As the great Madonna once asked, “Where do we go from here?”
It’s hard to avoid bad news these days. I read an extensive and very depressing article in the Atlantic last week about the “long shadow” that the current recession will leave on America. On the back of a decade-long employment slump, the current rate of unemployment will not really get better until at least 2014. A whole generation of young people, unable to get jobs now, will never achieve the same level of material wealth that their parents and grandparents had. A third of college graduates refuse to even engage with the job market, preferring to live at home with their parents. Another third are seeking refuge in graduate degrees that won’t help them find jobs later. Men everywhere, but especially in low-income families, have been disproportionally hit by labour force reductions (in manufacturing, construction, and the like) and are now the minority in the workforce. Their accompanying feelings of emasculation cause them to be more likely to abuse their wives and children, become addicted to some substance or another, or generally act out in other violent and destructive ways. Even the basic social fabric is weakening: in times of economic decline, populations become less tolerant and open-minded, and more rights are taken away; consequently, social progress is halted or reversed.
Serious problems all. And it isn’t just the Atlantic. The general tenor of world news these days is that the sky is falling: employment is down, crime is up, terrorists are everywhere, earthquakes and tsunamis are destroying whole countries, we are crumpling under the weight of our own debt, politicians are even slimier than usual, China is poised to rule the world, and cylons are going to nuke us! It’s a terrible time to be literate, really. The apocalypse is upon us.
But is it really? Are we to believe these prophecies of doom, spoon fed to us by our trusty news media on a daily basis? Are things really that bad? And if so, what is good?
Over the next few days I will be releasing a series of posts that examine the underlying assumptions that we hold– about human action, about history, and about progress – and exploring how they contribute to our current feelings of helplessness, decline, and a general sense that something has gone terribly wrong. I don’t mean to say that our most fundamental societal beliefs are wrong; merely that they are unexamined.
I suspect that much of our nebulous sense of “wrong” relates to our feelings of powerlessness. We are being manipulated by forces we can’t control, or even understand in some cases, and we have no idea the effect they will have on our future as individuals or as a society. (Indeed, the future is so uncertain, some of us have taken off our shades.)
The desire for action is one of the traits that characterizes our age, and the ability to change the world is a fundamental assumption twenty-first century humans hold. But it has not always been this way. The ancient philosophers thought that contemplation and understanding were the goal of life, constituting what they referred to as the “good life.” We have much more ambitious goals now: the “good life” today, it seems, is not only to understand but to effect positive change.
In the excellent and thought-provoking Straw Dogs, John Gray discusses the idea that we have adopted a “humanist” faith in progress and scientific innovation as a way to solve the age-old ethical and moral dilemmas that challenge us. This humanism bases itself on a perverted idea of Darwinian theory, he argues, and has picked up right where Christianity has left off, with the central tenet that humans are special, and different from other animals. We have destinies, special capabilities, the power to change things.
Gray disagrees on all counts. While we have certainly seen progress in science and technology, giving us more knowledge and more power than ever before, humans’ morality and ethics have remained at the same level. I will go one step further and say that the feelings of power that science and technology have engendered are also accompanied by a greater sense of scope (i.e. that life has to mean something) and responsibility (i.e. that we personally can change things).
The societal structures in which we live embody this sense of scope and responsibility. Consider democracy, or capitalism – belief systems that favour choice, and, as part of that choice, action. We must cast the vote, or buy the best product, in order for either system to succeed. And if enough of us vote with our ballots or with our feet, things will change.
It is no coincidence that both ideas really took off in the Victorian era, when action – or work – was glorified as good, honest, and respectable for the first time. Before that, work was always something to be abhorred, given to slaves or serfs if possible, deserving of contempt. At best, work was a means to an end of rest, or contemplation. But after the nineteenth century, “good work” became an end in itself. The idea originated in Christianity, but was never fully adopted until it became a part of the secular worldview of the capitalist, meritocratic nations that have effectively run the world for the past 200 years. (So if you’re feeling overworked, don’t blame the Americans; blame Martin Luther.)
It’s no wonder we feel lost these days, when we are unable to find a job, or feed our families, or predict what our personal living situation will be in six months. It is the natural fear that comes from instability, but also the idea that we are powerless. Gray would say that it is a reminder of our own insignificance and mortality, which normally are hidden behind a guise of action for the sake of it. It may also be a blow to the pride we feel in being able to control our worlds.
So how to fix this feeling of helplessness? Gray contrasts the modern Christian/Western idea that the “good life” is a struggle, swimming upstream in order to make our mark, a “perpetual striving,” with that of Taoism, in which the “good life” is living effortlessly, as we really are, and letting the current carry us. It certainly sounds more appealing, doesn’t it?
Next post in this series: History and its (Ab)Uses