The Myth of a Decaying Society

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How many times have you read it or heard it? The world is going (or has gone) to hell in a hand basket. If only we displayed the Ten Commandments in more places. If only we had more capital punishment. If only kids didn’t wear such strange clothes and listen to such strange music. If only parents and teachers beat their kids more like they used to . If only movies didn’t have four-letter words. If only we had another B-movie president.

This year, 2016, will go down in history as the year when one of America’s two major political parties nominated a presidential candidate with no qualifications whatsoever. All he offered (besides a galactic ego and a very long history of very shady business deals) was a vacuous slogan: Make America Great Again. But that was enough to persuade millions of voters to march behind him. Because many of them, though they’d never had it so good, had been convinced that the nation was in such rotten shape that they were willing to entrust it to a crackpot demagogue snake oil salesman.

This phenomenon is by no means limited to Twenty-First Century America; it’s as timeless as civilization itself. Some 600 years ago, at the height of the Renaissance, a poet wrote what at first appeared to be a celebration of the richness, the vitality, the color and panache of his age, but he wrapped up his poem by concluding that he’d never seen things so bad. A couple of millenniums before that, Confucius was complaining that the music of his time was corrupting the morals of society, and the celebrated Hebrew prophet Jeremiah (or someone) was authoring the Lamentations bemoaning an utterly bleak world. Go back to just about any age, in just about any country, and chances are you’ll find a record of someone complaining about how things were just not like they used to be in the Good Old Days.

Time out. If all of these wailers were correct, then that means that civilization has been on a steady plunge since day one. And the world is now in the worst shape it’s ever been. Take a good look around you; do you really believe that’s the case?

It’s not unusual to look back upon one’s formative years with fondness. But as they age, many people grow more jaded, more disillusioned, more cynical, more bitter. And, unwilling to acknowledge that they themselves have changed, they often ascribe the difference to  a worsening environment.

Today, you’ll hear many people say that “this is not the country I grew up in.” And the turning point you’ll often hear them invoke is the Sixties — more specifically, the Summer Of Love, and the few years thereafter. In their minds, everything has gone downhill since then, and we could make America Great Again if only we could return to the Ozzie and Harriet Utopia of the Fifties. But, like the Jeremiahs of ages past, they are viewing their youth through rosy glasses.  To paraphrase a popular saying, the past ain’t what it used to be — and it never was.

As it happens, I’m old enough to remember what times were like before the hippies ruined everything. And what I remember is a bit different from what the nostalgia addicts remember.

I grew up in a world where “colored people” had separate schools,  courts and water fountains. Women, if they were lucky enough to get jobs as secretaries and receptionists, could maybe earn half of what men did. Gays could be arrested and beaten for their “crime”. Adults could physically and sexually abuse children with little fear of reprisal. Police brutality occurred with impunity, since nobody was recording their conduct and posting it on Youtube. Those of us who were lucky enough to have telephones had them mounted on the wall in our homes; and we didn’t own them; they were on loan from the phone company. “Religious freedom” meant forcing kids to pray in school — and there was plenty to pray about.

We were taught to live in constant fear that we could be annihilated at any moment by a nuclear attack from the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union; and just in case ducking and covering under our school desks didn’t protect us, we wore military-style dog tags to school so our bodies could be identified when recovered from the rubble. We knew the end of the world was surely at hand when a Catholic was elected president.

Pollution and crime were sharply on the rise. Plenty of abortions were performed, but in secret by unqualified personnel; with the result that many women and girls died horrible deaths, which were hushed up and disguised as death by other means. When I was 19, men of my age not only had to register for the draft, but were drafted — it was literally the luck of the draw that kept me from being shipped off to Vietnam. In college, I knew a young man who was sentenced to 3 years in prison for possession of marijuana. Yet everyone was encouraged to smoke cigarettes, because they were just so cool.

My, but times have changed, haven’t they?

Today, while racism and racial tension certainly still exist, race relations and equality have never been better. Women can be CEOs or just about any other thing they damn well want to. Gays can get married. Religious freedom includes (in some cases at least) freedom from religion, just as the founders intended. The economy is not in the best shape it’s ever been, but it’s been much worse, even in my lifetime; in fact, it’s been improving for the past.. oh, 7 years or so. We’ve had an all-volunteer military for years. Pollution has been declining for about 35 years; and contrary to the impression you might get from the media, crime has been declining steadily for at least 25 years or so.

Sure, we still have problems. And some of those problems would have been unthinkable when I was a kid. We never worried then about AIDS, overpopulation, climate change or ISIS. But every age has its own unique challenges. What’s different now is that we have the knowledge and the technology to meet those challenges head-on. In the past, all people could do when a plague or a meteor collision or an ice age occurred was just pray and hope. And today, even though we have an unprecedented level of misinformation stranglehold on the masses courtesy of the mass media, we also have the means of counteracting it — such as, ahem, websites like this one. Not only are things better than ever in the U.S., they are, on the whole, better than ever worldwide.

In short, the better they have it, the more stridently people complain. Polls consistently show that most Americans think their country is “headed in the wrong direction”. Maybe it has been, in some ways, over the period of a year or two. But many people believe it’s been heading in the wrong direction consistently for decades. What do they want — more crime, more racism, more pollution, more war, more disease, and less freedom?

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7 Tips to Avoid Making a Fool of Yourself Over Politics (and Other Things)

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‘Tis the season when Facebook posts fly in a partisan frenzy, when attack ads saturate the airwaves, when campaign signs blossom in yards like oxalis. And it’s a good bet that at some time before the year is over, you will have locked horns with someone over matters political. If you don’t want to say something that you will regret later, or that will cause hard feelings, or that will make you sound very stupid (whether you realize it or not), here are some pointers that you’d do well to keep in mind:

1. Don’t talk in soundbites

In any election cycle (and indeed at other times) you’ll hear people say that the country needs a “change of direction”. Well, driving it off a cliff would certainly qualify. Is that what they have in mind?

“Crooked Hillary”? “Idiot Trump”? How about saying exactly what it is you don’t like about them, and being factual rather than repeating hearsay. (More about that in a moment.)

I just heard a political extremist I won’t name – well, okay, it was Mike Huckabee – comment about how President Obama has “apologized for America”. That’s an allegation that has been made many, many times by many many people, but it’s never been true even once. Wouldn’t it be a much more productive dialogue if people shunned such expressions and discussed what really happened?

Next time you engage someone in a discussion about politics, then just as an experiment if nothing else, try avoiding the use of any of those common catch-phrases you’ve heard on cable TV. It may be a challenge; it may even be impossible. But the effort will be worth it. Using clichés and soundbites only shows that you know how to be a mimic.

2. Give up being a missionary

Unless you really like asking for trouble, don’t bother trying to convert other people to your infallible beliefs. They all have infallible beliefs of their own, and chances are they’re even trying to convert you. The sooner you accept this, the better.

3. Don’t take it – or give it – personally

Americans have a distinct tendency to fuse themselves inextricably to their convictions. As a result, if you criticize someone’s beliefs in any way, they’re likely to take it as a slap in the face. To be sure, it’s also common for people to actually express dissent in ad hominem terms: “you’re an idiot” rather than “I see a problem with that argument”.

You’d be well advised to avoid either trap. And if someone hurls an insult at you, you’d be well advised not to respond at all. Learn to turn the other cheek – the one with the deaf ear attached.

4. Ask, don’t argue

When we hear someone utter something that clashes with our infallible beliefs, our instinct is usually to contradict, challenge, argue. Which just leads to more argument. Rinse, lather, repeat. It would be much more constructive to ask them questions that will get to the bottom of why they believe what they do.

Example: “If you believe that government is useless, does that mean you’re okay with slavery being legal? How would we make it illegal without government intervention? How would we make anything illegal – what would keep people from stealing your property, burning down your house or killing you if they have no one to penalize them? Ah, but what if they have bigger guns than you? So if we eliminated government, everyone would magically adopt biblical principles to live by? Who would decide which interpretations of whose Bible to adopt? How would it be enforced, and by whom? Do you not realize that theocracy is also a form of government?”

Socrates was one of the wisest men who ever lived. And a great part of that wisdom lay in his phenomenal skill in asking questions – questions that would nudge people into seeing the flaws in their own convictions. We can’t all be as good at it as he was, but we don’t have to be. It rarely takes more than 3 or 4 questions to produce a reductio ad absurdum. That is, assuming the other person’s position really is flawed. If not, you might actually learn something. Either way, you win – which is something you’ll never do arguing.

5. Go to the (original) source

You’ve surely seen plenty of the wacky rumors and accusations making the rounds: Obama is a Kenyan Muslim Nazi who wants to take away your guns; Bush was complicit in 9-11; the Clintons have had people killed; the U.N. controls the national parks; vaccines cause autism; Benghazi and emails. It doesn’t matter how many times these things get shot to hell, they keep coming back like Arnold in The Terminator. But unlike him, they’re made of very flimsy stuff.

I used the example of Obama’s alleged “apology tour” above because it serves more than one purpose. So here it is again. In this Age of Google, it would not be terribly hard for most people to dig up what the president really did say. But instead, people are content to just play telephone, cutting and pasting the same memes passed on by someone else from someone else from someone else.

You deserve better. Be sure before you share. If you can’t quote an original source, at least quote a source you’ve consistently found to be reliable. And that doesn’t mean just someone who’s consistently said what you want to hear.

Time-saving hint: after you’ve heard all about Obama apologizing for America, try Googling something like “Obama did not apologize for America”. A friend of mine once commented that whenever he read a book of a political nature, he’d then read one on the same topic from an opposing viewpoint. Not a bad habit.

6. Remember that the world is bigger than your yard

If you are out of a job, you may be under the impression that the economy is in the toilet. If you have been mugged, you may believe that crime is rocketing upward. (Neither, in fact, has been true for quite some time.) We all tend to view the world through our own lenses, but try not to go overboard. Try to evaluate policies, politicians and others by what they have to offer the whole country – or even the whole world – rather than by how well they conform to your worldview.

7. Leave Hitler out of it

In the early days of the Internet, attorney Mike Godwin half-humorously proposed an observation that he called Godwin’s Law, which basically states that any online discussion will eventually lead to a mention of Hitler, and when it does, the discussion should be considered over.

If that’s the case, many people these days terminate the debate before it even gets started. It’s become a Pavlovian response among many people to invoke Der Fuhrer every time they encounter a politician or policy they don’t like.

Hitler came into the world to be the ultimate evil, a last resort in rhetorical evaluation rather than a first impulse in divisive polemic. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of other hyperbolic references: the Civil War, Pearl Harbor, Armageddon.

Write this down: NOBODY IS LIKE HITLER. (Although certainly there are people who behave like – and even are – fans of his.) And he’s been in the spotlight long enough. Let’s give him a rest.