observations and opinion
She was calling from out of town. I never sat down. I took the news standing.
“We love each other” she said plainly. Had she rehearsed this?. “But we are never going to be in love with each other.”
She probably had rehearsed this. I listened. I was being fired. Dumped. Happy New Year. I stood there, nodding. I was calm. I said calm, mature things.
You might find that peculiar. What comes to mind is Harry Chapin’s best lyric, from “Taxi” – “well another man might have been angry, and another man might have been hurt, but another man never would have let her go.”
The truth is, I wasn’t angry. It hurt, of course. But I could not fault her for it. Even if my mind rebelled at being fired, my relatively bloodless and brief mourning period proved her wisdom. She spared us both future misery and offered a useful lesson, all in one snappy phone call.
That is true only because I chose to take it that way. I decided not to be despondent. And today, many years later on December 31, 2016, this is precisely what we have to choose to do about the year now ending. The year 2016 hurt. A lot, actually. So what are we going to do about it?
We can continue to roll around in gloom, or we can extract a lesson or two, brush ourselves off and march into a year that is not Two Thousand and Sixteen.
In fact, I think that 2016 has done us a favour, just the way my old friend did lo those many moons ago. It has invited us to see the world for what it is, and to live there, rather than to continue being disappointed that the world is not what we imagine it to be.
The truth is, the liberal democratic dream is just that – a dream. It’s a nice dream, a worthy vision of how human beings shall live. But that’s what it is: a vision. It’s not easy, it’s not guaranteed, it’s not even “natural” in the sense of reflecting how people tend to behave.
It is just a dream. But it is a necessary dream.
On November 9, 2016 millions of people – many of them young adults – were emotionally shattered by the results of the U.S. Presidential election. There has been a kind of dizzy disorientation since, among those who would never support Trump. There were the recount efforts. There was the desperate campaign to persuade Electors to go against their own inclinations (and many state laws) to reject the person who had lawfully won the election. Many more people were simply aching, like they’d been struck with a shovel.
I will say in no uncertain terms that the election of Donald Trump, like the Brexit vote, or the recent Italian election and the sentiments feeding them all, are bad. Bad bad bad. They reflect widespread ignorance, itchiness and indifference to consequences. They inflict upon future generations really terrible, nostalgia-based choices echoing out from the fat guts of overfed boomers and lurking bigots. It is all bad.
But it can be the start of something good. It can be a cold pail of water, dumped over a very sleepy head.
Modern western liberalism has slumped into a lazy complacency – a sense of entitlement, a fantasy where everyone behaves like sophisticated, knowing secondary characters who didn’t make the final cut of “Love, Actually.” We have become insufferably smug.
We have come to treat our democratic inheritance as an entitlement. The rule of law, the ballot box, free speech, a free press, pluralism, human rights, congenially profitable capitalism – we have come to see it all as a kind of sunshine. A natural resource that is eternally reliable and endlessly available.
Further, this smugness has fossilized into a kind of denial, a habit of pretending that inconvenient truths are simply not true. There has been a general assumption that people with different views – illiberal views – are small pockets of trailer park trash quickly dying of cigarettes and Big Macs. Or if they are overseas, they’re disgruntled and disaffected losers who have been hypnotized into strapping on suicide bombs and driving trucks into Christmas markets. Aberrations.
How foolish we have been. How deeply, ridiculously foolish we have been to treat the rough realities of human nature like some kind of sweater with a pull in it, to be returned to the store on Boxing Day.
But now, with millions of citizens in western countries making, or threatening to make, really peculiar, illiberal choices – in particular the election of a dangerously narcissistic internet troll who has admitted to sexual assault – we have a glimmer of hope. A glimmer of hope that all the people who profess to be liberal and progressive, will wake up to the world they actually live in.
It is a difficult world. It always has been a difficult world. The main difficulty being, human beings. They are consistently awful to each other and to the world. There’s a reason for this, I think – they’re wired to be awful. They are – for the most part – fearful, limited, selfish, easily angered, violent, irrational, tribalistic, impulsive, narrow and self-absorbed.
“Speak for yourself” you say. Yes, I will. But as a member of the human race, I am prepared to point to the whole of our history as a species to say “folks, human beings are really pretty awful a lot of the time”. If you doubt it, keep in mind some of the following nuggets of fact:
Human civilization is about 10,000 years old.
* Women had almost no political equality, anywhere on the planet earth, before 100 years ago. That is to say, women have had a vote in some countries, for a period of time equal to ONE PERCENT of history.
* Women still live in significantly more difficult social and economic circumstances than men do, almost everywhere.
* Slavery based on race was eradicated in the United States only 150 years ago. Civil and voting rights were guaranteed to African Americans there only 50 years go.
* In Canada, indigenous people had no political rights until about 50 years ago.
* Homosexual people have enjoyed full human rights in a few countries, for about one decade. That’s ten years – 1/10th of one percent of the history of human civilization.
* Eighty years ago (that’s just 8 decades), the Holocaust hadn’t even happened yet. The Holocaust was in the future. Imagine drinking champagne on December 31, 1936 and being told that within ten years, Germany would build factories to murder millions of people, as part of a war to steal all of Europe and Russia. It might sound possible, but it wouldn’t feel possible, would it?
* The Rape of Nanking. Rwanda. Syria. ISIS. The Khmer Rouge. And so on.
You get the picture. We’ve made some progress recently, but we are consistently awful.
Of course, that’s not the whole story. We cherish the alternative parts of ourselves – the parts embodied in someone like Jesus Christ, for example – and in the west we have built a civilization purporting to reflect the best parts of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Other parts of the world have their own best traditions, which have held in check the darker realities of human nature. But today, I am talking about the western tradition and how it has manifested itself.
Western liberalism (meaning economic and political freedom, not a particular political party or creed), is both a dream of how to live and (if we are paying attention) a guidebook to do so. Human beings seem to create more and develop their abilities in free markets, but even the most free market is a kind of voluntary bondage – an agreement to live by a set of rules, accepting certain truths as essential for cooperative living. We have legislatures and executives whom we choose, through a set of rules for elections. We have laws and courts and judges and police to enforce the rules. We have a free press, fed by the citizens who depend upon it, to unearth fraud and to challenge abuses of power in the market and in the state.
There have been some very serious costs inflicted on the world by liberal democratic states, most seriously environmental injury and the eradication of old, settled ways of living (particularly among indigenous peoples in colonized lands). But it would be difficult to find a serious person, living anywhere, who would choose to live at any other time or any other place than a liberal western democracy. If you doubt that, look where the immigrants come from and where they go. Capitalist liberal democracies are just better places to live than other forms of human civilization we have yet to invent.
That doesn’t make the people in those democracies “better” – they’re not. They’re just luckier. All human beings appear to be the same, subjects to the same squalid appetites and severe limitations, moved by similar sentiments and attracted to similar ideals (most but not all human beings). But if you were born in a capitalist liberal democracy, you were to quote one wag, “born holding a lottery ticket.” If you moved to one, for all the difficulties of the transition and the indignities of being an immigrant or refugee, I would bet you don’t plan to go back. You bought the lottery ticket and won.
And if you’re in that lucky group, you also have some responsibilities. Duties to the democracy you enjoy. That’s the part we have neglected to think about, or act upon sufficiently.
Political elites in the west have promoted policies, which the masses have endorsed, that have generally expanded the scope of liberty and opportunity for millions and millions of people. Even trade with China, which has seemed so one sided and brutal for western workers, has been part of the process of expanding economic liberalism which inevitably will foster more political liberty. China’s growth has lifted more people out of poverty than any single event in human history. Democracy will grow out of it, just as it grew out of economic liberty everywhere else.
With all that, we have forgotten who we really are as a species, how susceptible we can be to stupidity and cruelty (we have also ignored the real hardship inflicted on the losers in globalization, and the insanely unhealthy forms of wealth inequality which burden our societies today). We have been smug, smug, smug. And now we have been slapped in the face.
It is for that sharp, stinging blow across the chops that I say “thank you 2016.” Thank you for teaching a new generation that their freedom is not free, their entitlements are not actually guaranteed. Thank you for reminding us that the incredible social progress of the last half century, the expansion of economic and personal opportunity for people who aren’t straight white males, is very much a work in progress. And that we can lose it.
My metaphor for progress has been, and remains, the sand castle. We are on a beautiful beach and we have shaped, with our hands, a magnificently fragile mansion of sand. We should be proud of it. But we have to remember something: the tide. The tide comes in, inexorably, mercilessly, blindly – it is a small tsunami every night and day, smashing our edifice and dragging it out to the sea.
The lucky among us live in that beautiful sand castle, and we have forgotten about the tide. It’s back. Are we awake yet, or still dreaming?