I wrote this ten years ago. The financial collapse of 2008 was still six months away and GW Bush was President. Yet big hunks of it are more true now than they were at that time. We have indeed stagnated in the face of “everything is possible” and decided to wallow in our own refusal to make choices on how to move forward. Will this still be relevant in 2028?
When I was young, I lived in a time and place where just about anything was possible. It’s amazing just how terrifying that prospect was.
I was only 3 years old when 1968 happened. If you take this year as one event, we had the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the Chicago Convention riot, and to cap it all off the desperate election of Richard Nixon. I was too young to remember it, but people talked about it when I was a kid. Fast forward to the gasoline crisis of 1973, Patty Hearst, and the ritual humiliation of Nixon followed by our exit from Vietnam, and it all seems to have collapsed of its own weight. But it didn’t.
By the time I was in High School, John Lennon was assassinated and the Medellin cartel under Pablo Escobar was conducting their own war in the streets of my town, Miami. The city burned for 3 days when the cops who beat Arthur McDuffie to death were acquitted in a botched trial generally blamed on the incompetence of the Dade County prosecutor, Janet Reno.
This may seem rather dire, but the fact remains that once everything becomes unglued it’s unlikely to be put back together in the same way ever again. It’s entirely possible to view times like these as times when we might make some progress and actually do something good for a change, but it rarely seems to work out that way.
The problem, as I see it, is that a complex society with distributed wealth like ours really does give a genuine stake in the Way Things Are™ to a large number of people. Most of the terrible events I described didn’t really take things away from people or greatly reduce their personal power. They were, however, a threat. The process of the world collapsing was not enough to actually change the order of things, but it was enough to rip the have a little, want mores of the world out of anything resembling a charitable mood.
In that sense, anything being possible was the worst possible thing to happen.
The reason this is on my mind is that I have a sense that we are approaching another time when anything is possible. Our entire financial system is weak at best and bankrupt at worst. Our political leadership is generally pathetic. Art and literature are at an especially low ebb, suggesting that our culture itself is lost. Will history repeat itself? Is it time for everything to become unglued again?
I think that this is going to be different. For one thing, the threat this time is not one of chaos that threatens our systems, but the systems themselves are rotten from the inside. Foreclosures show us that the vast middle class is actually losing what it once had. This time, somehow, the possibility that anything can happen is more real. That is why I’m hopeful.
The situation is one that I often call “Waiting for Steinbeck”. When I was a kid, the chaos that ruled our media offered little to us except for a reason why we had to be prepared to defend what we had. These days, it should be obvious that we have to stick together to defend what we have left from the incompetence that has run things pretty much into the ground.
Perhaps I’m just a cynic when I can see the threats from the fringes as a disaster but a threat at the core as a time to be hopeful, but in this case I think they are related. Real change doesn’t take place overnight in a system where everyone has a stake in things. It takes generations. Right now, people like myself who grew up in a time of chaos are the ones who are just starting to gain control over the systems of our lives. When it’s our turn to run something like a revolution, don’t expect a riot in the streets. Don’t expect kewl posters tacked up everywhere or chart-topping anthems of resistance.
We’ve been there, we’ve seen it. That was when the fuse was lit that seems to have been burning until about now. When this thing finally resolves itself, it won’t be with the big bang that got it all going. If I learned one thing from a time when anything was possible, it’s that what we want to be possible is far more important. I’m betting that what we want is a sense of decency that somehow wasn’t always there the rest of our lives. Hey, anything is possible.