Take Heart, It’s Worse Than You Think

Take Heart, It’s Worse Than You Think April 25, 2017

Following last November’s election, I wrote a piece at Christian Democracy in which I tried to step back and look at the U.S. political situation in a global context.

An excerpt:

To try to retrace the steps of these phenomena, in admittedly broad strokes: a noticeable number of opportunistic individuals are being propelled to power by sociopolitical groundswells of what would have previously been seen as fringe movements.  Behind the mainstreaming of these movements are widespread indignities felt by increasing numbers of people suffering from the negative effects of globalization and technocracy, such as the displacement of many industrial jobs by increased automation and international trade policies that have gravely hurt the western working classes (not to mention people working for unjust wages under unsafe conditions on the other end of the outsourcing, who remain largely unheard and unseen except when those unsafe conditions result in disaster).  This strain is exacerbated by desperate waves of refugees seeking entry faster than their would-be host countries can hope to accommodate them, who themselves are fleeing unlivable situations caused by terrorism and civil wars, gang wars, and drug wars.

It’s hard to draw straight lines among all these bleak factors, and this still isn’t to get to the root of the thing: aside from having only scratched the surface of the complicated ramifications of globalization, there is plenty of room to step back further, looking for the causes of the violence driving people in droves to risk their lives to reach places where they are likely to be made unwelcome, and on and on.  And this may be getting to the point where I can’t even make the simplest attempt at an answer.  But one thing seems clear to me on a systemic scale: something has been happening far too rapidly and unrestrainedly and is leaving more and more people behind, with devastating effect.

Since I wrote these words, I’ve continued to give a good deal of thought to the multifaceted global phenomenon I had faintly begun to grasp in the process of connecting a few of those dots, trying to bring a bigger picture into focus.  I even did eventually try to draw some straight lines among them, adding more as I saw them, which thus far has come out looking something like this:


Now, I thought, I really get what Pope Francis meant when he wrote in chapter three of Laudato Si about what he called “the technocratic paradigm.”  This is the beast that emerges when the dots are connected: an idol of “infinite or unlimited growth” (LS 106), of “progress” with no moral compass, but with power as its driving motive; a breezily narcissistic faith in our own mastery over everything, in the power of human innovation to save us from the very problems it has created.   This is the beast, the Pandora’s box containing so many modern ills and evils, and I suddenly started seeing it everywhere.

I thought of a conversation from a few years back, in which someone mentioned “substance abuse” as a candidate for the most pressing social problem.  I wasn’t too convinced, thinking it sounded more like a surface level problem overlying the myriad voids people try to fill.  And in many ways I suspect it is exactly that, but as I noticed news story after news story after news story of far-reaching drug-related crises in the U.S. and elsewhere all connected to multiple other crises, I began to wonder if that was a more central factor than I ever would have guessed.

I thought of a recent NPR story in which a coal miner dying of black lung said through labored breaths that he would do everything over again if it meant being able to provide for his family to the extent that he has.  I was struck by the morbid irony that for people in his situation, their very livelihood is literally killing them.  And they have willingly paid such a steep cost for the dignity of providing that livelihood, a profound human need and a theme of Catholic Social Teaching going back to Rerum Novarum.

One could mention any number of such things, all of which feed into the grotesque dichotomy that’s been playing out repeatedly on international political stages, between a globalized technocratic elitism that condescendingly dismisses those who have been most badly hurt by its economic and technological dogmas, and a series of populist nationalisms that have brought the ugly evils of racism and xenophobia into the sociopolitical mainstream through fear and anger. True to the nature of dichotomies, these things are usually presented in a way that pushes everyone to take a side.  Even where this effect is unintended, it always makes me profoundly uncomfortable, since I find them both so abhorrent that to align with either is unthinkable.

One might take a perverse comfort in observing that it’s not just U.S. politics being poisoned by this polemic.  For that matter, it’s not even just politics.  There’s a perhaps undefinable global problem going on here that’s bigger than Donald Trump, bigger than Marine Le Pen, bigger than Rodrigo Duterte, bigger than Alexander Gauland or whoever else may yet surge to notoriety.  For all their capacity to inspire equal measures of messianic hope and apocalyptic fear, none of these individuals, nor even all of them combined, is the source of the problem; that would be giving them far more credit than they deserve.  They are merely opportunists riding waves of popular sentiment to their own advantage.  The good news is that we may have less to fear than we think from any such professional provocateurs.  The bad news is that we may have a lot more to fear from the broader situation they’re exploiting.

Unless, that is, we can find some alternative to a world of unbridled growth and “delusions of grandeur” (LS 114) or one of fear-driven retreat into insularity and vigilantism – both of which at best ignore, or at worst are openly hostile to, the needs of the most vulnerable.

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