Sunday, December 22, 2019

The End of a Decade

Tis the season, as they say, for learned disquisitions about the end of the decade. It won’t be the end of the decade until December, 2020, Bret Stephens reminds us, but, why not get a jump on history.

For his part Stephens labels the last ten years as the decade of disillusion. He emphasizes the fact that young people, the kind who are beginning to take over the nation, have been mastered the art of depressive thinking. Then again, if they weigh their prospects with their ability to solve problems, they probably ought to be depressed.

These products of America’s currently politicized educational system do not see the glass as half full. They see it as empty. If they are not depressed yet, they soon will be.

Stephens describes the young:

Not surprisingly, this decade has been marked by the intense hostility of the young toward truisms that once governed our thinking. As they saw it, the liberal international order didn’t uphold the peace — it bled us dry. Capitalism didn’t make the country rich — it made the rich richer. Silicon Valley didn’t innovate technology — it mined our data. The Church didn’t save souls — it raped children. The cops didn’t serve and protect — they profiled and killed. The media didn’t tell the news — they spun it.

One might expect a more balanced judgment. If so, one will be left with unfulfilled expectations. One might expect a more optimistic, can-do attitude from the young. And yet, they have not been taught how to do much of anything. They have learned how to criticize and complain, to find fault with what has been bequeathed to them. In a better world, they would see it as an opportunity. In today’s world, with their depressive mindset, it’s all whining, all the time.

Alongside of Stephens we have some rather discouraging words from one Andy Beckett in The Guardian. Evidently,Beckett is a man of the left. Take that as you will. Yet, he has written a comprehensive, and thoughtful excursion through the decade that might now be ending. 

For him, it is an age of crisis. Strange thought that. At a time when the world is largely at peace, when there is less extreme poverty than we have ever seen, when world economies are doing rather well indeed, it seems slightly discordant to say that we are lurching from one crisis to another.

One is tempted to say that the crisis talk is really a rhetorical ploy. After all, in English we do not say that we can solve a crisis. We manage crises and wait for them to resolve themselves. We solve problems, but we manage crises. 

So, when you declare something to be in crisis you are admitting that you cannot solve it. You can only manage it. When you say that you have a problem or even that the nation has a problem, you are required to offer solutions.

Or else, rather than consign yourself to terminal impotence, you will react to a crisis by proposing ever more extreme solutions. Even if we know that they do not work.

Being in a crisis means that you do nothing or you do something mindnumbingly stupid and extreme. How are those for alternatives?

Crisis talk is more pessimistic. It is more dramatic. It is more theatrical. Thus, I would conclude, with respect to Beckett, that we live in a time when more and more people are living for the drama, when more and more people are living within fictional worlds that their intellectual betters have concocted.

They feel deeply, passionately, intensely about it all… but they cannot do anything more than gin up their emotions and enter into an otherwise futile struggle. The struggle will not solve anything, but it will make them all feel like strugglers. It’s another form of pointless virtue signalling.

But, for now, allow Beckett his word:

How will we remember the last 10 years? Above all, as a time of crises. During the 2010s, there have been crises of democracy and the economy; of the climate and poverty; of international relations and national identity; of privacy and technology. There were crises at the start of the decade, and there are crises now. Some of them are the same crises, unsolved. Others are like nothing we have experienced before. Some of them are welcome: old hierarchies collapsing. Others are catastrophes.

Apparently, political crises are defined by the advent of extremist politicians. We might ask, compared to what. Compared to the rise of fascism and Nazism, compared to Communist dictators… whatever is Beckett talking about? Perhaps he is just using rhetoric to help his numbed readers to feel something:

In place of centrist politicians and steady economic growth, the 2010s have brought shocks, revolts and extremists. Hung parliaments; rightwing populists in power; physical attacks on politicians; Russian influence on western elections; elderly leftists galvanising young Britons and Americans; rich, rightwing leaders in both countries captivating working-class voters – scenarios close to unimaginable a decade ago have become familiar, almost expected.

Ah yes, Beckett continues, things have not been all that frenzied:

And yet beneath this surface frenzy, politics has, in many ways, been stagnant. Throughout Trump’s presidency, his approval ratings have been terrible, but unusually stable. Three-and-a-half years after the referendum, Britain remains almost evenly divided over EU membership. Despite governing disastrously for much of the decade, the Conservatives are still in power.

Nevertheless, some things have not been going well. The march of progress seems to have stalled. In some cases it seems to have gone retrograde. The sense that things will always get better is waning.

Beckett might have noted that such is not the expectation in Eastern Asia. If the progress of the Western world seems to have halted, perhaps we should ask what we are doing wrong. Surely, the advent of homeless encampments, in London and in San Francisco and Los Angeles… does not speak well of our booming economy and our so-called humanitarian concerns:

During the 2010s, the average life expectancy, which had been growing almost continuously for a century, stopped rising. The average wage rose more slowly than in any decade since the Napoleonic wars. A million more children with working parents entered poverty. The number of people sleeping rough more than doubled. One of the archetypal British public spaces of the 2000s was St Pancras station in London: once tatty, now renovated, with smart new shops, bustling food outlets and trains to the continent – a confident intertwining of private prosperity and state spending. Since 2010, its restored Victorian alcoves have filled up with people living in sleeping bags and tents.

And, of course, just in case you had forgotten that you were reading the words of a leftist, Beckett trots out the ginned up climate crisis:

Beyond the grim new Britain created by a decade of Conservative austerity looms the even bleaker world being created by the climate emergency. 

While we are at it, why not blame it on social media? Beckett is suggesting, cogently, I might add, that the flood of instantaneous information does not allow us the time to digest much of anything. It makes us perpetually anxious. And perpetually flailing. One might recommend that people shut down their smartphones for certain times during the day, but that would immediately expose oneself as a geriatric case:

Nowadays, the fear is almost universal. The creation of social media networks over the last decade and a half, starting with Twitter in 2006, and the conversion of traditional media into non-stop news services, have made awful events seem relentless and impossible to ignore. We have become perpetually anxious.

And then, happily for all of us, Beckett offers a counterpoint. Some people, like psychologist Steven Pinker have dredged up a line from an old Beatles song. They believe that it’s getting better all the time. 

Yet also during the decade a more scientific group of writers, including the famous psychologist Steven Pinker, started to argue the opposite. Sometimes called “the New Optimists”, they claimed that life around the world in the early 21st century was, in fact, as good as it has ever been – in terms of health, wealth, amenities and the prevalence of peace. Many of the upward graphs they presented were convincing, as far as they went, but that was usually only up to 2015 – just before the point at which pessimists usually say the 2010s took a turn for the worse. And when the graphs did go beyond 2015, they were not always reassuring. The number of people living in democracies was falling; the number of people killed in wars and terrorist incidents was rising. As one of the New Optimists’ favourite sources, the website Our World in Data, had to admit this year: “In some aspects the data suggests the world is getting worse.”

In truth, things might not be as bad as they seem. And yet, if the march of progress is slowing, it’s better to take off one’s rose colored glasses, to stop getting ideas out of old Beatles songs, and to think about how to solve the problems.

In Great Britain, the new trendy thought seems to be that things are what they are… which means, in terms that harken back to an old magazine: What, me worry? It all represents a stoic acceptance of what we cannot change:

Over the last couple of years, a short, bland sentence has become ubiquitous in British conversations, from interviews with Premier League footballers to soliloquies from Love Island contestants: “It is what it is.”

Usually, it means: “I’m learning to live with something negative” – a personal setback, a wider injustice, difficult circumstances. It’s a mantra for an age of diminishing expectations, when many people no longer assume – unlike their postwar predecessors – that they will become richer than their parents, and live in an ever more sophisticated or just society, on an ever more hospitable planet. When people say “It is what it is”, they are rarely challenged. Instead, they are usually heard in respectful silence. In a difficult world, fatalism and stoicism are useful qualities.

In truth, this does sustain Beckett’s point. People believe that they themselves are incapable of solving any of today’s problems. Why should this be so? Perhaps because they have been dumbed down to the point where they cannot even understand what is going on.

Their solution: to become fitness junkies. While I am strongly in favor of fitness, it is always possible to have too much of a good thing. It appears, by Beckett’s analysis, that young people are keeping fit because they are not smart enough to do anything else. They are all body and no mind.

But in the 2010s being young often means relentlessly working and studying, polishing your public persona, and keeping fit. The massively popular Hunger Games novels and films, about young people being forced to compete to the death with each other by a cruel, middle-aged elite, came out between 2008 and 2015. Intended as dystopian science fiction, they quickly began to seem like more like satire, or even social realism.

This process has created a new hierarchy, particularly within the American middle class, but increasingly in its European counterpart, too, which privileges the leanest people, the most punishing exercise classes, the most body-conscious brands of workout clothes. Only in a decade so concerned with self-improvement and self-presentation could “athleisure” become a fashion category, and toned arms become such a potent status symbol for people who never need to do manual work.

There you have it. That Peloton ad, the one with the attractive young man offering his attractive young wife a high end exercycle, suggests that these wealthy young people should not be going to work, should not be thinking about how to solve problems, but should escape from their daily travails and their daily crises by pretending to cycle up the Matterhorn.


whitney said...

Our crisis is that we have it so easy and gives us too much time to moan about how bad things are.

Anonymous said...

It Was Fun Then FUCKED Up. Don't horry be wappy.