For all the advances in the last century, a legacy of wars, gulags and holocausts remind us that things were never good
By Robert Price
TORONTO – The news is usually bad. And right now, things look dire.
So I don’t blame my friends and colleagues who have stopped reading the morning newspaper. Shutting the drapes on the storm raging can return a sense of normalcy to the breakfast table.
As somebody who can’t stop reading the news, I can say that staring at what looks like an unfolding apocalypse offers little comfort. Being informed is not the same as being wise.
The news, if it’s to be of any use to us, has to be bad. Unresolved dramas beg telling. Corruption, hypocrisy and scandal must have an audience, especially if these shames influence or describe our collective conscience.
Donald Trump is today’s headline bad news. He and all he does ignites a destructive partisanship inside and beyond the borders of the United States. We want to ignore him but we can’t take our eyes off the man.
On page 2, a litany of other worries. Populist waves cascading across continents, drenching the peoples, so the papers report, in resurgent nativism and racism. Meanwhile, caravans of desperate people spill over borders. We are shocked by another mass shooting, soon to be forgotten by the next. And the many other threats: climate change; never-ending forest fires; ruinous personal and national debts; precarious labour.
The Internet makes its own brand of bad news by delivering an extreme close-up on human failure. Each day, new reports emerge of people dissolving their reputations and integrity in their devices.
Privacy becomes ever more tenuous. We look at the bag of failure we carry around – filled with ours or someone else’s humiliations – and see it threatening to split and spill for all to see.
On the whole, the image – drawn by the news – is of our stable society becoming unstable.
Where should we look for solace?
Not in the past. Life was no better in the 1950s or 1850s. For all the advances in technology, medicine and business in the last century, a legacy of wars, gulags and holocausts remind us that things were never good.
And fetishizing the future is as perilous as romanticizing the past. True, the future looks better. That’s where hope resides. We hope millions won’t die for having the wrong politics, religion or genes. We hope our condition as humans improve.
But the desire to improve humanity through the elimination of humanity won’t leave us.
Examples abound. The transhumanism movement hopes to turn people into cyborgs. Eugenics has lost its stigma as lab-designed babies become a reality. Social mores around euthanasia have changed to the point that suicide is now seen as courageous, even noble. Artificial intelligence promises to unleash human potential but increasingly looks like a substitute for human potential and the perfect war machine.
The books I’ve been reading over the last year or so offer a way through the bad news. The way, if I read correctly, is not blind compassion, the laissez-faire attitude towards others now in vogue.
The detour around destruction is through creation. Making instead of breaking. Preserving what is good in our world instead of tearing it down.
That’s the hard work: Speaking up for what’s good when all the news seems bad.
Columnist Robert Price is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga.
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