We're probably all tired of the cliche. Some old and worn-out looking person grumbles, "It just keeps getting worse, year after year." Automatically, we ignore this person, much as we often write off any activity that becomes infested with fools. But what if these people are, while indeed fulfilling a cliche, also right? What if all of those in recent memory who have grumbled are also right? Is it possible their grumbling sets us off not because it is a cliche, but because the official history with which it disagrees is an illusion?
The official history is that, thanks to progressive thinking, humanity is moving out of the dark ages into a new and profound technological time. We have more rights and freedoms than ever before; there's sex without marriage, legal drugs in some areas, no restrictions by class or race or gender, and plenty of jobs to choose from. However, those who have lived long enough to see what our paradise is replacing are not so sure they like the new way of doing things. Simply put, all of these freedoms come with a price, and as the bill comes due many of us are asking whether or not we actually care about these freedoms.
Let's look at it this way: for 99% of us, all of the new "freedoms" are moot. We aren't so driven by sex, overeating or drug abuse that it matters to us that much if these things are legal; in the odd cases where such things might be necessarily, we'll try for it and get away with it, as when a small and competent percentage of the population is doing such things, it doesn't provide a threat - when a larger and less competent chunk engages in them, it becomes a problem. We don't need "freedom" for such a world order, but we do need to not have a government that's always trying to manage us "in our own best interests."
If we look at history in the trendy ten-year cycles used by the news-entertainment media, we see how "progress" has made things better. Now you don't go to jail for as long for smoking pot, or not at all. Now you can have a gay wedding in front of millions. Now it's easier to buy state documents with a credit card. And so on, and so forth. But like any successful swindle, this one works by distracting us from the big picture with vivid but inconsequential details. Such is "freedom." Would you need freedom if it weren't considered A-OK to have a crazy government attempting to impose its will upon us?
Let's roll back the clock for a minute. The biggest division ever to occur in the modern world, the Cold War, finally ended around roughly 1991 or so. At that point, it was a whole new ball game, although the same old ball game, if one sees history as a continuum (and not a politically labelled sequence of events). Since then, we think, we've finally been on the path. All the bad guys - Stalin, Hitler - are out of the way, because no one's really fooled into thinking Hussein, no matter how "evil" he was, has the importance or power of a Stalin or Hitler. By our logic, it should be smooth sailing.
After all, our technology has never been better. Our freedoms have never been freer. We connected the world via the Internet and finally tamed the worst of our epidemics. A new wave of racial reconciliation has spread across Europe and America. Yet there's also some unpromising signs. For one thing, all of the problems these reforms are designed to counteract are still present, if not growing stronger.
Maybe those old guys who grumble about how it gets worse every year are right. Do people really like to live this way? In America, customer service has plummetted to the point where companies routinely do things wrong, knowing few customers have the time to sit through their broken problem-solving process. Every other product is a ripoff, with cleverly-constructed legalese protecting the company from the customer. But don't we have the choice to buy another product? Here, again, the masses triumph: whatever they buy drowns out everything else, so you'd better like it - and buy it - or you'll forever be trying to compensate.
Most people seem to go to their jobs out of fear of poverty. There are plenty of people who like what they do, meaning the basic process, but how many actually like their jobs? The concept of "job" is not equivalent to the concept of a profession; a job means working for someone else, according to office political rules. And those are dehumanizing: if anyone is offended, the person who offended is automatically wrong. This eliminates the strong. I'm not even talking about race, here, or other "freedom" issues - people simply lash out at those who do not conform.
We have more roads, which means more time sitting in traffic. More required services, including the Internet, which means more time fighting over bills and haggling with customer service representative. More people, which means more waiting and less personal service. More races, which means even less consensus about what our cultural values are, since we don't have a dominant culture. All of this has gone on for some time, even far before 1991, but now, in the early years of the 2000s, we're finally seeing the effects.
It's now a pain in the ass to live in America or Europe.
Beyond the tangible stuff, including the freedom to be forced into poverty if you offend anyone, or the freedom to wait in line for hours, or the freedom to get ripped off because you don't have days every year to devote to carefully comparing goods and services and contracts, there are the intangibles. More than anything else, it seems to me this is what our grumbling elders speak of: the loss of a certain feeling that held the whole mess together. In the past, we were a society, coming from similar origins and with similar goals. Now what are... fodder for corporations on one side, and for any dispossessed or otherwise impoverished/dysfunctional group on the other?
It's the intangibles that we're missing most. For many in Europe, it is the missing sense of connection to common heritage and common goal. For many in America, it's the missing sense of community, where we were working together to eke out an existence in our small communities. More than 50% of us live in cities now, and there's no eking of anything. There's getting a job and a credit card, and attending that job while trying not to think how unpleasant our daily existence of haggling, buying, being alienated from others and trying not to offend is.
When we open up our view of history beyond the decade, this becomes clear. We see how even a thousand years ago a populist revolt was started which created this culture of being offended or not being offended, and gave triumph to the masses of low skill instead of the few who have the brains to get us out of this mess. The grumbling of our elders has gone on for a millennium or more, because they've noticed how each generation, slowly, it creeps up on us: dominion by a certain kind of conformity, hidden behind "freedom" and "rights," that grants to the dysfunctional the right to beat up on those who might make the difficult decisions which are necessary for us to have a healthy society.
It used to be you could make difficult decisions. Some lived, some died; there were individual tragedies, and great suffering, but it was forgotten because, on the whole, people in that civilization were better off. Now there's none of that. You cannot select some to live and some to die, except through impersonal and "objective" means like how much money they're willing to earn, because someone might be offended. Thus our society sags into ruin from within. It doesn't get any simpler than this, so I'll say it again: we've lost the ability to make decisions. The cult of the individual rules over the collective good, thus we simply don't make decisions. And thus the rot within increases.
Peek at the cities of the ancient Greeks and Romans. These were noble cities, beautiful cities. Clearly not everyone got the "right" and "freedom" to work the biggest tool job they could find and thus afford some wasteful suburban house where they could scheme against anyone who offended them, but in the end, people lived in a saner time. It wasn't as much for the tangibles as the intangibles: we were all on the same page, had the same struggle and valued the same things. It hasn't been clear for almost a thousand years, but that's what we've lost, and all the "freedoms" and wide-screen TVs in the world cannot obscure our mounting sense of loss.
May 25, 2005