The onset of autumn this week reminds us just how beautiful a world we inhabit. Mild temperatures, cool breezes, and bright sun came right on schedule, turning our thoughts to the steady advance of winter and the string of holidays we enjoy to brighten those darkening months.
It is tempting to relax into the present. I’m surely not the only one who wants to just experience these days as they come with a minimum of care and distraction. Living in this spot at this point can seem almost idyllic. Whatever attractions the rest of the world may offer, just now America’s Midwest is assuredly the sweet spot. The West dries and burns; the East and South are blown about by wind and rain. For the moment, this is the place to be. It is illusory, of course, but this wretched world has cut us some slack for a week or two and we’d like to relish it in peace.
It’s not as if we actually have the time to spare. Problems are closing in on all sides and you have to be a resolute denialist to ignore them. In the last year I have recounted them in this space, telling them over and over, like beads in a rosary. I’m not sure what good the recitation does for you or me, but, like a prayer, I keep offering it in hope: hope at least for the better, if the best is unattainable.
If you have the time and patience, you can trace the rise of our problems with climate, pandemic, inequalities in race, income, and social status. You can track the timetables, sort out individuals and institutions to blame; even come up with possible solutions, none of which has little chance of being adopted and enacted. But at the end of all the whats, hows, and whens, we end up with the unanswerable why?
However many reasons for all of the world’s ills we come up with, we’re stuck with why? You can shrug it off as God’s will, but that’s not very satisfying. However you envision the divinity, casting it as capricious and even malevolent isn’t much of a consolation. God’s will requires human agency and this is the world we humans have shaped. While we have filled it with the marvels of our toolmaking skill, we haven’t done a very good job of managing them or ourselves.
What’s most striking is the imbalance in it all. For everyone riding in a car, thousands are on foot. Matched against the well-fed (or overfed) are the millions starving. The one percent at the top of the world can’r seem to even see those underfoot.
We’re all the same fusion of Homo Sapiens with a dash of Neanderthal and Denisovan, yet we make critical distinctions according to superficial traits of skin color, facial features, and cultural practices. We developed as social creatures, yet a significant number has evolved into fractious individuals.
As if that weren’t enough, we have devised separations according to beliefs (not facts) and perceived nationality as well. We have cultivated a tendency for separation over cohesion which makes it really hard to agree on anything.
We are hot to track down and punish terrorists overseas, but make light of the domestic ones that have been cultivated in our midst. Our democratic republic, created to serve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, has exhibited a disturbing inclination toward fascism. Congress, based on majority rule, has morphed into minority control in the senate. Our political parties seek power rather than often-obvious solutions.
How has this happened — and why? There are hints and suppositions. but no single answer to the problems that beset us on all fronts. But one can speculate.
Take the puzzle of the fusion of democracy and capitalism. Perhaps they are inherently incompatible. Each works on a simple level. Capitalism’s pricing scheme is its best idea: It works on Main Street. Move it to Wall Street speculation and vulture capitalists and you have something that can be monstrous, becoming a kind of fang-and-claw version of Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest. Capitalism has no morality, only profit.
Democracy works quite well in traffic. Drivers are tested , licensed, and follow traffic and seat belt rules with minimum oversight. We have the freedom of the road within the agreed limits of the law, but many now find staying within the law a violation of an imagined Constitutional right to do as they damn well please.
An obvious example is the sometimes frenzied reaction to the need for universal COVID vaccination. Somehow, after two centuries of government mandates on vaccination to curb everything from smallpox, rabies, and tetanus to polio, yellow fever, and a dozen other threats, we find people raging again COVID shots as an invasion of privacy. And this perverse behavior is actually sanctioned by some state governments in the hope of holding on to votes from a misinformed base. Is this rational?
No, but it’s all too human. We like to blame others for the things that are going wrong: politicians, the idle rich, the lazy poor, immigrants, liberals, conservatives — the list is lengthy and growing longer. Looking in a mirror, we are more likely to see a victim than a perpetrator. Shakespeare, as usual, puts it well in one of his most familiar plays: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves.”
Looking for the “why” of a rapidly-warming world; populations at war with themselves as well as others; self-involved public and private institutions; people using cell phones to dodge personal contact; a reluctance to think beyond personal well-being; can be find only in us: individually and collectively. We are at once Nature’s care-taker and prime predator; somewhere between ape and angel. Our conflicted nature may be the answer to Why?
Step outside and look around. Take a deep breath. Feel the sun on your face. Listen to the mixed sound of different creatures. This is the only paradise we are sure of. Why throw it away?
Don Wooten is a former Illinois state senator and a regular columnist. Email him at: email@example.com.