The 20th century tended to define progress in terms of material goods. In 1920 Lenin confidently declared that “Communism is Soviet government plus the electrification of the whole country.” Earthly paradise was attainable. It would take only a few Five Year Plans to get there.
But even then people suspected the end game required more than that, a point made in a 1960s Twilight Zone episode entitled “A Nice Place to Visit.” A small-time hood called Henry Valentine dies running from the cops and wakes up where his every thuggish desire is gratified. It soon palls and Valentine wants to leave Heaven and go to “the other place,” to which the custodians retorted, “This is the other place!”
Valentine’s gloomy disappointment is reminiscent of the depression spreading through parts of the West despite comparative peace and unprecedented prosperity. World-weariness, once the condition of individuals, has become a civilizational affliction. Gone is the materialist optimism of Lenin. Our world of mass air travel, a plethora of entertainment channels, food delivery, constant connectivity, and air conditioning has become not heaven but “the other place.” Novelist Jonathan Franzen, writing in the New Yorker, says that unlike “the Protestant Reformation …[when the] ‘end times’ was merely an idea” it is a horribly concrete thing today.
“There is infinite hope,” Kafka tells us, “only not for us.” I’m talking, of course, about climate change … every one of the world’s major polluting countries [must] institute draconian conservation measures, shut down much of its energy and transportation infrastructure, and completely retool its economy … overwhelming numbers of human beings, including millions of government-hating Americans, need to accept high taxes and severe curtailment of their familiar lifestyles without revolting. They must accept the reality of climate change and have faith in the extreme measures taken to combat it … Every day, instead of thinking about breakfast, they have to think about death.
The culprit is all the industrial stuff Lenin promised. Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg, who has been called “the unofficial spokesperson of her generation,” asked if there’s any point in attending school. “Why should we study for a future that is being taken away from us?” Nor is this dejection confined to an activist few. Elon Musk recently cited studies showing the world’s population, with the exception of Africa, is imploding. “Half the world’s nations have fertility rates below the replacement level of just over two children per woman. Countries across Europe and the Far East are teetering on a demographic cliff, with rates below 1.5.” Why study? Why bother being born?
In this atmosphere, there is an actual antipathy to religious optimism. CNN says, “Thinking of sending your ‘thoughts and prayers?’” Don’t bother. “Atheists and agnostics would pay money to avoid them, according to a study … of the National Academy of Sciences. … The last result is surprising because one might expect that atheists/agnostics would be indifferent to people praying for them — why care, if you don’t believe in the gesture?”
It’s as if 20th-century secular atheism were having an existential crisis. The 5-year plans and social engineering did not bring the promised happiness. We got the electricity and it’s causing global warming. The failure has not persuaded ideologues to stop trying though. As Thunberg puts it, “some people say that we should study to become climate scientists so that we can ‘solve the climate crisis.’ But the climate crisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and solutions.”
Yet here it comes again: all you have to do is accept the answers. One more Five-Year Plan, one more climate crusade and we’re there. Or are we? As Thomas Sowell observed, “in politics the great non sequitur of our time is that 1) things are not right and that 2) the government should make them right. Where right all too often means cosmic justice, trying to set things right means writing a blank check for a never-ending expansion of government power.”
Even if the solutions advocated by Thunberg work, they won’t stop history. The human system can’t be sealed off at the perfect moment since tomorrow keeps upsetting arrangements with new information. Tomorrow brings on discontent. A Pearl Harbor, fall of the Soviet Union, 9/11, 2008 financial meltdown or Brexit will come along just as elusive fulfillment is at hand. Part of the reason Trump is so maddening to exhausted progressives is that after being so close they must begin all over again.
Human perfection projects will remain vulnerable to external events, whether it is from a disaster such as a meteor arriving undetected from outer space or unlooked-for salvation from people like Stanislav Petrov, who saved the world during the Cold War by ignoring a faulty Soviet missile alert. As Claude Shannon demonstrated, the true measure of information is surprisal. The search for heaven involves accepting that if it ever comes it will arrive unannounced, like an alien signal.
Kurt Godel warned us, there would be questions we could not answer without appealing to a larger system in a universe with one puzzle nested inside another. There is nothing for it but to see where it goes; to see if the program halts. To do this we will have to believe in partial answers and the promise of more to come. Call it faith, call it a wager, or call it the poet James Elroy Flecker’s description of travelers at Baghdad’s Gate of the Moon.
But who are ye in rags and rotten shoes,
You dirty-bearded, blocking up the way?
We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
Always a little further; it may be
Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow
Across that angry or that glimmering sea,
White on a throne or guarded in a cave
There lies a prophet who can understand
Why men were born: but surely we are brave,
Who take the Golden Road to Samarkand
Support the Belmont Club by purchasing from Amazon through the links below.
Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War, by Tim Bouverie. Drawing on deep archival research and sources not previously seen by historians, this groundbreaking history chronicles the disastrous years of indecision, failed diplomacy and parliamentary infighting that enabled Hitler’s domination of Europe.
Revolutionary: George Washington at War, by Robert E. O’Connell. An introduction to Washington before he was Washington. This book from an acclaimed military historian is a bold reappraisal of young George Washington, an ambitious if reckless soldier destined to become the legendary general who took on the British and, through his leadership, defined the American character.
God: A Human History, by Reza Aslan. “Whether we are aware of it or not, and regardless of whether we’re believers or not, what the vast majority of us think about when we think about God is a divine version of ourselves.” This innate desire to humanize God is hardwired in our brains, making it a central feature of nearly every religious tradition, according to Aslan. In this book, not only does he take us on a history of our understanding of God but tries to get to the root of this humanizing impulse.
The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, by Martin Gurri. This book tells the story of how insurgencies, enabled by digital devices and a vast information sphere, have mobilized millions of ordinary people around the world. It also ponders whether the current elite class can bring about a reformation of the democratic process, and whether new organizing principles, adapted to a digital world, can emerge from the present political turbulence.
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Open Curtains by George Spix and Richard Fernandez. Technology represents both unlimited promise and menace. Which transpires depends on whether people can claim ownership over their knowledge or whether human informational capital continues to suffer the Tragedy of the Commons.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific.