Timothy Snyder (The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America) suggests that America, Europe, and Russia all used to be guided by their own versions of the “politics of inevitability,” where in America “…nature brought the market, which brought democracy, which brought happiness.” In Europe, “…history brought the nation, which learned from war that peace was good, and hence chose integration and prosperity.” In the Soviet Union “…nature permits technology, technology brings social change, social change causes revolution, revolution enacts utopia.” This collapsed recently, supplanted by the “politics of eternity,” which replaces the inevitably better future with “…one nation at the center of a cyclical story of victimhood.”
The politics of eternity leaves one with an unchangeable future, and “expects that one will pursue entertainment, diversion, and spectacle (including political spectacle) because one no longer expects progress.” If he be correct, that is a truly dismal future and, really, cannot be called a future at all.
An example of eternity: climate change denial goes hand in hand with more of the same actions which brought us to this new Anthropocene era. We ignore the ever-more-evident intense, pocket storms and tornados which move more slowly and leave more water and damage; we ignore the much larger hurricanes which travel slowly and take their time about raining and storming; we ignore the greater and more intense forest fires which burn the very ground and the vegetation underneath and cause other damage https://www.thestar.com/edmonton/2018/08/20/wildfires-causing-irreversible-permafrost-thaw-university-of-alberta-study-suggests.html . One wonders whether wood will continue to be considered a sustainable product. One worries for the earth so denuded, and so unprotected by trees and foliage, that soil will be eroded with nothing to shade or hold it.
It should be only the past for which I grieve. I should be able to celebrate the present, and to the future look forward with enthusiasm and hope. More importantly, my children and grandchildren ought to be able to do these last two.
Of course, there is much about the past for which I grieve.
My parents were veterans of the second world war, my father a combat veteran in the Pacific. I grew up hearing adult conversations with their friends about those days, with one friend a survivor of the March to Bataan, and others who had fought alongside my dad in the Pacific. I grieve that war and what it did to them and others.
I remember Eisenhower having to send in troops to Little Rock to integrate the schools; Martin Luther King Jr.’s marches; the Watts riots of 1965 and the Detroit riot of 1967; the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King, Jr.; the attempted assassinations of other presidents, Watergate, Irangate, Nixon’s discredited presidency and resignation, and the indictments of those around him who lied and committed crimes.
I served in the Cold War and in the Vietnam War, and I grieve those. My friends from those days have begun dying, and I grieve for them, and for no longer having them to share memories and understandings with.
I cheered the end of the Cold War, but I grieve visiting my daughter’s third-grade school room during Gulf I and seeing children’s drawings of bombs raining down on them. I saw the lies that brought about Gulf II. I grieve 9/11 and I have grieved watching with incredulity the sixteen years of wars since then based on lies and the need to “protect the state” (see earlier blog). I grieve that people other than the military seem to think of the President as their Commander in Chief (he is not); that very smart people with perhaps very good intentions have kept wars raging in so many places.
So I do that – I grieve for the past.
But I also grieve for the present and for the future, which I really shouldn’t have to do.
I grieve for the present because of the current presumption that (see first blog) we don’t really make up our own minds, and are influenced by others far more than we realize. I grieve (see books cited there) that we don’t really know what we think, that our subconscious minds “know” what we believe and think about something before our conscious mind does. I grieve because, in this line of understanding, ethics and morality and religious teaching have no place in our “thinking” save where one of them or more may be in the subconscious or unconscious. (My own opinion is that as decisions and intentions rise out of my subconscious, they encounter those religious and ethical standards which I hold in my conscious, and which exist outside myself, and so are disciplined before I express the decisions and intentions.)
I grieve for the present because of the increasing militarization of diplomacy (see Kagan’s articles cited in the earlier blog, and review many more in the Atlantic https://www.theatlantic.com/author/robert-d-kaplan/?, and also Ronan Farrow’s War on Peace: the End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence.)
I grieve that the U.S. is so riven by almost equal numbers of people holding opposing opinions which cause or allow fever-pitch statements on line and in real life, and a allow a return to polluting the earth. I grieve the loss of the U.S. presidency as a respected office. I grieve that racial biases, although their effects diminished in many aspects, still exist in amazingly systemic ways, and that after so very many years not only persist but reveal themselves in deliberate efforts to remove the right to vote, the right to “make it,” and the very right to live. I grieve for the Roman Catholic Church as it becomes ever clearer that it allowed, and hid and protected, clergy who were known to abuse children. I grieve Christianity, which is ever more tainted by the actions of few and by the systemic protection of one denomination. I grieve for religion in general because I fear that people will not say, “well that one is poor,” but will give up on all religions.
I grieve that Google’s Alpha Go was able to construct a new strategy for the game Go, without reference to human strategy, theory, or experience. I have long subscribed to the virtues of apprenticeship and learning before innovation (The World Beyond Your Head Matthew B. Crawford), of submission to training before innovation, and submission to how a piece of wood is,before shaping it or carving it. What does it mean, I wonder, if artificial intelligence can construct a plan out of nothing, and humans learn from it, rather than AI learning from humans? Will we take instruction from AI? Will AI literally thinking for itself, adopt ethics or morality?
I grieve the loss of so much informed consent: unless I want to send snail mail or faxes, my email is read by algorithms, which then select things to advertise to me; massive companies keep track of where my cell phone is; massive companies reach into my computer and phone and change inner workings for their own purposes on their own schedule. Every time I communicate, save by landline or fax, I feel the total loss of informed consent.
I grieve for the future: the ever-increasingly strong storms, coming up quickly and biding longer, coming more frequently. I grieve for the consequences of whole coastal populations having ultimately to relocate farther inland. I grieve for the continued heating of the planet, melting of the ice, rising of the waters and general weather instability and long-range unpredictability. I grieve that governments are actually reversing the progress on decreasing methane discharge, reducing oil consumption, and so forth. I grieve that supposedly responsible officials can face climate change, whether believing it or not, and do things which exacerbate it.
It should be possible to look at what I grieve about the past and say to myself that we have learned from the past and will do better in the future. Well, not necessarily.
So, how to face the future, or better yet, do something about it?
First, there is no benefit in pessimism.
Second, prayer works, if primarily by changing the pray-er. Small things can change large matters, so perhaps whatever results from prayer need not be a “major” miracle.
Third, information and politics are central to all this. It is critically important to know things and to be very actively trying change the political landscape to pay better attention to evidence. We have let so much slide by for so long, that we doubtless shall have very difficult times, and will have to work hard to do accustomed as well as new things with wisdom, compassion, and decisiveness. I have no doubt that such can be done; just a great deal of doubt whether there are enough actors with similar beliefs and efforts to make it happen in the large environment.
Something emphasized by several sources in John Lewis Gaddis’ On Grand Strategy is the need to sometimes wait for events to gather and make their presence and implications obvious, and sometimes to strike forth boldly even if not all the desired information is available. It is such a balance which must be kept in mind when trying to plan for the future personally, within a family, and for society in general.
Fifth, the Three Questions of Hillel keep roaming through my thoughts: “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” These are, I think, the great ontological questions, and seeking constantly to answer them provides some motivation to keep on no matter what.
Finally: even were I certain that the world would end tomorrow, I would plant a tree today. So said (perhaps) Martin Luther, although I have seen it ascribed to a centurion of Pilate (sorry, can’t cite a source). There is something important and inspiring about doing something that would have a benefit for tomorrow, even though there may not be a tomorrow.
I do anticipate, however, that there will be a tomorrow for some, or for many, but a not very pleasant or desirable one.
I still want to be able to consent and dissent. Doing so requires careful oversight of life, and a great deal of effort. I had not earlier thought that life could require so much oversight, monitoring, and thought (certainly not human oversight) – there is so much that just happens, isn’t there? But it does. The drive for informed consent or dissent helps me keep at it.