The World George Made*
Last night I had dinner with my friend, Kevin and, as usual when we dine together, our conversation turned philosophical.
"Do you think the world is worse off now than it was a hundred years ago?" Kevin asked me.
I thought about it for a minute.
The short answer was, "Yes, but not really." The long answer is, well, much longer.
At first, I was reluctant to say that the world is really worse now than it was a hundred years ago. It's easy to think that, as we live in 2004, not in 1904. We have to deal with todayís threats, which loom large in our daily consciousness, mostly due to the pervasive influence the media has on our perceptions about our world. So, taking this into consideration, I would say that the world isn't really that much worse off than it was then. We just think it is because of our embedded experience with the here and now and the fact that we have far more information about what is going on around the world than our ancestors of a mere century ago.
Back in 1904, few people heard about the intricacies of geopolitics on the scale that we do now, in 2004. I can bring up Google news and at a glance, see what is going on in Russia, Australia, China and Europe, and the stories are only hours or even just minutes old (their accuracy and depth is questionable but at least there is something to hang your hat on). In 1904, news took at least a day to get into print, and then it was mostly local and regional news. You had to wait for the Sunday paper to find out what happened that week in other parts of the world, and even then, the story might be weeks or months old. It took considerable time and effort to get the Big Picture. Some historians still donít even agree on just what happened back then. It still does take a little effort, due to media conglomeration to get an accurate Big Picture, but not nearly as long as it used to.
Also, 1904 wasn't exactly a Utopia, either. By then, there were Marxists, Anarchists and Socialists all making noise, trying to get their voices heard by the masses. In a few short years, Archduke Ferdinand would be shot in Sarajevo and World War I would be decimating the population of Europe as royal cousins fought to make their dreams of Empire a reality.
While the details may be different, the level of turmoil then was similar to that of now. But if we take a step back and look at the intervening years, we can see that it hasn't been just a steady stream of chaos and bloodshed, though it often seems that way. There were periods of relative peace, punctuated by periods of unrest and even genocide. Certainly the 20th was a bloody century, but then, so far, the 21st isn't exactly virginal, either.
But just a few years ago, it seemed like things might be different. Back in the good old days of 1998-99, the world was a different place. Sure, their still was international terrorism and geopolitical squabbling but it was manageable. We were usually one step ahead of the terrorists, and in the previous decade and a half, we had seen the collapse of Eastern Block Communism and the flourishing of Democratic ideals. The best aspects of Multiculturalism were transforming popular and academic culture, as new ideas were being shared by a wider variety of people than we ever thought possible. Boarders, not just the ones on maps, but also the ones between cultures, were becoming porous and doors were opening all over. And the Neocons hated it.
The likes of Wolfowitz, Perl, Cheney and Rumsfeld were fuming over the death of the Cold War. With no huge enemy states to prop up as The Bad Guy, their wailing and gnashing for their favorite pet projects like the Missile Defense Shield (a holdover from Reagan's Star Wars pipe dreams) to unilateral invasion of underdeveloped-but-oil-rich nations were seen as laughable self-parodies of Hawkishness. There was no more US versus THEM. The Internet (and to a smaller degree, their own Corporate greed) had made the whole notion of States and boarders seem so 20th century. These were going to be things of the past. In the 21st century, we were all going to be citizens of the world, freely communicating and trading with one another and this would end the need for warfare in the traditional, geopolitical sense. After all, who wants to drop bombs on the tail end of their own production line or round up an untapped demographic? That's bad for Global Socio-Capitalism, man. And worse (in the eyes of the Neocons) there were no real wars going on. Sure, we had military personnel and objectives in Rwanda and Bosnia but they were there under the pussified UN peacekeepers. They weren't there for the glory of Pax Americana. Simply put, no wars means no war profiteering. They couldn't have that.
So the Neocons set about remaking the world in their own image. They started by taking down the Big Dog with an inflated sex scandal and then installing their own puppet government through gerrymandering (not just in Texas but in other key states as well) and capping it all off with the grand daddy of all dubious elections, Florida, 2000.
In three short years, BushCo. has undone much of the multicultural goodwill that had been gained over the previous four decades (in some sense, the dreaded Multiculturalist meme was hatched the moment Kennedy said, "Ich bin ein Berliner.") We now have an increasingly stilted conflict brewing in the Middle East, all in an effort to create clearly defined enemies. All so there can be, once more, US and THEM, and dreams of an empire that spans the globe. Just like in the good old days of 1904.
So, in a way, the world is pretty much the same as it was a hundred years ago but itís also worse than it was a hundred years ago, and not just because the Internet and TV news has made the inherent chaos of the world seem more apparent. But because our leaders believed their own Black and White fairy stories about Manifest Destiny and the benevolence of Pure Capitalism, and set out to remake the world so that it conformed to that idea, killing everything that had the purfume of progressive ideals clinging to it.
I don't mean to sound overly pessimistic, but for a while now I've been wondering what the future will hold for us. Sometimes I lay in bed at night, not sleeping, thinking instead how family, job, friends, love life, international politics, environment, genetics, flesh-eating viruses and galaxies seem to be not colliding so much as slowly rusting. That the whole universe is conspiring to slowly fall apart and decay. There in the windowless dawn I get the feeling that human civilization, if not Everything Altogether is undergoing some slow motion catastrophe. Not a detonation or earthquake or plague but a slow soaking flood that started a long time ago at our toes and has been gradually inching its way up our collective legs so slowly that no one noticed. Or worse, everyone notices but simply refuses to accept that we are all doggy paddling in our own entropy. Of course I know I'm not the only one who feels this way, in the cold, four o' clock, gray of morning or the bright sunny mid-afternoon. I've long since outgrown that adolescent delusion that what I feel is unique. Which only makes the feeling of helplessness all the more tragic.
I canít help but worry that, like our ancestors back in 1904, weíre just making time before the Great War starts anew. And I feel helpless to do anything about it. All I can do is write and observe and try and make my life now, today, something worth living since I donít know how long that it might be before something truly horrible happens.
*Blaming the state of the world on Bush is giving him far too much credit, I realize, but he is a convenient figurehead, being President of the United States and all. He has iconic status as the fabled "Leader of the Free World," and so when I speak of Bush, I'm acknowledging that his role is rather small but the role that BushCo. plays is quite large. He is a stand in for the puppet masters. And how ironic that a notion once though too far out and paranoid has become conventional wisdom? There really are puppet masters. Only thing is, we know their faces and can recite their names. Watch as they pull the strings and beat our heads against the wall when our protests do nothing to prevent their unmitigated cruelty from becoming our foreign policy.
The title is also a reference to a Philip K. Dick novel, The World Jones Made, which, as many of his novels do, involves a solipsistic protagonist who, rather than simply being a victim of the world at large, discovers that he has a hand in creating consensual reality.