On Shifts of Tectonic Plates

I did not get to sleep very easily last night.

I am struggling with things going on today in ways that I haven’t struggled before. As a result, I’m coming to think this may be one of the most dangerous moments for America and the world as a whole that has existed during the time that I have lived. Things are rumbling all around us, shifting like gigantic tectonic plates in predictably unpredictable ways. And as I look at them, I can’t help but see that all these rumblings are related, some in ways that are distant and indirect, others in ways that are so glaringly obvious that it takes willful oblivion to miss them. I suggest here that these rumblings are pre-shock warnings that add up to a social earthquake that may well register 8+ on the Richter scale.

Of course, we’ve had these moments before. All countries that last a long time do.

It took a social earthquake to create the country, after all. The following 80 years were echoes of that process, little aftershocks during which we “settled” the country (developed the foundation of our identity, and … uh … mostly removed the indigenous people). Then came the quake that was the Civil War, which was the result of another huge change in the culture of the country. After that struggle, it was no longer legal to outwardly own another person, but that didn’t change to core of the problem, so that issue would, of course, rise again. Industrialization of the country brought a new shift—away from the individual and toward the corporate. One depression and two World Wars later, the concept of how work was to be done was at the core of another huge cultural and economic shift that brought us unions and put social programs into the heart of what it meant to govern a country of our size.

The egregious failures of the reconstruction became too obvious to ignore in the 40s and 50s, and by the 60s the country was torn by a stupid war (the first of a very long string of arguably stupid wars … though if I include Korea, it was the second). The combination of Civil Rights leaders, Nixon, Watergate, and the kids of the sixties created another change in the core of the country.

I haven’t even touched on deeply feminist things like women’s suffrage, the ERA, or abortion rights—all of which either added to other social shifts or created their own.

Against this backdrop, I would argue that until “now,” the past 30-40 years have been relatively quiet—at least they have been quiet if you weren’t paying too much attention. The US “won” the Cold War and was the only major power left around the globe. We kind of had it our way, you know? Politicians cut our taxes. The internet boom swelled the economy. We fed on the early days of globalization (and the top didn’t just feed, they enjoyed a total slop-fest).

But now we’ve come to 2015, and a lot of the change that was simmering along under the surface is bubbling up. This is how problems are in the real world. When you leave them fester, they come back harder than they would have been had you dealt with them earlier.

Here are a bunch of things happening, in no particular order:

  • “The state” is policing its poor into perpetual poverty. This is really nothing new, but it’s now so heavily intertwined in the laws of our country that it’s hard see as anything but state-sanctioned classism.
  • In an associated area, we have lost a 40-year War on Drugs. The social cost of this loss has been humongous. This was predictable, of course, and it was predicted. But our politicians needed to be seen as tough on drugs and tough on crime more than they needed to do the best thing.
  • A guerilla faction in the Middle East has found the exact recipe for success against the West. As a result countries are falling over themselves to be the next to bomb the un-bombable. Which is exactly what this faction WANTS them to do.
  • Unfortunately though, we as a society are still not ready to take the kind of steps it takes to defeat the ISIS/Daesh/whatever kinds of factions that are doing this. All we know to do is bomb and attack. Those are our only tools, and so we use them. Then we are shocked and amazed when they (1) don’t work, and (2) make the problem bigger. (For you writers out there, it’s the ultimate world version of Try/Fail, Things Get Worse.)
  • In a related area, white American is going through a huge transition in which its working class is losing the power of ethnic privilege. I’ve always thought this would take some considerable time, but I recently saw an article that reported white Christians now comprise less than 50% of the country, so maybe it won’t take as long as I think. Regardless, it is my experience that groups of people in any environment do not give up power well. This one fact is probably the root of much more of today’s social discord than any Caucasian (of which I am, of course, one) wants to admit.
  • Similarly, as the female culture makes true progress in all areas of society, specifically in the workplace—and therefore as an economic force, the male culture is being asked to fundamentally change the concept of what it means to be a man. Many of us are not equipped to handle this today. To those men least equipped this feels like a demotion and a loss of power (which it technically is). As I said above, it is my experience that groups of people as a whole do not accept the loss of power well.
  • A crappy billionaire Archie Bunker archetype is running for president, and doing well. The fact that he’s doing well is really not that much of a surprise when I think of it. As a young white male during the “All in the Family” days, I can well remember conversations in school the day after an episode ran. Archie Bunker was well loved by a lot people at the time, and people as a whole don’t change a lot. The reason that a bloviating racist candidate is doing well is that there are a lot of bloviating racist people left in the world today. This is not meant as a complaint or an attack. It is, however, what I see.
  • On the other hand, there exists a real chance that this crappy billionaire Archie Bunker archetype may well be the BEST Republican candidate in the field.
  • The idea that we should expect people to tolerate different cultures has, in some circles, been replaced with the concept that we should require (make mandatory at the cost of punitive damages) true respect. This is relatively new, and it’s a problem because as soon as a person feels disrespected, this mindset enables them to target the other person. Let me be clear that I personally agree with the concept of true respect for all. This would effectively make us into a Star Trek world. However, Star Trek was not set in 2015. Let’s start by getting everyone to tolerate each other, then we can take the next step.
  • Of course, there are those who cannot tolerate because they feel toleration is a form of acceptance, and acceptance is advocacy. This is not new, either. It is also not completely wrong, meaning that I can at least understand the logic that people use to get there. It is, however, mostly wrong. What’s different today is that people who cannot tolerate are being tested in very public ways that did not even exist in the past, and this causes us (allows us, requires us) to discuss exactly what it means to be inclusive in ways that we haven’t had to discuss before. And it exposes levels of antagonism that has, in the past, remained hidden.
  • It is also obvious, however, that the core idea of inclusion inherent in the earliest days of “Political Correctness” (which is very good and extremely useful as a tool for identifying simpleminded bullies) is often being taken to its extreme. Any concept taken to its extreme is a problem. When you cannot ask someone where they are from without it being taken as a racist micro-aggression, it’s a problem.
  • Similarly, kids go to college expecting to be spoon-fed, and expecting not only to be listened to, but appeased at all points. This is a problem. Yes, college kids should be made safe from true personal aggression, but they should fully expect to be intellectually challenged. All students (including white males). All subjects (including the politics that have created our privilege).
  • On the other hand, we’re pegging these kids with $100K in student loan debt upon graduation, so maybe it makes sense that they should get the power they want. It’s a mess, really. The situation in and around campuses is a total mess.
  • 24-hour news media is purposefully driving group-think and willfully teaching factions of people to ignore facts. Fox News is the most obvious practitioner of this, but they are all in the game to some degree. Journalism as entertainment has always existed, but it seems to me that the profession is undergoing (or has undergone) a major shift of its own in the last 10-20 years. (Can we change the old joke to: I turned on Fox News one time and a Comedy Network show broke out?)
  • Factions here are responding to recent progressive “victories” by overtly attempting to make the country more religious (more Christian, to be specific). They argue that the country had always been religious, so they are just trying to put things back the way it was. In their own way they are right, but those people are ignoring what I (and I believe many others) think is the bigger framework that the country was founded on.
  • Nearly half of the country (some 45%) hold creationist views on the origins of the species. Another 35% do believe that evolution exists, but that God has made it happen. This is nothing new, as that number has been stable for decades. But it plays in the conversation differently now.
  • We are losing more people to the Second Amendment than we are to the several silly “wars” that we are fighting.
  • This means that the gun culture in America is now exposed for what it has always been. We are a country of intimidators. We always have been intimidators. We like the idea of being “benevolent” intimidators and thinking of ourselves as James Dean rebels without a cause. We like the idea of the underdog shit-kickers. As a country, we have always seen value in being the independent range cowboy. The militia culture of our earliest days is a side-car to this idea—independent people, fighting for “justice” (against the state, against criminals, against the savage Indians, against … whoever). The concept of militia that the Second Amendment was built around certainly held value at one point, but that point was a long time ago. Today the value of a gun is easily questionable, and the cost of their prevalence is being paid daily in the blood of innocent people.
  • I note that the “we” in the above point is clearly white, and generally male. You can test this by putting other cultures into that question. For example: Do you think Asian Americans have always wanted to be James Dean? Has African American culture grown up with glorified ideas about grabbing their muskets to fight off the Red Coats? Does the Hispanic culture in America take joy in the memory of Wild West cattle drives or the shoot-out at OK Corral? No. Not really. This militia concept as the country’s underpinning is generally the view of the white, genetically European, male.
  • The world’s energy economy is in transition from fossil fuel to renewables. This is a major economic shift and will put a lot of people out of work as well as employ many others. That’s what disruptive technologies do, but the oligarchy built around oil and coal is not letting this happen easily (see above comments about power). The entire conversation about climate change is, in reality, a conversation about oil, coal, and money, though that is not what many people I see arguing about it would say. This gap is among the primary barriers we have to overcome before we can actually solve the climate/energy problem we face today.

I can go on, but if you’ve made it this far you get the point. Emotions are running very high in almost every corner of the country and about almost every issue that exists. Our leadership is not particularly interested in solving the problems that are at the roots of the emotion. This is understandable, really. People who drive political change in this country (or pretty much any country) have a tendency to get shot.

But I look at the world today and I see us undergoing another transition of possibly historic proportion. I see tectonic plates shifting.

In retrospect it seems obvious that we would get to this point. We have made remarkable advances over the time of our history, but we have also left a trail of unsolved problems in our wake (many created by the very advances we have achieved). In that light, it is probably inevitable that humans would eventually come to this point where we have to actually figure out how to deal with the very real differences in the core of how we think about ourselves and about each other.

It is obvious that things are changing, that things have to change.

What is not so obvious is which way the plates will slide, and where we will be when the aftershocks hit.

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