Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Too much to worry about

I grew up during the height of Cold War tensions, including atmospheric nuclear testing, the Cuban missile crisis, the Arab oil embargo, Ronald Reagan going on TV to warn us that the commies were going to come up from Nicaragua and invade Harlingen, Texas. (Really! He really did that!) I mean, nuclear World War III would have been the end, my friend. But somehow we all believed that it just couldn't possibly ever happen. Miraculously enough, it didn't, and the problems of the 1990s seemed minor by comparison.

But right now the zeitgeist seems more tormented than it did when people were building fallout shelters in their back yards and school kids were doing duck and cover drills under their desks. The world around us has grown more dangerous in only one important respect: the incompetent and deluded occupant of the office of President of the United States. The problems we have now we already had in the 1990s. Al Qaeda was out there, a major nuisance but no more of an existential threat to anyone than the IRA was to Britain. We had grave and gathering environmental crises, the same ones we had now. We had ever-rising health care costs and lots of uninsured people, which combined with demographic trends to present a long-term problem of fiscal sustainability. Saddam Hussein's Iraq was a failing state -- not much of a threat to anyone, but a long-term political problem that created concerns for regional stability. U.S. workers were facing serious challenges from abroad as capitalists chased low wages and environmental standards wherever they would lead. The explosion of international travel created threats of global infectious disease outbreaks. And so forth. (I apologize to any inhabitants of your closet of nightmares who I've left out.)

But we figured we'd muddle through and do what we had to do to solve or at least ameliorate these problems. The idea that humanity could apply reason and foresight to understand dangers, develop effective responses, and make tomorrow better than today or at least equally tolerable, was once again ascendant. In other words, we believed in progress.

What a difference a corrupt Supreme Court makes. Now these problems are looking intractable, and the vise of danger seems to tighten every day. The situation represents a massive failure of all of our political institutions, from the political parties and leadership, to the mass media, to the self-absorbed, insular American electorate. Every day I wake up expecting a disaster. So far, the disasters have been largely in slow motion, and maybe they'll continue that way, or maybe there will be some sort of a big bang.

But either way, the country has got to mobilize and disable the Bush administration. If Nancy Pelosi considers him unimpeachable, then there are other ways for the congress to box them in and reclaim state power on behalf of the public, and on behalf of sanity. But we have got to recognize the depth of the crisis and the urgency of our situation.

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