while the moron in the White House talks about pulling out of NATO and building a stupid wall, and generally dances to whichever tune happens to be playing on Putin’s fiddle.
The European Union is in disarray, half of its members perpetually bankrupt, while the UK flails about desperately trying to figure out how to leave, a crisis which must surely have something to do with the same program of Russian meddling that also undermined America’s democracy. Across Eastern Europe, authoritarian, nationalist governments are taking hold. The centre shows sign of failing in France and Germany. The Russian annexation of Crimea stands. Ukraine remains under Russian siege by proxy. In the Old World, autocracy is on the way up, democracy, appearing feckless and risible, on the way down.
China, ascendant, gives every sign of relishing yet another in history’s long line of pointless Great Power confrontations. Most alarming, so far, is how the Chinese have drawn a “nine dash” line on a map of the South China Sea and claimed to own outright everything within it, seeking to take sovereignty over huge swaths of the open ocean, thus doing away with global freedom of navigation, a keystone of the waning liberal order. In support of this smash and grab, which flagrantly defies international law, they’re building artificial islands on top of reefs and militarizing them.
Let’s not even talk about Syria, or the wider the Middle East, Iran or Afghanistan. Let’s not ask how the global War on Terror is going, either. We’ve done those topics to death in this space.
Well, shit. That didn’t go well. That wasn’t what we wanted. Damn. Even from way up here in the stratosphere, things look pretty grim. It is that bad. It was the whole forest burning, not just a few nearby trees. Now I’m sorry we asked.
Perhaps there’s consolation in thinking that if it keeps on this way, none of it will matter, since we allowed the politics and propaganda of monied elites to trump science and convince us that it was actually debatable whether we were destroying the planet; now that we’ve wrecked the whole place, the thugs and tyrants will have scant opportunity to enjoy their rising fortunes before they all go down with us, and either get swamped by rising sea levels, burned in massive fires, or die of thirst and hunger. Yay!
I suppose now’s the part where we, in the manner of all folk who find themselves confronted with a calamity that developed by increments while they weren’t paying attention, to suddenly become alive to the danger and wail how did it come to this? Oh, and also, of course, who do we blame? It would make more sense, though, to pose it differently: why wouldn’t it come to this? Who isn’t to blame? What we’re seeing is actually fairly normal, in the history of world affairs, a reversion to form at the end of a long, happy period of stability fostered mainly by American power, American largesse, and an American-inspired strategic vision pursued consistently over the past 70+ years, as buttressed by a steadfast commitment to a certain set of guiding principles held by successive sets of elites, and understood and supported by their populations. You can see the problem. Keeping that up over the decades is really quite the trick. A lot of factors make it unlikely, so much so that the state of affairs we’ve come to take for granted is damned near a miracle.
So that’s it then? It’s been nice, but turn out the lights, the party’s over? You may have gathered from the header that I don’t think so. My fairly well-informed view, which is not at all obtained through anything rose-coloured, is that these things go in cycles. We’ve been on the ropes before. We’ve seen worse. We’ve faced down tyranny, fought for our rights, lived through widespread, deadly disease, persevered in wars, watched our economies crumble, and struggled with domestic strife, all of those and more, numerous times. If we’ve lost our way for the moment, we can find our way back home. We’ve done it before, despite being even more lost than we seem to be today.
As to the challenges posed by foreign rivals, it may appear as if the autocracies have us whipped, but trust me, our international rivals have their own problems and tragic flaws, and aren’t as strong as they seem. Their time will come. Putin may cackle as he messes around in all of our sandboxes, spreading discord and chaos, but his own country is a decaying kleptocracy with very grim prospects, and his kind get theirs just as often as not.
Here at home, our societies may have devolved into unfairness and unconscionable wealth distribution, but we faced and corrected that problem before, little more than a century ago, and we’ll do it again. Abandoned safeguards can be put back in place, repealed rules and regulations brought back into force.
As to climate change, we may be sleepwalking toward the buzzsaw of environmental wreckage and hellish climate change, but we’ll wake up. I’m not saying we’ll avoid paying dearly for our profligate waste and despoliation of the natural world – oh no, we’ll pay all right, a lot and for a long time – I merely assert that we will, battered and chastened, learn new ways to do things that allow the Earth to recover, maybe slowly, but the Earth’s resilience may surprise us. We may surprise ourselves, too.
Most immediately important, Trump too shall pass. America’s slide towards authoritarianism will be halted and reversed. America’s global leadership will be reasserted. Nobody’s pulling out of NATO.
See? It looks bad, sure, but all is not lost, not yet. We always wait too long to do it, but we can make the necessary changes. Listen, if we weren’t capable of course corrections and social progress, women still wouldn’t be allowed to vote, anybody not heterosexual would be an outlaw, there wouldn’t be an income tax, or anti-trust law, or securities law, or any social safety net, or health care for all (at least for most of us in the developed world), or vaccination against disease.
Heck, but for our capacity to improve, women wouldn’t even have access to birth control, and would be living as second class citizens with limited prospects, legally unable to own property and haunted by a terrifying likelihood of dying in childbirth.
Think of the problems you don’t think about because you don’t have them like your ancestors did. Everybody’s teeth used to rot out of their heads by middle age. You don’t have gout, scurvy, or a goiter. It was quite recently that doctors couldn’t do much about anything that bid fair to kill you – it wasn’t really that long ago that a microbial theory of disease was still in the future, and the most technologically advanced diagnostic tool around was a primitive sort of ear horn not quite good enough yet to be called a stethoscope.
Do you even know how household sewage used to get handled, and how much better we do it now? Hint: have you ever worried about cholera and dysentery? Have you ever walked down the street and noticed a bright yellow QUARANTINE warning nailed to your neighbour’s door? Known anybody in an iron lung? Look around – the garbage is collected, the snow gets ploughed, and the whole town doesn’t reek of horse excrement. It used to, you know. Horsepower literally was horse power, and those things are lovely at the Kentucky Derby, less so as they crowd the street on a hot Summer day. Draft animals keeling over in the middle of the street, dying in the traces and blocking traffic, used to be a common problem. Shovelling up the tons of effluent that used to exit the backsides of the horses that pulled our wagons used to be a civil service job.
Everybody burned coal in their homes. Coal. Out back there was an outhouse. Bathe? In what, using what hot water? The air has been far more toxic, the waters far more poisoned, than they are today. It was only quite recently that child labour was abolished, occupational health and safety became a thing, and the “weekend” was invented. Industrialists used to send their goons in to beat the crap out of striking workers. There was always another war looming.
My own parents lived in a pretty shitty world I wouldn’t trade for this one, toughing it out through a Great Depression, a World War, and various epidemics of polio, TB, mumps, measles and whooping cough. Neither of my parents even dreamed of a post-secondary education, or a chance at a professional career. They thought central heating was the wonder of the age. They would have told you, things do get better. They’d seen it themselves.
You, too, have learned enough to know how it works. You’ve seen the movies, you know the legend of Robin Hood. If things couldn’t improve, we’d still be labouring under some version of the evil King John, and I’d still be a serf paying tithe to the church and scutage or some such shit to the feudal lord, while I shovelled manure, pulled the plough – horses are expensive, and a bugger to feed – and waited to drop dead from bubonic plague, or plain old malnutrition. I might even be looking forward happily to the next pointless dynastic war, and being pressed into service so I could take part in melees of hacking swords, stabbing pikes, and bolts from crossbows – hey, it gets you off the manor, and you gotta go somehow.
All of which is just a long-winded way of asserting that despite the bumps in the road, the arc of history is still bending towards progress. Before you despair at how bad as it looks now, don’t forget that almost every era seems awful to those living through it, and it used to be a hell of a lot worse. Every generation harkens back to a better time gone by, and there’ll always be somebody trying to hawk their MAGA hats, but think about it – when was that, exactly? During the Black Death? The Hundred Year’s War? The Inquisition? Maybe in the middle of the last Ice Age? World War I? How about right after, with the Spanish Flu? You can cite the Pax Romana, maybe, but that was shitty too, if you weren’t Roman – their whole economy thrived on slavery. Kind of like it did in America for a while there, before they had an appallingly destructive civil war. There was the Belle Epoque, but that lasted barely four decades before the War to End All Wars killed millions and then failed to live up to its billing.
The lost golden age is lost because it just isn’t back there, it never happened. Even the childhood I remember so fondly, which really was a better time for some of us, especially if we were white and male, was lived in a world of imminent nuclear annihilation, and plagued by a litany of social problems and injustices that I don’t remember because they didn’t intrude into my happy little bubble. Life was miserable and repressive for lots of people all over my home town. I was lucky, was all.
Moreover, it may be hard to believe, but swear to God, by most measures the world, taken as a whole, has never been so well off. Despite how it looks on the news, were you to watch the news, never have so few been dying in wars, or been felled by disease. Never have so many been lifted out of poverty. It’s actually pretty good! It doesn’t seem that way to us because we, here, have done better, but now we’re flirting with another of our periodic low ebbs, and it looks like it’s going to be our turn to bear down and suffer for a while.
OK. That sucks. But we aren’t helpless, and the good news is that a huge new generation of young adults, the biggest ever, is now beginning to exert its influence, and they aren’t going to stand for this shit. I guarantee it. They aren’t the lazy entitled whiners of urban myth. They’re better than we were, and they believe in all sorts of things, and hold all sorts of values, that are going to help them pull everybody, even we undeserving slobs if we’re still lurking about, out of this slump. The time is coming when nobody in their right mind would vote for Trump, tolerate racism, advocate policies that destroyed the global ecosystem, think that guns aren’t a problem, care little about wealth distribution, or view taxes on the wealthy as a crime against God. All of that goes the way of those draft horses and the poor schmucks shovelling up their shit, just as soon as we elderly white folk aren’t the power any more. We simply have to get out of their way, and sooner or later we will, won’t we?
The kids are all right. The kids will save us. As they work hard to fix our mess, they’ll probably be cussing us out all the way, and you know what, we’ll deserve it.
In the interim, here, buck up. Listen to this, and remember, this humorous and once wildly popular depiction of the everyday anxieties of ordinary lives dates from the mid-1950s, a time, we’re now told, when everything was just perfect for everybody – which if it was, this wouldn’t have struck such a chord: