It’s customary for columnists do a year-end column. This year, however, as we end the “teens” and go to the 20s, I’m reaching back two decades.
Twenty years ago, I sat where I’m sitting now in beautiful Puerto Vallarta over-looking Banderas Bay. We were, then as now, taken in by the physical beauty—the warm air, the endless horizon and the occasional whales who come here, much as many of the tourists do, for breeding purposes.
And yet there was and is an anxiety hanging in the air, a disquiet that neither the physical beauty and infinite horizon nor inexpensive Margaritas could effectively therapize. Twenty years ago we awaited the disaster that was deemed possible, and even likely, by many pundits who warned of Y2K and feared that the world’s computers would have no idea how to deal with two zeroes and the world’s electrical grid would freeze and nothing would work.
Air traffic control would disappear. Trains would stop in their tracks. Elevators would be stuck between floors. There’d be no radio or television. Cash registers would not open, gas pumps would not pump, credit cards would be useless, and all the ATMs would cease functioning. It was a stark reminder of our dependence on both sophisticated technology and just basic electricity. We feared that literally, the lights would all go out, and we’d be left in some kind of eternal darkness.
Many of us in Puerto Vallarta went out to the beach to witness the traditional midnight fireworks up and down the coast. Many feared that these fireworks might be the last light we were going to see and waited for the lights of the city to blink out of existence.
At a time that so closely follows the winter solstice and celebrates the promise of the Light’s return with candles, Yule logs and Menorahs, we shivered in fear against the dark. We shivered in vain. The planes kept flying. The ATMs still spat out cash. The computers still worked. Most importantly, the lights stayed on. We were not enveloped in darkness. Then.
Now, twenty years later, we no longer fear that the computers will fail. We have every faith that the ATMs will deliver cash—if we have any. And we’re pretty confident that the FAA will keep air traffic flowing.
Yet, in the intervening two decades, many fears we did not anticipate oozed into existence. Before 911 we travelled relatively fearlessly—not thinking about bombs on planes or being hijacked by suicidal/homicidal terrorists. We went to ball games and theaters without having our bags, pockets and yet more intimate cavities searched. We didn’t foresee the endless exercise in futility of Afghanistan. Saddam Hussein was our friend—against the one constant enemy: Iran.
Social Media (so often antisocial media) didn’t control our opinions and disseminate lies. We did that the old fashioned way with our own mouths. Liberals distrusted our intelligence services—the FBI and CIA. Meanwhile, Conservatives often questioned the patriotism of Liberals for not stipulating to the essential goodness and trustworthiness of the FBI and CIA. Clearly a lot has changed in two decades.
No, it wasn’t by any means paradise (except here in Puerto Vallarta and even here, it wasn’t and isn’t paradise for those without money). Still, our streets were not filled with homeless people—many simply poor, unemployed or underemployed and many who are mentally ill. We didn’t have over 1,000 homeless human beings die on the streets of Los Angeles. We didn’t have over 70,000 people in the USA, die per year from drugs.
Today our seas are rising. This is inarguable. Our weather patterns are unstable. This too is inarguable. Major cities in the world are all but inhabitable because they’re overly habited and polluted. Breathing is dangerous in Delhi, Beijing and industrial cities all over the world. Water is toxic even in America. So far the known toxicity seems to be concentrated where poor people of color live and die.
Our politics are clearly broken. Authoritarian nationalism is growing around the world and Dear Leader’s and Presidents for Life are not just Latin American, Asian and African aberrations. We see the same impulses world-wide. In times of insecurity and uncertainty people seem to want leaders who pretend to understand and have the answers to all our problems if only we would just let them eliminate their disloyal opponents. They bargain their certainties against our fears. It seems to be a winning gamble—for a while.
Most frightening is society’s unwillingness and inability, because of real complexities and spun misinformation, to agree on facts. In olden days we could debate interpretations of facts, but as John Adams wrote, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Clearly, Adams was less than clairvoyant because facts have been robbed of their power. Every fact is now debatable, and we no longer stipulate to a shared reality.
Science is not science to many. It’s a question of belief. Do you believe in climate change? Do you believe that the seas are rising? We can debate causes and solutions but if we dispute the facts, then the real fears of Y2K are coming true. The fires of the Enlightenment are going out as political/economic ambitions overshadow our once shared reality.
Two decades ago, we expected a sudden and dramatic catastrophe, fearing the physical lights would suddenly go dark. Instead, we have a 2 decade long slide into a new Dark Age as the metaphorical light of reason fades to black.
©2019 Jonathan Dobrer
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