Thursday, January 21, 2016

We Have Met the Enemy

A lot of time slipped by in November and December. It was almost a full two months between my last blog post of 2015 and my first one of 2016. What follows was going to be the first of this year, but a tragedy occurred down the road from where I live and I responded to that instead.

A lot happened during those two months of silence. Radicalized civilians shot up an office party in California. In Paris, terrorists affiliated with the Daesh/Islamic State movement attacked a series of targets across the city, killing many. Donald Trump surged to the top of the headlines with calls to ban Muslims from entering the US, making favorable references to the Japanese-American internment camps of the 1940s. Tensions between black communities and police continued to flare with new revelations about unarmed young black men gunned down by police officers.

Behind all of this there is a lot of anger, fueled by a lot of fear. In the United States, the flames of fear are being fanned by politicians of all stripes, by the media (fear sells!), and by our own collective sense of angst. We don't agree on much, but we do agree that things aren't right.

I don't have solutions to offer to fix everything. I can't point to a candidate and say, "If only that person becomes President, everything will be great!" (and if you believe this about any candidate, please stop - the world doesn't work that way). Most blogging and op-ed writing identifies problems, and some suggest (usually simplified) solutions. I have nothing to add on either front.

Instead, I want to offer a different view. FDR once famously said, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." He said this in his first inaugural address in 1933, at a time when Americans were in the depth of the Great Recession, the United States was far weaker and more vulnerable in the world than it is today, and systematic racial violence was still the order of the day in much of the country. Despite those dreadful facts, he was right. Fear exists in the mind.

Contrast the start of FDR's presidency to our own day. The US economy is the largest it's ever been and the largest and wealthiest in the world. More broadly, the global economy taken as a whole has never before produced this much wealth. The combined total of economic production for the world, per person, has nearly doubled in the last 15 years. Never before have humanity in general, or Americans in particular, had as much prosperity as we do today.

Similarly, we have never been less threatened by war. Despite the terrible headlines (and terrible realities) in Syria, Libya, and a few other spots, war (measured by how many people it kills) is a smaller problem now than at any point in the past 75 or more years.

We can see similar trends in violent crime within the US (which has been declining since the early-mid 1990s, and is now back to levels not seen since the 1960s when the population was 50% less than today), terrorist attacks against the United States, and on a number of other fronts. In the major categories of things humanity is afraid of (being killed suddenly and starving to death over time), we have never been better off than we are today.

I make this point because the gap between the macro-level facts and our fears is enormous and seems to be growing larger. Contrast this to past periods in history when people were legitimately frightened of important things. In the early 1800s, for example, there was a worldwide epidemic of crop failures and famines (caused, as it turns out, by a massive volcanic eruption in the South Pacific that was barely noticed at the time). Thousands died of starvation, millions became refugees, and the political and cultural landscape of much of the world was rewritten. In Europe, authoritarianism made a comeback against the early revolutionary gains of the Enlightenment as people decided that freedom could be sacrificed for food and safety.

Compare that world to our time - and then to the rhetoric we hear every day. Donald Trump and Daesh do share something in common - they have found ways to elevate people's fears, to paint a picture of a world gone not just wrong but horribly wrong, so wrong that radical and formerly unthinkable action must be taken. These dystopian views are so far removed from reality that those of us who don't share them are left shaking our heads at the insanity of it all.

Which brings us back to FDR. The core reality - the real problem, if you will - is not Mexican immigration, or Daesh, or vaccines, or impending poverty, or anything else. It is fear. The problem is not with the world, it is how we see and respond to the world.

To be clear, there are real problems. The water in Flint, Michigan really is poisoned. The young black man in South Chicago really does have cause to fear both his neighbors and the police. Syrians really do live in fear of their lives, so much so that perilous voyages on the sea may seem reasonably better than staying put. The distribution of wealth is changing in ways that advantage a very few and disadvantage nearly everybody else. We do not live in Utopia.

But notice what all of these problems have in common: they are created by us. We have the technology and the ability to provide clean water to the residents of Flint, just as we do in nearly every other community in the US. Our economic problems are not because we don't have enough wealth to go around, they are because we have created systems in our societies that distribute that wealth in poor ways. Where people are dying violent deaths, it is not over scarce resources needed to survive but over twisted ideas about what the world should be like and how we should bring about a better future.

The most pithy wisdom I can think of these days comes not from a political leader, but from Walt Kelly, one of the greatest cartoonists of the 20th century. In 1970 Kelly famously took an old 19th century historical phrase ("We have met the enemy and they are ours") and turned it on its head: "We have met the enemy, and he is us". Used originally for Earth Day and the environment, this bit of wisdom can be applied to almost all of the problems we face today - problems that are not nearly as large as our "leaders" would have us believe, and problems that all have solutions if we can only sit down together and figure them out.

If we want things to get better - whatever those things are - there are really only two things we need to keep in mind:

1) "We" is everybody.
2) Fear is one thing we can each control.

Everything else is details.

1 comment:

  1. Sure more of your thoughts would be good, but I'm happy with waiting a while for such incredibly high quality, thoughtful, posts.