Sunday, December 29, 2019

Whither humanity? Three NYT snapshots

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The front page of today's print New York Times greeted Sunday breakfasters with what feels like a typical trio of world-going-to-hell headlines above the fold:
  • Nearly 80 Die As Blast Strikes Somali Capital
  • As It Detains parents, China Weans Children From Islam
  • Trump Eroding Role Of Science In Government
As antidote, in the op-ed pages Nicholas Kristof offered up his annual reminder that by quantitative material measures the human condition continues to improve; extreme poverty, debilitating disease and child mortality are declining, literacy is growing, hundreds of thousands climb out of extreme poverty daily. 

In the same op-ed section, Ross Douthat leads with a truly arresting take on the last decade:
Nothing much happened in America in the 2010s. The unemployment rate declined slowly but steadily; the stock market rose; people’s economic situation gradually improved. There were no terrorist attacks on the scale of 9/11, no new land wars to rival Iraq and Vietnam. The country was relatively calm: Violent crime and illegal immigration trended downward, teenage delinquency diminished, teen birthrates fell and the out-of-wedlock birthrate stabilized.
Douthat acknowledges almost immediately that this very partial picture is "a provocation." He goes on to neatly divide the last three decades into an age of hubris (the 1990s), an age of nemesis (the Bush noughts, marked by failed wars and Wall Street crises) and an age of disillusionment (the 2010s, when we digested those failures).  The last "exposed the depth of problems without suggesting plausible solutions," leaving us to stew in paranoia and rage.

It seems to me that Kristof and Douthat fail to grapple with forces that feel like at least potential mortal threats to the relative prosperity of the present they rightly remind us of. Douthat downplays the possibility that U.S. democracy may be on its last legs:
the election of Trump probably wasn’t the moment of authoritarianism descending — but it was an important moment of exposure, which revealed things about race relations and class resentments and the rot in the Republican Party and the incompetence of our political class that inclined everybody to a darker view of the American situation than before.
Kristof acknowledges, "Climate change remains a huge threat to our globe, as does compassion fatigue in the rich world" -- but he doesn't even mention the rising global tide of authoritarianism. The fact that global material progress continues at this moment doesn't mean that disruptions triggered by global warming, authoritarianism and rapidly developing tools of disinformation that serve authoritarianism won't stop that progress.

Douthat's division of the last three decades into eras of hubris, nemesis and disillusion is an impressive artifact of his tidy, classicist (hubris, nemesis...) and creative mind, and bears some relationship to reality. But it obscures more menacing U.S. trends extending through all three decades and preceding them: the rise of oligarchy, the erosion of democracy, the emergence of powerful media devoted to disinformation, and the corruption of the Republican party. In a two-party system, that utter corruption -- which now entails parroting Russian disinformation in defense of a president using that disinformation as a weapon for reelection -- is hard to see as anything other than an existential threat to democracy and the rule of law.

In the same vein, Douthat's lament that the last ten years "didn’t produce movements or leaders equipped to translate disillusionment into programmatic action, despair into spiritual renewal, the crisis of institutions into structural reform" seems a bit...premature, a product of the propensity to structure argument via neatly demarcated decade. To the extent that it proves true, it will be because Republican corruption blocks plausible means of reversing the tightening grip of the oligarchs the Republican party serves.

Elizabeth Warren, for one, has put forward a coherent program to increase the share of profits that go to wages, hold corporations accountable to constituencies other than shareholders, restore antitrust enforcement, and reduce ordinary citizens' exposure to crushing costs and risks. If these plans have little chance of coming to fruition, it's because of the powers undercutting democracy in America that Douthat doesn't acknowledge.

1 comment:

  1. Also, internationally, the 2010s have showcased the sort of transition out of (actual) democracy you are talking about, in Russia, Turkey, and Hungary most clearly.