Friday, 27 January 2017

What price progress?

Several of the blogs I follow, I follow because they frequently say things I disagree with, but say them reasonably enough that I don’t end up lying awake all night thinking of things to snap back at them. This is a delicate balance; I read things I disagree with because that’s what inspires me to write, but lying awake thinking of things to snap back at people on the internet vacuumed up a lot of valuable sleep hours in my 20s. Two of the blogs I’m talking about are David Brin’s Contrary Brin and the one which inspired this post, John Michael Greer’s Archdruid Report.

Brin and Greer are both further right, politically, than I am, but neither one is so far right as to think that people on welfare just need to grow a work ethic, that being the point at which I stop listening for insights and start listening for gotcha points. Which just goes to prove that there’s more than one dimension to politics, because on today’s topic they are polar opposites, and I’m somewhere in the middle. Today, with Greer’s recent post “The Embarrassments of Chronocentrism” as my launch-pad, I’m going to be talking about progress.

Yes, “chronocentrism” is a word Greer coined to make his point. It’s modelled on “ethnocentrism”, which is when someone thinks that every other culture is to be judged by their own. (Usually, in fact, what they think is that there is a Right Way to do things and a whole lot of Wrong Ways, and they’ve never thought about it enough to realize that the only thing Right about the Right Way is that it’s how their own culture happens to do things.) Greer replaces the ethno- element, meaning “culture”, with chrono-, “time”, to criticize the attitude that every other period in history is to be judged by our own.

Now I would be tempted to use this word mostly when my generation do the exact same tutting and sighing over Kids These Days that we used to roll our eyes at when we were Kids These Days. Did you know that when some teenager has their head bent over a smart-phone, they’re almost always using it either to gain knowledge or to communicate with another person somewhere? Mind-boggling, I know, but true. The way some people go on about Kids And Their Phones reminds me of nothing so much as William James’ (I think it was) speculation on what dogs think about their masters’ reading: what strange compulsion could drive you to stare at bits of paper for hours on end, when you could be doing something worthwhile like playing fetch? But I’d better get back on track before this tangent gets any longer.

What Greer takes issue with is the idea that society has some kind of natural drive to get better and better; and, correspondingly, that past societies should be considered inferior because they don’t live up to the standards that we have achieved. Which, when you think about it, is a paradox in itself. If society naturally gets better and better, shouldn’t we be especially forgiving of the faults of past societies? They couldn’t help being bad, could they, since they didn’t have the good fortune to be born in our time? We don’t blame children for being childish, do we?

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Why 2017 will probably be no better than 2016

Yes, I know, downer of a title. Let’s start with the good news: 2016 wasn’t actually as uniformly bad as some of us made it out to be. The last remaining war in the Americas finally ended. Renewable energy overtook coal. The world tiger population rose. Giant pandas are officially no longer endangered; nor are humpback whales or green sea turtles. Ebola was eradicated from West Africa. World hunger reached a 25-year low. Equally good things may happen in 2017 – or they may not.

The whole “2016 hates us” meme got started on 10 January, when David Bowie died aged 69. Actually, no, make that 14 January, when Alan Rickman died, also aged 69, and people found the coincidence eerie. After that, whenever somebody famous died, the word was “2016 strikes again.” 69 is far too young to die nowadays, of course; a few of 2016’s victims were even younger, like Prince (57) or George Michael (53) or, when people had already started to say “Thank God 2016’s over”, Carrie Fisher (60). But far more of them were in their 80s and 90s: Gene Wilder was 83; Leonard Cohen was 82; John Glenn was 95; Zsa Zsa Gabor was an incredible 99. I’m sure every one will be dearly missed by those who loved them. But there’s nothing inexplicable about dying at that age. Nor did it suddenly begin in 2016. Have we all so soon forgotten Terry Pratchett, Leonard Nimoy, and Christopher Lee?

So what happened, then? I can think of a couple of entirely non-sinister possibilities. One is that there’s been no increase in the frequency of celebrity deaths at all, that they just happen to have fallen into a cluster as random events do. It’ll be harder to quantify than you might think, because how famous do you have to be to count as a “celebrity”? Who decides? I would certainly want to include the great New Zealand singer-songwriter and television presenter Marcus Turner, a man whose wide circle of friends and acquaintances I was proud and a little overawed to inhabit, who died on 2 February a couple of weeks shy of his 60th birthday. But I didn’t see him on the lists of 2016 casualties I pulled up from Google to write the previous paragraph.

Given the reputation 2016 now suffers, the temptation will be to count people as “celebrities” who happened to die in 2016, who we wouldn’t have considered “celebrities” if they were still alive or if they had died in some earlier year. So there may be nothing in it at all. If, on the other hand, there really have been more of them dying lately, the other possibility is that they’re all getting old. The Baby Boomers who embodied the radical cultural shift of the 1960s were in their teens; the rock- and pop-stars who led it were in their 20s. “Never trust anyone over thirty,” remember? The Boomers themselves in their turn contributed to the wave of new stars as the ’60s gave way to the ’70s, which must have further swelled the number of stars merely because there were so many Boomers.

It’s now the 2010s; the ’60s happened fifty years ago. Plausibly, what we’re now seeing is that cohort of stars approaching their average life expectancy. (Perhaps I’m over-fond of bitter irony, but I can’t help smiling just a little at the thought that the Boomer cult of youth might have given direct rise to society’s new-found consciousness of mortality.) If that’s the case, then the frequency of celebrity deaths will certainly continue to rise over the next few years before levelling off at a new, higher norm. Get used to it.

The other shock 2016 brought, in two goes – the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump – is far more ominous. The soupçon of schadenfreude I confess I feel to think of the complacency of the neoliberals immediately beforehand dissipates when I remember that the Left was also completely unprepared for what should have been our fight to win. We’re supposed to have the solutions to inequality, poverty, and corporate dominance, aren’t we? How did the fascists convince so many voters that bigotry was the answer? Important as these questions are, right now we need to contain the consequences. And whether or not my predictions turn out right in detail, it’s safe to say that those consequences are going to be negative.

If there’s a sliver of good news, current indications are that I overestimated Donald Trump’s intelligence considerably when I made those predictions. Impeachment might be an easy road after all. The cloud to that silver lining? Farewell, President Donald Trump – hello, President Mike Pence.