Page Two: The Future Is Glacial

Revisiting change in rocky times

Page Two


This is the last issue of the year. The next Austin Chronicle will be dated for 2010. Once again, we are here out on the dance floor with the exact same tired moves, dressed in the very clothes we wore last time. This is a traditional column, a reunion of sorts.

Not disputing the premise that life is difficult and uncertain, the future is unknown, while the present seems monstrously out of control: We are not living in "the best of times," but what if we also aren't living in "the worst of times"?

Without trying to argue that the world and modern life are any better than their most severe critics charge: What if things are now better than they were? Not everything for everybody, of course, but in general: Rather than sinking to the depths, getting dumbed down, or being close to the end of days, are things really just a bit brighter than they were in the past?

Usually, when I offer this grounded optimism, suggesting that times are better than they've been before, there has been a lot of response, most of it vicious and contemptuous.

This may be because it is not enough for many to just describe the enormous problems facing all of us, but that this darkness must have been deliberately created as a way of destroying the world as we've known it.

The argument espousing this view goes something like this: "It used to be better; people were more civilized and far better educated. Life in this country is not anywhere near as good as it used to be in the past. Historically, Americans had it better than they do now, but that's because they were uncommonly courageous, strongly committed to freedom, and absolutely militant about protecting their constitutionally guaranteed rights. They had rights then, as well, and those were respected by the government. Corporations didn't control the world, and politicians were more honest."


Crap! Crap, crap, crap.

This is based on a fantastical version of history, a Norman Rockwell version of American life: small towns, friendly neighbors, doors left unlocked, and community sings on the weekend. Even at its most limited, the take is distorted, saturated with nostalgia while ignoring history. Without even going into detail, one can just point out that this idyllic life was certainly not the one lived by minorities, immigrants, the rural poor, and the lower economic classes.

There is more than enough tragedy, difficulty, injustice, disease, and disaster to cause a pessimistic hopelessness about life without insisting that things are not only at rock bottom but are getting dramatically worse. It isn't necessary to feel that there is a progressively escalating deterioration, with everything going rapidly to hell, to acknowledge that the world is facing all kinds of hardships. It is necessary, however, if one is justifying self-righteous patriotism and vicious, anti-government politics while advocating the religion of hatred and blame; to do that, one needs to argue that this collapse is due to an intentional, consciously orchestrated strategy initiated by a powerful, secret elite in pursuit of their own selfish evil ends – which may well include killing and/or enslaving most of the population.

This view privileges one's own fear and paranoia, allowing for the deepest abhorrence of all politicians and most citizens. Given how evil they are and corrupt their goals, in this view, the most violent response is required. Instead of the sheeple in denial, who prefer wishy-washy mulling and no action rather than risking the wrath of the powerful, this calls for true patriots, willing to fight and die, following leaders who do not hesitate to expose and denounce evildoers.

This constant good-guy-vs.-bad-guy dichotomy includes an ever-resilient, ridiculously utopian worldview – something along the following lines: Bad things happen because of evil people. When they are vanquished, common sense will lead to harmonious, corruption-free politics. Since everything is viewed from one's own perspective, there is no need to worry about abuse of power, corruption, or poor governing because each one knows that they are better and more moral people than all our current leaders.

Both Sides Now

A constitutional republic is an ugly, difficult, frustrating form of government. The Constitution is deliberately designed to hinder extreme politics and radical change, slowing it down if not stopping it.

Many people who swear allegiance to the Constitution seem to want to ignore that it not only protects one's own rights but ensures that other folks' rights are protected as well. The demand for extremes does not come from evil people or malicious forces but from all of us, both those on the left and those on the right. When Barack Obama was running for president, as much as he was hated for his politics by many on the right, there were also many on the left who had issues with him. They felt there was no chance under his leadership for radical change, that instead his administration would be more of the same.

Whenever politicians are described as "completely committed to their beliefs and unwilling to compromise their principles," rather than being a sign of integrity or patriotism, this suggests that there will be a failure to govern. When any one of you gets mad at a politician for compromising or acting against what you imagined to be his or her beliefs, you are stepping away from the concepts of the Constitution.

The past administration of President George W. Bush pursued truly radical changes in our government. Centralizing power in the executive branch and insisting on ideological loyalty from bureaucrats, it also ignored all the traditional bipartisan decencies of governing. As radical as it was, many radical right-wingers were disappointed that it didn't go even further in instituting changes. It didn't go very far, but it went more than far enough in its embrace of partisan extremes.

Now, many Americans found this excess troubling and offensive. Some of them also believe that certain situations in this country are so bad that radical change is required – not the bad, mean-spirited radical changes of the Bush administration but rather progressive, good radical changes. Well, the problem there is that citizens whose ideas and beliefs you despise are just as protected and empowered as those you like. When you go after an honorable extreme, it is just as damaging to the Constitution as is the same action by people with opposing, very different politics.

Spoiler Alert!: Often when I offer arguments such as those in this column, folks write in to accuse me of base hypocrisy. I keep lamenting that it seems discussions have become too charged, that no matter how extreme the disagreements or emotional the hostility, it doesn't mean those with different ideas are evil.

I believe that those I disagree with are as sincere as I am. We all honestly believe in our perspective on issues and the ideas we advocate. They are not evil. I would never wish physical harm on them and would fight any attempt to deny them media access or shut them up.

I may disagree and intensely dislike their politics, but consistently blaming others is a terrible strategy. The more public discourse and dialogue, the better, even if some of it often worries, outrages, or disturbs me, seeming dangerous. The response to ideas has to be ideas.

As I wrote in a column in October of this year:

"The old Louis Black two-step: 'Why can't we all just get along?' But that's not really it. I don't expect us to get along. ...

"Attacking the motives of others is twisted in two profound ways. It makes them evil: It's not just that they have different ideas but that they actively want to do harm to others. The other is that by so attacking, you sanctify yourself: Presuming that you are 'good' to their 'evil,' you anoint yourself and your beliefs with holiness. ...

"[Objecting to the politics of hate] does not argue for tempering disagreement in any way. Even far surpassing the idea of principled disagreement – to think or claim someone is stupid, ill-informed, lying, blatantly disregarding information, or being a demagogue, all in pursuit of ideological goals – is not to think that he or she is a villain determined to destroy anything we hold dear. Demonizing people allows us not just to dismiss their ideas but to murder them before they murder us."

The seeds of genocide are always planted the same way. One group demonizes another, insisting they are knowingly evil and planning to attack and intentionally inflict harm. This doesn't just justify but demands a violent reaction. This is what happened in the former Yugoslavia and between the Tutsi and the Hutu. This is why Germans killed Jews and why some Southerners believed that killing civil rights workers who came South for the cause was patriotic. The easiest way to utopia is not elimination.

Holiday Good Wishes

Sure, these are rocky times, the world is dangerous and the future menacing, but still, our lives are very much what we make of them. Common to that comment are responses raising the difficulties created by all kinds of ingrained social prejudices – that there are often economic and social obstacles because of race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, and so on.

Despair is too convenient. Excuses may explain, but they don't improve anything. There are many tactics available with which to protest: Advocating change, political maneuvering, personal outreach, self-determination, and aggressive, determined ignorance are all strategies.

The best way out of oppression is liberation, not lament.

The real, profound, and widespread trouble most Americans face today is not oppression and the loss of their previously ensured rights. It is that so many of us live in a world of opportunity, where, if one is not happy nor doing what he or she wants, it is not because of the evil intervention of some secret malicious order of the Other.

So many people I know have ended up doing with their lives pretty much what they've wanted. There is still tragedy and heartbreak; there are still setbacks; there is still oppression, injustice, and all kinds of discrimination. None of these are new; all have been around for generations. Anybody who expects social, political, or economic change to be accomplished with giant steps is sadly misled. Real change is usually imperceptible.

Our lives are ours. We own our futures. There are many more opportunities for fulfilling potential and taking advantage of opportunities if one is moving forward rather than just looking back.

My thought for this holiday season is a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: "It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness."

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extremism, change, U.S. Constitution, nostalgia, Barack Obama, George W. Bush

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