Here’s my contribution to the year in review. Searching for images reflecting the contrasting, paradoxical feelings I’ve lived with this year, these two words leaped to mind immediately. They may seem obvious, or trite, but they were the first two words that came to mind. I checked, and the phrase is the name of a song by Museum I’d never heard: Listening, I found it has a heavy refrain that oddly resonates:
A lifetime happily spent is not hard to pretend. I’m not myself at all, I’m not myself at all.
The draft of Skip’s offering, “The Ugly, the Bad and the Good,” also resonates for me, along similar lines. This is indeed a world, as he says, where people learn little and remember less, and so it’s easy to see how the true significance of major social changes like Obamacare can go largely unnoticed; but the extreme negative reaction that such attempts to improve the human condition provoke from large segments of our population disturbs me more and more every year. That goes beyond the place of not knowing, to the place of not wanting to know. What is it — what is going on that makes us so collectively, and helplessly, numb to the realities of the world we’re living in, and so seemingly uncaring about the fates of other people? After living through a half-century of adulthood, I find it hard to understand what has changed more — we, or our world. Certainly our world is changing, but we no longer seem to be ourselves at all.
Here are some of my biggest disappointments with the trends of 2013: First, after the horror of Sandy Hook, we might have hoped for a more urgent call for a more lawful society. Yes, there have been some valiant efforts to make our everyday world safer from the dangers of firearms. Gabby Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, came to the annual gun show in Saratoga Springs this October, and their visit received tepid, almost indifferent media coverage. That’s understandable: The voices of sanity are rarely loud, and the loudest voices since Sandy Hook seem to have been those of fear. Hence, society’s response, it seems, has been to increasingly inhibit the sensible restriction and control of killing machines that, demonstrably, have no place on civilized streets or in our homes or places of business.
How ironic and unfortunate it is to watch evil prevail. The attempt on Gabby’s life moved us to create this website, and the death a year ago at Sandy Hook of a good friend’s sister, Ann Marie Murphy, continues to touch the lives of many of us here in upstate New York. A song of my youth, Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” has come to mind often this past year, and I wonder: Are real inroads being made toward a more peaceful society, and a more peaceful world? It does not seem so. Americans routinely demonize the other guy, the foreigner, and we seem still unable to see ourselves the way the rest of the world sees us. Happily, in 2013, we have avoided going to war in Syria, Iran, and North Korea. But what will happen in 2014?
Second, the apparent erosion of our personal liberty continues to trouble me. Indefinite detention of suspected wrongdoers without trial has for centuries been recognized in western law to be contrary to basic freedom. When “national security” is deemed at risk, these basic human rights have too often been entirely compromised, along with other requirements of due process of law. In these circumstances, the elaborate, comprehensive electronic spying on nearly everyone by NSA, regardless of any actual suspicions, seems especially dangerous, and subject to substantial potential abuse.
Edward Snowden is regarded by many as a traitor because he released information about the extent of NSA activities. The editorial board of the New York Times opined on New Year’s Day, however, that the documents Snowden released show that much of the information gathering and spying has itself been illegal. The Times argued: “When someone reveals that government officials have routinely and deliberately broken the law, that person should not face life in prison at the hands of the same government.” That very idea has a bad Stalinist or fascist feel to it. I am not confident about the preservation of our Constitution and our Bill of Rights (the personal freedoms our Constitution attempted to protect from government interference), and I hope that 2014 will bring us reassurances on that score.
I heartily agree with Skip that “2013 seems like a year during which we got dumber.” My guess is that people are retreating more and more into their daily lives and their favorite entertainments to avoid confronting what, objectively, is an increasingly perilous existence for themselves, and for the rest of the human race. It’s not just our culture and our economy that are in peril, but the ecological future of the entire planet. It’s having that kind of effect on me, for sure, as I become more enveloped by my own pessimism and resignation.
Frequently in 2013 I found myself humming the epic Kansas classic “Dust in the Wind.” Seriously, that is true: For me, the year 2013 seems to have actually been the year of “flowers and dust.”
My own approach to coping with it all includes escaping into my favorite TV series, shows like HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” “Game of Thrones,” and “Newsroom.” A lot of skill goes into the writing, producing, filming and acting of these series, and they are improving all the time. I’m looking forward in 2014 to “True Detective,” a series featuring two of my favorite actors, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey.
Such escape has its dangers, however. If it becomes a crutch, we can retreat dangerously far into the fantasy worlds these programs present; and that, it seems to me, may actually be one of the main themes of the series “Once Upon a Time.” No matter how much we enjoy such diversions, we must never lose touch with the real world, and I have always agreed with Skip that religious ideas and the belief in magic and magical fantasies nullify the progress of civilization. The “science” of economics has been lost in ideology for over a century, and thus fails us today, and environmental sciences are far too dis-empowered by denial. I’m looking for a return to a more courageous society in 2014, for people to begin to grasp the extent of their power to improve the world.
I also find at least mildly disturbing the emergence, or reemergence, of profane, coarse language in everyday communication, or at any rate such a representation of everyday conversational speech in many TV shows. It may just be me, but shows like “Deadwood,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Breaking Bad” and “Boardwalk Empire” seem to me to include so much profanity associated with violence that they may well affect the way people communicate in real life. These are excellent, well-produced shows, but what are we learning from them about violence, and the language of violence?
For whatever reasons, civility and decorum, in my view, are in a major retreat. We have seen the loss of civility recently in discussions involving racism and sexual preference on TV news programs, and such discussions have cost people their jobs. I suspect that part of “dumbing down” involves retreating from traditional standards of civility and decorum in our daily lives in ways that ultimately affect socialization, potentially to the point of damaging our sense of fairness, and ultimately even destroying our understanding of the difference between right and wrong.
So I remain deeply concerned about our future. Those concerns, I suspect, will loom larger before they begin to wane. But we know what we have to do — and all we can do is the best we can.
JMH – 1/2/2014