Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The Dark Crystal

My master's degree thesis was titled "Which Way is Up? Social Welfare and the Ideology of Progress." I wrote it just about exactly 20 years ago. Back in that dimly remembered historic epoch, progress -- historic, current, and inevitable -- was the animating conviction of American culture. Each generation was better off, and better, than the last. Technology hand in hand with capitalism had banished our vulnerability to nature, was ending enslavement to need, and soon to want, and then would open up a world without material limits. Medicine would banish disease, and then even death. Morally, we had very nearly conjured our founding ideals into reality, conquering slavery, then patriarchy, segregation, and soon even poverty, sexism and war. Humanity was about to spill from its earthly cradle and conquer the planets and the stars.

To be sure, people had varying views of exactly how far we had come and how fast we would progress, but few doubted that we were going somewhere good. Even the fiercest social critics and champions of the oppressed, after all, were true believers in progress, the central dogma of Marxism and its descendants. Conservatives as well, despite the label and their claim to defend tradition and the greater glories of the past, did so in the name of an even more glorious future in which ancient values would come to actualization in a world of abundance, and all conflict would end.

There were some smudges of smoke on the psychic horizon. The threat of nuclear war was probably the most ominous, and there were those cassandras moaning about a population bomb and resource depletion and a silent spring. Robert Heilbroner's Inquiry into the Human Prospect was a very dark vision of the future which college students were generally made to read. The vast majority of speculative fiction gave humanity scarcely imaginable powers and galaxies as playgrounds, but John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up saw us destroying our planet and ourselves. The undercurrent of repressed anxiety was strong enough that the most perspicacious even said we were not really in an age of triumph at all, but rather an age of anxiety. But few took these bum trippers seriously. The inevitable technological breakthroughs would fix everything.

The point of my thesis was that, in fact, in many ways we were worse off than our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and that our wisdom was running a long way in arrears of our knowledge. Nowadays, not many people need a professional curmudgeon to tell them that. Faith in progress is blowing away with the New American Century in the desert wind. We're finally awakening from the hallucinatory triumphalism that gave us, in the guise of world historic statesman and visionary, a dimwitted psychopath prancing around on a warship with a sock in his pants. Now it's just a bleak, cold evening and we've got nothing but a tattered flag to wrap around our shivering shoulders.

Maybe, in the coming years, we'll finally start to confront our real problems, and maybe, if we have an acute attack of honesty, self-knowledge, and true courage, we can beat the worst of them. But it might even be too late. After all, John Kerry might tell another lame joke.

1 comment:

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