March 3, 2009

Nearing the Boiling Point of Awareness

I could have called this piece ‘The frog in the Saucepan,’ but that analogy has become pretty hackneyed over the last decade or so. With use it has lost its evocative qualities, and slides over most people’s consciousness, like so many other bytes of information that come flying at us every day.
As an observer of the world for many decades-- one who has kept notes, either physical or virtual, of events-- I am acutely aware of how the ‘stove temperature’ on planet Earth has ramped up remarkably within my own lifetime. For the benefit of those who don’t bother with ‘those things,’ I offer these latest observations for due consideration.
For a start, you have to disabuse yourself of one of the common myths that emerged from the general acceptance of the Theory of Evolution. That’s the notion that because species evolve, it follows that the human race, too, is constantly improving, despite little set-backs on the road of progress. In other words, we’ve developed a comforting myth in the perfectability of humankind, one that lurks in modern, implicit culture as an unexamined piece of ‘background knowledge.’ My view is that this assertion is completely at odds with the reality of our age. When you think about it, the evidence against this myth is overwhelming. Let’s consider a few of the more egregious examples.

In just one generation, the incidence (rate per capita) of a wide range of health ‘conditions’ has exploded in Western society. When I was in elementary school, there wasn’t one child in the school who had asthma, or ‘ADHD,’ or hyper-allergy, or autism, and so on. (True, there were two kids with polio, something that was eradicated after then.) There were, maybe, two or three kids you might label as obese, but it was rare. Compare that scene with today’s schools where asthma is so common that kids who forget their inhalers can always borrow a ‘puff’ from another student. Or where some food allergies are so prevalent that certain foods (like peanut butter) are banned altogether as lunch choices. It’s common for schools to designate a staff member as dispenser of medications, and they have a list of kids and pills... and emergency phone numbers. Medical researchers now refer to childhood obesity as of epidemic proportions. Without long-term perspective, each new cohort of parents surveys the situation and comes to accept it as the natural landscape of the times.

My wife and I used to enjoy visiting a nearby metropolis, sampling its many restaurants, walking its fascinating neighborhoods, shopping its unique boutiques, etc. Today, we have written this city off our travel plans because it has become, in just a couple years, extremely violent, and unpredictably so. Rival gangs regularly conduct ‘hits’ on targeted members in broad daylight, in any place, and using firearms indiscriminately. A city that was safe a mere few years ago, is now notorious for the riskiness of merely walking down a street. Yet this story is hardly exceptional; it is becoming the story of virtually every big city, and many smaller ones, everywhere in North America. Most citizens cluck their tongue, shake their head, and adjust their routines to accommodate the new, unpleasant reality. In this case, citizens held protests, the authorities responded, predictably, with token pledges to increase police numbers, stiffen sentences handed down by courts, and make more changes to the criminal code. Great. To date, not one of the assassins has been identified, let alone arrested.

A few years ago, my wife and I lived for half a year in a small town in Mexico. We drove our car there (several hundred miles from the US border) and visited a number of places by car while we lived there. At all times, we felt very safe and secure; as much as we would in our own home town. Today, we have no desire to return to Mexico where the drug wars have become so ugly and violent that over 1,000 people were killed in the space of 50 days, recently. Similarly, the once peaceful, almost idyllic Thailand has become another violent place where tourists have been murdered deliberately. Numerous other formerly peaceful tourist destinations have become dangerous, to one degree or another. And while many Americans may dismiss the drug war south of the border as a Mexican problem, they had better think again. The fact is that the war has already spilled into many towns in the southern states, and since the drug cartels are ensconced in the Hispanic community, they will follow the demographic movement of the ex-patriots. Soon, all major cities will be reluctant participants in the Mexican drug war. In fact, by then, the drug trade will be fought by several, competing ethnic cartels.

And that brings me to a little aside, easily perceived thru the lens of history, concerning the whole ‘war on drugs.’. Our grandparents went thru this same scenario back in the 1920s: rival gangs shooting it out with each other and with police for domination of the lucrative drug we call alcohol, which was then prohibited in the USA. In the end, they did the intelligent thing: they legalized alcohol, taxed it, and put the gangs out of business. They took the realistic position that it’s better to control the trade and accept a few undesirable consequences, than to engage in a futile, costly, bloody, unending struggle with criminals. We could cut the ground out from under the drug lords by doing the same with even the one drug, marijuana. But no; every attempt to use reason and propose legalization of the most harmless of the illicit drugs is met with instant rejection by US authorities. You have to ask yourself ‘why?’ when we all know the old mantra that if you keep doing the same thing, you’ll keep getting the same result. Obviously, individuals in very high places want to retain the ‘drug war;’ and they want it because they are benefiting from it. Nothing was learned from history. No sign of progress here.

With the ‘Baby-boom generation’ now reaching the age when people start to reflect on ‘bigger issues’ of life, you’d expect that they might ponder certain basic questions. Like, why is humanity always engaged in war (somewhere)... when the great majority of us just want to live a peaceful life? Could it be because there are a few psychopaths among us who attain positions of power and influence, who deliberately foment wars for their own twisted objectives? (See e.g. ‘War is a Racket,’ Maj.-Gen. Smedley Butler). Despite all ostensible efforts (such as the League of Nations, the UN, other NGOs) we have never been able to put a damper on war as our favorite sport. Why? Again, certain people reap enormous fortunes from war, and they will ensure that the situation never improves.

While science loves to congratulate itself for its ‘triumphs,’ there is really little to crow about when you examine the record objectively. Sure, scientists in various disciplines claim they have ‘explained creation,’ or conquered such-and-such disease, or can control some once-deadly sickness. But when you look further, the truth is far less concrete. Most of the ‘explanations’ are nothing more than speculations! Many of the diseases thought to be conquered (including polio) are making a comeback in various places. And although they can mask the symptoms of certain diseases for a time, people are still contracting them and dying from them in ever-bigger numbers. So much of the achievements boasted of by modern medical science are quite illusory. In other areas of science, technologists seem to be employed by governments to create weapons rather than benefits for mankind. Again, progress that is materialistic and illusory, doing nothing to help the inequities in the world.

Forty years ago, in 1969, NASA put men on our closest cosmic neighbor, our own moon. Several more missions went to the moon, until the last Apollo mission in 1972. We’ve never been back since then... in 37 years! In fact, there have been a couple of human-origin, shuttle disasters in those years that would have set the moon missions back for a long time had they happened to the Apollo launches. What progress is that?

In education, tests are showing that average levels of knowledge of high school students have dropped over the last several decades. Surveys of the extent of understanding of public policy issues indicate a woeful ignorance of world, and even local affairs among the general populace. At the same time, hours spent watching TV have been increasing steadily for decades, and only started to plateau as young people began spending increasing time on computers and video games. The lure of entertainment proves greater than the value of awareness of societal issues. And speaking of television, it’s no secret that programming has been getting more violent, and ‘dumber,’ every year. That may sound mundane, but if you were to take a viewer from say, 1960, and show him/her almost any prime-time-crime show of today, the person would be shocked, I’m sure. What is harder to convey to readers is that this degradation in the propriety of typical, popular programs is not just ‘reflecting society’s state,’ (as some protest) but is a conscious plan to ‘condition’ the general population to greater violence in daily life. This is another of those long-term schemes by the broadcasters to have a free hand in presenting anything they want, under the guise of ‘artistic licence,’ or ‘free enterprise,’ or whatever. While they argue vehemently, like the tobacco lobby of 30 years ago, that there’s no ‘scientific proof’ that their programs influence behavior, they rake in billions of dollars from their advertisers who are convinced that commercial programming gets results! Go figure.

Ditto with the movie industry. Hollywood’s products get more explicitly violent, and more pornographic-- not just in terms of heterosexuality, but increasingly, homosexuality-- as if testing to see how far they can go before the public finally says ‘enough.’ Again, we are played for suckers; the producers refute any link between their movies and attitudes in society, yet they use all the tricks of the trade to promote their products and their views. You have to realize that there’s a conscious agenda to the Hollywood movie machine, which is, as with TV, to subvert the mass consciousness of the audience, an audience that was once primarily American, then ‘Western,’ and now, global. As tinsel-town’s perverted themes are broadcast from giant, blaring screens to mesmerized viewers, powerful messages are being suggested, both overtly and subliminally. And those messages too often are highly negative towards traditional values and morality, and increasingly promote destructive, immoral themes. Again, the industry hides behind the smokescreen of artistic freedom and similar baffle-gab.

I haven’t even broached the subject of climate change and the effects its having on agriculture and existence in various places. Nor have I discussed environmental damage, or the threat of resurgent pandemics. These factors are rapidly proving very harmful to the future prospects of a viable world. In particular, damage to the environment is something mankind is clearly responsible for, and could have minimized long ago had there been any kind of political leadership. Instead, industries lobbied and stonewalled against any serious action in any of numerous commercial fields. In the US, the military hardware providers sold the government on a ‘good use’ of the waste from nuclear power plants, and American forces started using depleted uranium in projectiles, regardless of their illegality under international law. Now we have radioactive dust circulating the planet, thanks to indiscriminate use of a hazardous waste product. In the current, main war zone, Iraq, the cancer rate among the population is very high, as is the rate of birth defects. This is the kind of fate that awaits us all, everywhere, thanks to ‘human progress.’

That’s enough observational evidence, I trust, to convince any reflecting person that: (1) the human race is not, by any stretch of imagination, improving by any measure, be it physical, social, or spiritual; and (2) the ‘psychic temperature’ in the saucepan that is our home planet has risen alarmingly, and requires only a few more degrees of applied heat to reach a rolling boil. Madmen took control of the heat dials years ago, and keep cranking it up, day by day. Unlike the frog, we have nowhere to jump. To those who would accuse me of churlish pessimism, I would respond with a question: ‘Was the lookout on the Titanic a pessimist when he reported seeing icebergs ahead?’

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