WE CAN’T GET THERE FROM HERE
On Building Community And Falling From Grace
I don’t know how much you follow current events. For some, there’s not enough time to keep up on what’s happening; for others, the news is too depressing, and peering too deeply fills one with boiling frustration all too quickly.
- HENRY ROLLINS
WHEN WE look at the world around us, there’s no lack of bad news. The world’s financial systems have been in turmoil for years, as the richest of the rich have reportedly consolidated their wealth, while whole nations have been put on austerity measures. Religious sectarian and political violence has claimed thousands upon thousands of casualties throughout the Middle East and Africa, leaving a trail of death and destruction for the maimed and traumatized to rebuild. Civil war has sent a steady stream of refugees fleeing in boats across the Mediterranean, with thousands never reaching their intended destination. And those who survive the trip are housed in makeshift camps, or offered supposed safety in areas populated by wary citizens, some of whom are aggressively defensive of their own “breached” territory.
Within even long-established, outwardly stable countries and cultures, chaos is roiling in a cauldron of discontent. Formerly integrated communities are fracturing, with the United Kingdom on the verge of leaving the EU in a “Brexit” while other member nations reconsider their membership. The British Pound plummeted to its lowest value in 31 years immediately after the Brexit LEAVE vote, sending financial shock waves throughout the interconnected world. Ultimately, the decision was made to relocate the European Banking Authority from London to Paris, and the London-based European Medicines Authority chose to move to Amsterdam, as the Brexit process played out.
In the United States, things have been… challenging. Fatal police shootings of Black and/or disabled citizens have sparked riots and demonstrations. Shootings of police officers – some of them apparent “executions” – have risen, contributing to the highest number of police fatalities on the job since 2011. Debates have raged for years about who should be allowed into the USA and under what circumstances, as well as who should be removed. But in just a year’s time, arrests and deportations rose dramatically, doubling the number of law-abiding undocumented residents drawn into the enforcement dragnet.
Economic numbers are purported to be good, but the wealth doesn’t seem to be trickling down to most everyday folks. Millennials have a 12.8% unemployment rate, compared to 4.9% for the national average. According to 2014 census reporting, the overall poverty rate in the United States was 14.8%, while an additional 33.4% qualified as low-income. That means 48.2% – nearly half – of the United States of America is poor or low-income. One in seven Americans (that’s 12 million families) struggles with hunger, and food banks serve 5.4 million individuals each week.
American distress is just as political, as it is social. The presidential campaign of 2016 was markedly divisive, with inter-party rancor running at a violent, fever pitch and intra-party conflict nearly derailing both the established Democratic and Republican camps. Many voters didn’t feel safe even mentioning whom they were voting for, out of fear of retaliation from one-time friends who had become sworn political foes. With accusations of a rigged outcome, Donald Trump’s followers threatened violent retaliation, even revolution, if the election results went against him. That didn’t happen, but members of a Republican congressional baseball team found themselves on the receiving end of a shooter’s rifle, with four people shot and the gunman killed. And the drama continues, with a seemingly never-ending stream of controversies, investigations, and legal proceedings.
Wherever we look in the world, we see a “trash fire” of upheaval, with metaphorical greasy black smoke blocking out the proverbial sun.
Any way you look at it, we’re a far cry from where most of us would like to be. And perhaps most distressing of all is the conflict and divisiveness that goes along with all of it. At every turn, it seems an enemy is being pointed out – someone who poses a clear and present threat to us and our way of life. Either it’s the 1% who are reportedly hogging all the money and power and driving up prices for the other 99% of 21st Century serfs, or it’s armed aggressors who (literally) have us in their cross-hairs. Outsiders are purportedly coming in to take our jobs and impose their foreign ways of life on us. Political parties can’t even maintain their unity within their own ranks, effectively hamstringing their ability to combat the political enemies outside their party lines. And meanwhile, the hottest year on the books goes down on record – a record that hardly seems worth celebrating. It’s been so hot in Arizona, planes haven’t been able to take off.
A whole lot of people have a whole lot of ideas about the reasons for all of this. Some say the 1% are at fault. Those money-grubbing global power mongers are throwing the financial markets into turmoil with their unchecked speculation, while hiding their assets offshore and luring developing nations into crushing debt loads. Trade inequities aren’t always well understood by everyday Americans, but the reported fact of them rankles. Globalization off-shores good jobs out from under the on-shore workers who actually built them from the ground up, and then trashes the local cultures of developing nations as they shift their working hours to accommodate the West. Earnings are down in the USA, while diabetes, obesity, and other health problems related to overwork and lack of sleep are up in places like Bangalore. Economic pressures are paralleled by climate pressures, as crops fail, deserts expand across the globe, and an iceberg the size of Delaware breaks off Antarctica. The very survival of Planet Earth and every living thing on its surface seems to hang in the balance.
None of this is news, if you’ve been paying attention over the past few years. And it’s natural to wonder, what’s the problem at the root of it all? What are the issues that keep us in a suspended state of existential angst? What are the patterns we keep repeating, expecting different results? It’s not good enough to know what the problem is; we have to explore solutions.
Depending who you talk to, the blame either lies on the shoulders of “the elite”, or in the hands of the individual. Or it could be just dumb luck. What the problem is and how to fix it, is an extended, somewhat convoluted argument that’s been going on longer than any of us have been alive. And it’s not likely to stop, anytime soon – especially in the United States of America, where “anything is possible”.
One thing many of us can agree upon, however, is that we got into this mess together, and if we’re going to get out, we have to do that together, too. We all share this planet. An island of plastic the size of Texas floating in the Pacific didn’t magically get there by itself. A whole lot of people had to buy plastic and throw it away, and other people had to decide to just dump it in the ocean, in order for 270,000 square miles of debris to collect in one place. And the pollution that turned New Delhi into a “gas chamber” didn’t just materialize out of thin air. Innumerable human choices and behavior, compounding year after year, brought this about. We’ve made a collective mess of things, and no one person or select group seems capable of fixing it for us.
So much seems to hang in the balance, and so many problems are far bigger than any one person can figure out alone. We know we have to come together to find a solution. And yet, at a time when our very lives seem to depend on cooperation and collaboration, all we seem to have is conflict. Division. Separation. Distance. Even people on the same team can’t seem to cooperate. The only thing a lot of us seem to have in common, is a pronounced, inescapable sense of alienation… the growing belief (perhaps mirrored in the rise in suicide rates) that we’re no longer welcome in our world.
Each of us can probably think of countless examples of division in our personal and political lives. It doesn’t take much. Just look at social media or the news, and you’ll find plenty. Now, let’s look away from the media reminders of what a mess we’re in. Let’s take a fictional detour to look at some other ways that separation, distance, alienation make our lives… interesting.