Astronomers believe there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe, and between 100 and 300 billion stars in our own Milky Way alone. The sheer immensity is both humbling and beyond our modest comprehension. Yet increasingly, people can’t even take in the vast spray of stars cast across the night sky anymore, as that display has been veiled by the light pollution enveloping our cities. Thus, while much has been gained in our relentless technological trek, much too has been lost along the way.
With even the majesty of the night sky taken, we tend to shrink in the dim light of man’s own making. By that weak light, many people remain shaded in the darkness of fact-aversion, beyond the light of acquired knowledge and accepted science. And though all science is amenable to challenge, there is no light strong enough to penetrate blind denial or unquestioning allegiance. Accordingly, many see only right-wrong, light-dark, win-lose, here-there, yes-no, ME-YOU, a very brittle outlook, indeed. Even our political framework has been constructed into cartoonish either-or choices.
As one eventful year bleeds into the next, we find ourselves at an ever-widening distance from one another. Yet to co-exist, much less thrive, we must embrace certain basic premises like no cutting the course, the line forms here, and ours is a country of laws rather than of men. And that understanding has worked quite well for over two centuries because over that time there has been a large enough aggregate invested in the system where our differences in other beliefs have been assuaged by the common good.
But once our constitutional system begins to corrupt and representation becomes available to the highest bidder rather than to the average voter, powerful historical forces like globalization and technological advancement can more readily redefine winners and losers. The danger comes when the interests of the common man give way to the those of a few particularly advantaged men. Soon special interests form while the population at-large drifts into camps of flinty-eyed like-mindeds. Without a moderating middle, we begin to polarize until, dramatically out of balance, one side or the other snaps.
This is the unsettling equilibrium that now confronts us as an analysis from Oxfam shows that just eight of the richest men in the world have accumulated as much wealth as the bottom half of the planet’s entire population. This imbalance is part of what helped elect Donald Trump, as he first reflected, then ginned up a righteous, frustrated anger through an increasingly fearful population eager to lash out against perceived losses. Even if they didn’t fully realize the reasons for those losses or consider the consequences of their lash.
The fear is that once set loose, a pent up populism will dance spastic for a spell like a pack of lit firecrackers before leaving a charred husk behind. We may not be at the combustion phase yet, but the sparks of dissolution are becoming increasingly evident and disturbing.
Both the world at large and the U.S. have been repeatedly visited by episodes of mass dislocation and open dissent, by mass shootings, police shootings, bombings, and the indiscriminate targeting of police. Predictably, the carnage has released a welter of emotional responses, from anger and sadness, to fear and righteous indignation. In the U.S. there have been calls for fewer guns and for more guns; for a more open, inclusive society and for a more fearful, walled-in nation.
Throughout the Cold War the choice was between free-market capitalism and state-run communism, and the world fell into rough alignment along that political borderline. It took half a century for capitalism to prevail and communism to fail. But the Soviet implosion left a vacuum rather than a single-pole winner. It also had a shriveling effect on the entire left wing of political ideology, a reality that became apparent in the U.S. this last November 8th.
Today, camps have been pitched along several fronts. One balances the advanced technologies and inclusive social mores of the progressive West against a retrenching populism at home. Another foments an even more radical 7th century barbarism in the Middle East. A third extols a revanchist pride here, there, and everywhere. And let the world beware of each.
While the promise of technology has always been great, its corresponding danger lies in how it simultaneously isolates us into whirlpools of conspiracy theories, while bringing us into closer proximity to the point where we can’t keep from bumping into one another. Now heat that stew with the fervor of organized, faith-based belief. Doesn’t matter which particular belief, because each offers a zero-sum game that leaves no room for conciliation. It is my way or the Hell Bound Highway. And moral certitude is dangerous no matter who wields it.
Rather than seeing one another as culturally-specific expressions of the same natural impulse, e.g. the search for meaning and and a path toward purpose-driven living, the righteous in every belief system sees an existential choice, either with-us-or-against-us.
This is where sport once helped mend the torn fabric of humanity. Sport is where we strip ourselves bare and share the same humanity on a base, gravitational field. But sport, too, has been ripped by its own hand, abdicated its integrity, leaving the agitated world to build even more pressure. Fear and revenge are among the sticks of societal dynamite being set. All they need is a certain spark.
As news reverberates that eight white men own as much wealth as the bottom 3.6 billion people on earth, the 1% have to be smart. Walls and safe-rooms have only limited utility, for whatever walls you might construct can just as readily be surmounted or brought tumbling down like the one in Jericho was not that many years ago.
The way forward isn’t to isolate and pull away, but to invest against the growing disaffection. You aren’t separate from the masses, my friends, you are among them for better or worse. We have entered 1972 Fram Oil Filter ad territory – “you can pay me now, or pay me later”.
So pay it forward while you still can, you Masters of the Universe, before the tinder ignites, and things blow apart and we end up making a light such that the stars themselves will weep at the darkness that follows.