January 2008


by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

As a child, I inhaled along with the morning air the conviction that the world always and inexorably grows better over time. We used to have slavery, and now we don't. We didn't have the automobile, and now we do.

At the 1964 World's Fair, my favorite exhibit was the General Motors "Futurama" ride, where you toured man's rational future in a GM auto body. People frolicked on acquascooters outside undersea hotels reached by nuclear sub. Road-building machines leveled the Amazon forest. Better living through technology extended even to a moonbase. I was ten years old and the future seemed like a place where everyone would dress in clean white robes and fly personal helicopters.

I didn't start to understand what a crock this was until almost ten years later, when we had already visited the moon and then stopped going, for reasons which were unknown to me and personally heart-breaking. I didn't question the idea of progress until sometime in my twenties, when I read J.B. Bury's book of that name. He discloses that "progress" is an invention of the Renaissance and after. Before that, humans acknowledged that we lived in a Vale of Tears, a world of perpetual suffering, from which we would be freed only by death. Exactly what we now know to be true.

I turned fifty-three this year, and as a relatively intelligent observer of four decades of history, can personally verify that nothing much has improved in that time. We have learned how to cure or stabilize a few diseases--AIDS was invariably fatal in 1983 and is not today--but we constantly live in terror of the next big one (SARS, bird flu). I think we have a better appreciation of the ways in which even the most benign technology backfires (antibiotics create new strains of disease resistant to them). On the political and international front, the world seems far more violent and dangerous than it did fifty years ago. As a child, I worried about the Soviets dropping an H bomb on my head, but sensed they were ultimately rational and might be deterred; today we worry about the tens of thousands of fanatics in the world willing to die in order to kill us, one of whom will inevitably set off a small nuke in an urban center before too many more decades have passed.

When I was a child, the phenomenon of suicide-murder was all but unknown. Today, this violent brand of narcissism has come to the front and center; the world is full of a highly disturbing number of people who feel that it is all right to kill a lot of other people if you kill yourself as well, whether in the 9/11 attack, Iraqi bombings or Columbine style high school attacks.

On other fronts, the rich are richer and poor poorer, more people in the US do not have health insurance, and the nation gives every sign of being even less democratic than it was, with a few super-wealthy political contributors dictating policy while the rest of us go whistle.

And we are officially torturing people, and then trying to disguise it through semantics.

For a long time into the Nixon administration I assumed that the people who ran things, even when evil, at least know what they are doing. Super-villains who are rational and careful still get the job done, a warped version of the idea of progress. Along the way, I have learned to my horror that the world is run by psychologically stunted people, who in their vanity and self-righteousness, are capable of making horrendous choices indefensible even by their ideological partisans. Today's prime example is Iraq, where we have made the same grievous error we made in living memory in Vietnam.

Americans are fatter and stupider than they were, a result of another fifty years of American exceptionalism, advertising, budget cuts for education, and our leaders adopting a bread and circuses strategy to make sure we sleep through elections.

Global warming, not likely to be reversed by any kid of concerted rational behavior, will mean that we will make our world unrecognizable over time, not livable by today's northern hemisphere standards of health, nutrition, and safety.

The combat against Al Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalism is starting to look like the first skirmishes in a new world war, one in which you don't win by killing a single Hitler or Mussolini.

The statistic that should inevitably end all rational discussion and plunge us into a state of dumb horror, is this: There are twice as many humans on the planet as there were when I was a child. How long can we keep this up? Does anyone really know how many people this planet can sustain?

Even when my belief in inexorable progress started to crack, for many years I held on to the idea that humans in general have a fierce commitment to comfort, mutual aid, peace, democracy and better living which irresistibly surfaces, no matter how far underwater it has been forced. The consensual winding down of the Soviet Union and the South African apartheid government both gave me a big boost in this direction. But life in the former Soviet republics is largely poorer and more violent than it was, and hardly any more democratic, almost twenty years on. South Africa also continues impoverished and violent, and the man likely to be elected the next President is an accused rapist and bribe-taker who believes that a shower will prevent HIV infection.

Today, I no longer believe the prognosis is very good. Technology permits fewer people to kill more (the only kind of real progress the world has seen). Nineteen people would have been hard put to kill 3,000 in a couple hours as late as the nineteenth century, but it was an easy enough matter on 9/11/2001. A suitcase nuke or dirty bomb set off in an urban center will eventually do much more than that.

The human race often looks to me like a failed experiment, something which will end itself before too many centuries (perhaps decades) have passed.

Yet I get up every morning, read the newspaper with interest, enjoy the view out my window, watch an old movie, read a good book, turn out the Spectacle every month, and write plays.

I think there are three parts to this contradiction.

One is the product of an emotional letting go, a fatalism. The world will not miraculously improve, but will just groan along in its declining tracks. I can tolerate a lot more of that than I could as a teenager, as long as the bad and violent people are not up in my face. On September 11, they were (I was in the subway under the WTC as the second plane hit, and exited to the street a moment later). I discovered in the years after that, I can manage that too.

Second is good works. I rarely let a year go by without contributing time to something I hope will stem the tide a little: working with disadvantaged children, drafting an amicus brief, representing immigrants in deportation proceedings, and protecting turtle eggs are among the things I have volunteered to do in the last quarter century. I certainly haven't dedicated my life to works the way some people do--but it seems like the world can soak up a lot of dedicated lives without changing very much. The man who mentored me in my immigration work, Arthur Helton, died in the bombing of the UN offices in Iraq. I think we have the right to be a little hedonistic with the only life we have. Remember the instruction the flight attendant gives you before take-off? You must secure your own oxygen mask in order to be able to help anyone else with theirs.

Third is art. As I write, I am listening to the Bruch and Mendelsohn violin concertos. For me, the main human activity which opposes the surging tide is the creation of beauty. I am not sure why it happens, but it is the one thing which continues to make me believe that the world is more than a cruel joke.