Confession: I’ve been a lapsed blogger. Forgive me; it’s been months since my last posting — March 20th to be precise. It isn’t that there has been nothing to write about, but that I’ve taken some time off to bring a more substantive piece of writing to conclusion. More about that in the near future. Some years back, I took an annual summer holiday in St. Barths, the small and exquisite island in the Caribbean that was only affordable (and then marginally so) off-season. My rule for a stay that could be a month long was no newspapers, no news broadcasts. Initially Internet connections in St. Barths were non-existent and then only spotty. You should try vacationing from the news sometime; it’s more than pleasant. In any event, what struck me each time that I reentered the world from that self-imposed hiatus was how very little had really changed, if at all. It was a lesson in taking the long view, the kind that seems to elude us in this 24/7 world, particularly us Americans. More to the point, I haven’t been blogging and you surely haven’t missed a thing.
Of course, in the immediate sense, much has happened since my last post, most of it probably predictable. Mitt Romney has sewn up the GOP nomination and still hasn’t generated much enthusiasm. The money pouring in is more a tribute to the 1%’s yearning to get back in full control than any commitment to either the man or his ideology, whatever that may be. The Arab Spring is going through its summer doldrums as long vested interests try to hold on to their past and prevent the future from taking hold. Societal change takes time and is messy. To expect anything other than backsliding is to get caught up in fantasy. Even in America we’ve seen that change, as the President reminds us, is very hard. Undoing what took decades to put into place is both painful and frustrating. So what we see is an abundance of frustrated kicking and screaming on all sides of the political and social spectrum, but minimal progress.
Facebook, after a disappointing Wall Street debut, is being prematurely written off by some people. Let’s remember that Amazon was launched with high hopes and subsequently dismissed as a loser with no earnings and a sagging stock price. My guess is that Mark Zuckerberg, like Jeff Bezos, is not someone who will be sidetracked by the skeptics or current share prices. Tom Friedman, looking at the dismal political situation in Egypt, rightly points out that politics takes boring groundwork not merely social interaction, but I don’t think the people running Facebook ever questioned that. They facilitated the connection, not the doing. Friedman’s main point is that the people on the Street have not yet gotten their act together, and together is the operative word.
The world’s economy, despite small pockets of growth, remains challenged — an under statement of course. The old saw about when America sneezes still seems to pertain, but is probably much too glib and simplistic an explanation. We’ve been blamed for the debt crisis and housing bubble, but obviously we weren’t alone. The idea that all the countries in the world, including China (now having its own housing bubble), aren’t adult enough to make their own decisions and resulting mess just isn’t credible. Europe is foundering in part because they never did the Euro right something everyone knew from the start. Our fundamental problems continue to be more systemic than caused by any momentary excess, no matter how extensive.
Little discussed is that the huge wealth disparity between the 1%ers and the rest of us, a disparity about which we are rightly wringing our hands, is nothing new. In fact, it is just a modern echo of what has always been throughout most of human history. Perhaps that’s why we’re witnessing the same wealth disparity across the globe — Western Europe, Russia, Israel, India and China as examples. Yes many of us grew up in the post WWII period where a still newly created middle class produced some modicum of income/wealth equality. But taking the long view of history, even that very modest income equality is the exception, not the rule. Level playing fields are as much a myth as is the idea that change can come easily, much less be instant. This is not to accept the status quo — the current wealth disparity especially in such a connected time might eventually do us in — but to put it in perspective.
Interestingly, much of what we’re experiencing today can be attributed to a desperate attempt by a range of players and interests to hold on to a real, or imagined, past. The hard right turn in the party that Lincoln would likely disown represents much more of an attempt to turn back the clock than of any new ideological direction. If you want to understand the heat of Tea Party rhetoric, remember that desperate people do desperate things. Objectively speaking, many of those raising that flag high seem to be supporting ideas and interests that actually go contrary to their own. I’m talking, for example, about the Medicare recipients who deplore universal healthcare or the very people being held down by Koch types who supply the ground force that turns their money into votes. Of course, rationality has nothing to do with it. Rather it bespeaks a generation of people frustrated by the undeniable fact that the brave new world seems to have made them obsolete. In my view, technology, far more than globalization, has robbed them of their jobs and their future. Back in the day is where they want to be and so, it would seem, they will do whatever is required to reverse progress. The fact that so much of our electorate is profoundly uninformed, and our citizenry is increasingly undereducated, only compounds the problem. But that’s another conversation.
No institution is more emblematic of this desperate hanging on to yesterday and fear of tomorrow than the Roman Catholic Church. How else to explain the Vatican’s recent, systematic and relentless attack on its nuns? Forget that the sisters are generally held in higher esteem than any other group of professionals in church. Adding to the insult and intended humiliation, the Pope appointed male bishops to take control of these wayward women folk and steer them back on a track that obviously only a man can understand. There can be no women priests, the pontiff reiterated early in his reign, because all of the Apostles were men. Speak of back in the day! It’s clear that from Rome’s point of view, one shared enthusiastically by its newly minted star Cardinal in New York, women are not capable of thinking for themselves, much less questioning male domination and decision making. The US bishops, led by Dolan, campaign vigorously to undermine healthcare coverage in the United States so as to make sure contraception (practiced by the vast majority of Catholic women of child-bearing age) is robbed of enabling funds.
One would think that, rather than going after the professional and lay women in its organization, Rome would expend more energy in figuring out why so many of its male professionals went so criminally wrong, routinely aided and abetted by their supervising superiors. How did the moral lessons of the Catholic faith lead to that and also to the financial misconduct within the Vatican itself? Aside from some lip service paid, an incredible amount of obfuscation and only the bare minimum of action, Rome still wants to sweep this under the luxurious rugs that abound in the rooms where its leaders work or sleep.
What’s most interesting is that, at a time when religion and the church itself is losing ground in Western counties especially, this turn inward and backward only adds fuel to the fire of discontent. Rather than delaying decline, it is speeding up and broadening the process of alienation. The writer Anna Quindlen, a lifetime loyal Catholic, just left the Church over its treatment of women. But that’s not my point here. What I see is another example of unquestioned desperation — desperate people, including aged popes, do desperate things. Benedict, much as does the Central Committee in Beijing, has been stacking the College of Cardinals (who will elect his successor) with the ultra conservative like-minded. He seems to think that doing so can turn the clock back, or at least bring it to a standstill. So it isn’t so much about ideology as about preserving what is comfortably known and that includes vast power for the chosen few. Facebook is a threat to hierarchal institutions because unsupervised contrary ideas can go viral. Educated women with their own minds to make up, represent a clear and present danger to the system, including continued male reign and domination. The thing to focus on is not the Church’s pronouncements against contraception but on that 90+% of the faithful who essentially ignore yesterday’s dictates. Authority is being challenged for sure, but equally is the misguided notion that back in the day was a good time. Putin, the KGB warrior, may have left the Communist Party behind, but will be damned if the Russian populous doesn’t tow back in the day disciplined lines.
Can these desperate people win? In the short term, it’s clear they can — in the long term, perhaps not. At the moment that they may not in the future is academic because, while many of us may be looking there, we do have to live in the present. In a time when those yelling loudest, having the biggest checkbooks or carrying the biggest sticks are fighting to retain the past, that’s unnerving. Their desperation is our problem, perhaps our most urgent problem.