It behoves us oldsters once in a while to put aside the comforting toys of our second childhood and consider the state of the world we leave our children. Against a background of rising inequality and failing ecology that surpasses the foggy 19th century, we witness religious upheaval that seems to emerge from murky mediaeval mists. Wasn’t the Enlightenment supposed to banish the Dark Ages for good? And who in the egalitarian and optimistic 1960s would have predicted such a lurch into irrationalism and tribal conflict?
E.P. Thompson in his brilliant book The Making of the English Working Class (1963) suggested that history showed a desperate oscillation between periods of political activism and religious fervour: whenever one was seen to fail, the other would be tried once more. And as in the macrocosm, so in the microcosm … if my own experience is anything to go by.
I was a churchgoer as a child and would sit in my pew searching for spiritual illumination through stained-glass windows with the best of them. Left to my own devices I would later climb tall trees to the sound of church bells, as if to gain a higher perspective. The voice that came to me in the wind through the leaves spoke a different truth than the preacher below. Two voices, then, and both of them in my head still …
“I am an actor mouthing another’s words, my days spent in drab rehearsal for the cavalcade that shimmers behind death’s parting curtain. I want to know nothing beyond scripture, for it is blasphemy to search out divine purposes. I seek only to assuage an angry deity, despising and even persecuting those who fail to observe the little rituals and shibboleths that may keep the wrath of heaven at bay. I think of Us and Them. I am generous to those whose ways I approve because I yearn for eternal reward. No matter what else I may say, my one concern is personal salvation.”
“I search for the voice that nature and experience will give me, each day until my last a new voyage of discovery. I want to know everything because I seek to become as whole as the world. My happiness and security are founded in the union of equals. I think only of Us. I study the ways of every creature and strive to be generous to all. I do not fear death because it brings value to life, which I hold sacrosanct.”
A third voice might point out that the other two are polar opposites, exaggerated and even caricatured. Most of us are strung out on a ragged continuum between those positions, with many believers more charitable and many non-believers more selfish. My only question in these turbulent times would be, which perspective is most conducive to peace?
8 thoughts on “Part of the Problem?”
I blame some of this ‘upheaval’ on the fact that we have instant access to information. Financial inequality wasn’t a big deal when I was growing up because we didn’t have daily evidence that there were much richer people than us. We knew they were there, we believed we would some day be better off, but we were happy with what we had. Enough was enough.
The world’s in a bit of a mess at the moment. I can’t help thinking that it was all our own doing. We’re very quick to get in there and bomb the hell out of people. We’re not very good at supporting the right people to fill the vacuum. Seemingly we can spend billions on destroying but are not prepared to put anything into building.
I think that in the end the instant news of the internet will solve the problems – it shows the destruction and stupidity of the greedy and violent, shows up the inequality and must surely result in pressure for sanity, equality and a more constructive future.
The positive part of my nature says that people are capable of thinking of the long term implications of their actions and are capable of acting in enlightened self-interest, if nothing else. The negative part says they don’t want to. –Curt
I’m pleased this post has attracted such considered and thought-provoking responses. Margie and Opher advance nicely symmetrical perspectives on our media-dominated world which juxtapose the old corporate hegemony with the fresh possibilities of social communication. Perhaps it comes down to one question: put simply, can our new creative freedoms break us free from the stranglehold of ruinous consumerism? Whether one is to take an optimistic or pessimistic view is a dilemma neatly encapsulated in Curt’s finely-balanced comment. Are we rational or irrational, at root? Selfless or selfish, within?
At this point, my own response dissolves into yet more questions of the kind Opher raises. Why do five nations still wield the power of veto in a UN starved of resources? Why do we prefer outdated cold-war institutions like NATO and its Russian Federation equivalent? And how on earth is financial speculation supposed to bring sustainable development to the world’s poorest and most troubled regions?
Alas, my crystal ball clouds over at this point … but I remain an optimist at heart. In the 19th century millions died of famine in Ireland and India almost unseen by the media of the day. At least we are better than that.
Nicely observed. You set us a pertinent, and resonant, final question.
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Thanks, Cathum … bit of a loaded one, but there you are!
I have just come across your blog, via Cathum – so she is the one to blame :-), and find much with which to empathise. The problem with the final question in this piece is the implicit assumption that financial speculation is “supposed” to help anyone other than the speculators. Good decent chaps (and chapesses) do not make profitable financial speculators, I am sorry to observe. We share your mum’s moral compass but actual power is in the hands of those who do not.
A final optimistic thought – if people power via internet petitions can U-turn an unfeeling chancellor from his proposal to rob the poor to pay the rich, then perhaps similar pressure can succeed in other arenas? (Oh dear that sounds a bit too much like my Father’s favorite slogan “Workers of the World – unite.” This slogan has become so hackneyed as to have lost its powerful non-political but pro-humanitarian meaning.)
Good to read your detailed and thoughtful comment, Mike … your focus on the word ‘supposed’ is useful. I think my sentence was too compressed and needed unpacking – I have a tendency to make associative leaps which can leave gaps in my logic! My target was really the trickle-down theory of capitalism – the lie that if you let things rip at the top there’s more for those at the bottom. That’s even less true (if that’s possible!) when you factor in dwindling natural resources … but your optimistic thought is crucial here. As Opher suggested, the internet holds open the possibility that morality can impact on economics by influencing politics – your example about tax credits being a good case in point. My mum would have said, keep painting the impossible picture. As to your dad’s slogan … can’t fault it. If we’re not workers, we’re drones. Who loses from high-risk investments? Not the investors who by definition have money to burn, but insecure employees who lose their jobs when things go pear-shaped and the money-moguls strip the assets. But enough halo-polishing, as a pensioner I’m in this up to my neck …