How to summarize the craziness of 2020?
Identity politics has divided us into competing groups for years, but 2020 raised the stakes. The anomalies of last year included ferocious political war and new activism like cancel culture, Antifa riots, Black Lives Matter, the rise of Woke, Me-Too fever, denial of gender, social justice and others while the Covid pandemic swept the world.
In some ways we regressed from social progress. The measuring stick for conflict was sometimes which race is in favor, or out. Violent incidents were on trial by televised mob passions. The peace was shattered by rioting and looting while some government units sat on their hands. The madness of defunding police forces was seriously discussed and some elected officials caved in.
Antiquated voting mechanisms invited gamesmanship and lost public trust. Civility and manners were scarce in politics while snarling, vicious behavior was common. TV news, where objectivity is faintly remembered, didn’t bother too much with substance as shallow sensationalism filled 24/7 infotainment channels.
What happened to make our Constitutional republic dysfunctional? Maybe we are reaping the consequence of failing to ingrain in recent generations the beauty in our Constitution’s design, the restraint and tolerance of differences it requires. Tolerance, and trust in established institutions, was hard to find last year.
Our country was founded on individualism, but you wouldn’t know it by 2020’s undertone of collectivism. Speech police were quick to punish anyone who dared express individual views of the truth that didn’t conform to new norms of language and ideas. The alluring veneer of Socialism drew followers who seemed not to know it was our system of capitalism that harnessed the energy of self-interest and fueled the furnace of the world’s economy. Criticism of America gained favor, with stark historical lessons forgotten or never learned, like Communism’s brutality and Socialism’s economic misery.
I suppose it is easier to find conflicting ideas attractive If you don’t have a strong foundational belief in our own system. But you don’t have to be a deep thinker to hear loud warning bells about Socialism, if not from the Venezuela disaster today, then history’s examples of failure or even how far our own country has crept down the Socialism slippery slope with an economic train wreck developing over the horizon.
Why so much discontent in 2020? Why were so many drawn to attitudes that would have been widely considered anti-American not so long ago? Analysts can debate forever, but I think the root of this chaos is simple; by our own advances in technology, we have developed tools that leverage our ability to be at each other’s throats.
Since hunter-gatherers settled to farm and herd animals about 12,000 years ago, humans have been persistently fighting each other to gain power and wealth or religious conquest. Disagreement and conflict is human nature whether local, national or international. 50 years ago the separation we had by time, distance, geography, culture, language, etc. buffered some of our differences; peace is easier when “they” are out of sight and mind.
Now the world is a smaller place with in-your-face connections by radio, TV, email, cell phones and the internet. We can all see each other now and we have extended our ability to fight with the long reach weapon of electronic words.
More recently, a spark called Social Media met combustible human nature. It started with an exhibitionist flair, youth plastering details of their private lives online for all to see. Then Social Media expanded, offering many options to connect, spread a message and coordinate actions: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, TicTok, WhatsApp, YouTube, Messenger, WeChat, Reddit, Telegram, Medium and others.
Now, whether their intent is peace and love or violent destruction, every yo-yo gets a Social Media megaphone to spread their word worldwide and gather like-minded followers.
Even in our own very decent country, imperfections abound, and anyone without a serious gripe can find one if they stare at their own bellybutton long enough. Gathering followers isn’t so hard, either, since human nature is wanting to belong, to join, to follow. Mix an electronic loud voice with a wild-eyed malcontent and you soon have a movement on your hands. There is no screening, so the best and the worst of us can play.
We call it freedom, an equal chance for everyone to participate. The effect, though, can be an invitation to trouble, millions of loudspeakers aimed at all of us, a cacophony of inciting hot spot disturbances. Trying to douse all those fires would be big-time whack-a-mole. Sort of like 2020.
Technology has made life better and more productive in so many ways. But technology also means a hacker tapping a keyboard in his underwear in Mom’s basement can launch a cyberattack to make a million personal bank accounts disappear, crash a power grid, or trigger release of a biotoxin. All an activist needs is his cell phone to organize and urge followers to a violent attack at a political gathering. Do you think that happened in 2020?
Like the Sword of Damocles, the fantastic tools of technology also have the potential to cut us deep.
We are all now within reach of each other, with no place to hide, spreading harmony and unity for the good guys, for others highlighting disparities and inviting conflict. Every idiot with an urge to inflict damage to people, property or the peace has options to reach and infect a herd with their dreams of tearing things apart.
Ideally, we all would have an unwavering commitment to core principles in our Constitution, a strong footing to resist appeals to drift away from or attack our own system. It seems, though, that strong footing has already faded to irrelevance in the minds of so many Americans, maybe leaving them vulnerable to feel-good notions they hear now with escalating volume and frequency.
By our own success creating impressive communication tools for the good, the bad and the ugly, we sow the seeds of chaos, anarchy, perhaps the ultimate destruction of an orderly civilization.
The glass looks half empty to me; I don’t think we can stop it.
[Terry Garlock occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen. firstname.lastname@example.org]