Just as science fiction is having a hard time competing with science fact, Inner Old Man is having a hard time competing – or perhaps the word is coping – with the voices of complaint, despair and outrage. Terrorism is horrible, but so are car accidents and train wrecks and the fact that more teenagers have been killed in Chicago gun violence than have been killed in action in Iraq, yet we are not spending trillions to reduce these horrors. U.S. citizens are truly incapable of accurately and appropriately assessing risk, and Donald Trump knows it.
One might say the only thing we cannot ignore is ignorance itself.
For perspective, Arnold J. Toynbee’s study of the 23 past human civilizations/empires showed recurring patterns with greater grit and detail than the Hegelian triad of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Toynbee noted a distinctive, repeating anatomy to the rise and fall of civilizations/empires. Through warfare and economic domination, human civilizations repeatedly reached a point of two dominant players, or two superpowers. This was as true of the Mayans as it was of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. and all those in between.
Inevitably, one super power conquered the other, but the victor then was overcome with hubris that led to international adverturism, domestic exceptionalism, overconfidence and the blindness of pride that ultimately led to a fall from grace and then from power. During and after the fall, the victors in the super power runoff then imposed a stifling bureaucracy on their own people, suppressing intellect and creativity to a point that the apparent victor became self-destructive. Jean-Paul Sartre observed that when all the ledgers are balanced, and all things considered, no one wins a war.
This short summary should not substitute for reading Toynbee. Crane Brinton’s The Anatomy of Revolution, provides even more granular detail to the inner particulars of how civilizations deteriorate. Because we either avoid or fail to understand history, we fall into self-absorption, imagining we are special. And social media, quick connections tied to higher expectations, only intensifies the sense that “I matter.” Suggestion: read one of Toynbee’s analyses without names. It is difficult to avoid the thought that some U.S. citizens are repeating known mistakes of the past with all the vigor of a blind kangaroo.
This is more than the timeworn wisdom that those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it. It is recognition that human creatures are more predictably self-ignorant than ever imagined: trading liberty for security, making policy from the cloth of national exceptionalism, engaging misinformation, and jumping into false conclusions.
How to fix it? Well, representative democracy does not function well in large populations. For thirteen colonies and about two million people, it worked fairly well, even though many of the cultural norms, such as slavery, suppression of women and disregard for natural processes, were democratically acceptable. Setting aside the possibility that “the will of the people” may be immoral, irrational or contrary to our very species fitness, representative democracy falls apart with fifty states and 350 million people. It is impossible to represent “the people,” and any claims to do so are suspect beyond belief.
U.S. culture now emphasizes the importance of self importance. An economic system that requires continuous growth yields an explosion of options aiming to tailor “I” to a “T”. And freedom of speech gives false credibility to misinformation. The emphasis on “I” makes it nearly impossible for one person to represent many. Think about how hard it is for one person to accurately represent, say, a dozen people after a meeting. IOM can say from personal experience and observation that any meeting of twelve or more people will require representatives equal to at least half the number of people at the meeting.
So we need a Congress consisting of roughly a 100 million representatives. Maybe social media is on the way to making this happen. If Donald Trump can be a presidential candidate of a major U.S. political party, it affirms that anyone can be president.
For a real solution to changing the inexorable repetition of human error, a good start would be to give atheism its due. Of all the forces perpetuating ignorance, organized religion is the usual suspect. We recently learned that the mass murderer in Orlando may have been a homosexual in a faith that punishes this disposition with death, as does the King James version of the Holy Bible. Though it is possible that many ISIL fighters are suppressed homosexuals, so are many Christian preachers. Both would benefit from a booster shot of science. Homosexuality is physiological, and has survived (in spite of the logic that would suggest homosexuals would eventually depart the gene pool for lack of reproductive capacity) because the physiology that results in homosexuality is linked genetically to a complex of genes intimately related to human species fitness. The explanatory science is readily accessible but not in a 2,000-year-old book written by committees who thought the world was flat.
In fairness to the possibility that IOM may be looking through purple colored glasses, he admits there is some correlation between the baby boomer generation’s concerns and various cultural emphases since the early 1960s. Culture has more or less followed the needs and hopes of the boomers. The 70s were a time of reconciliation and adaptation, followed by the 80s where the boomers had to get a job and some of them got greedy. The 90s and 2000s were a period of institutionalizing boomer values, and now, as we boomers – including IOM – are reaching our years of inevitable infirmity, it is no surprise that the world is obviously falling apart and going to H E DOUBLE TOOTHPICKS.
So it goes. In 1960, roughly half of U.S citizens were teenagers. No wonder we thought we could change culture and have it our way: almost every other person was one of us.
John Mattingly cultivates prose, among other things, and was most recently seen near Poncha Springs.