It sometimes seems that the world is about to explode into something bad. Democracy itself seems to be under threat in the very places you wouldn’t expect: the United States, for example. Extremist views appear to be on the increase everywhere, and the values and traditions we often think are fundamental to society are being questioned and abandoned in a remarkably quick process. Are we really in such a bad place? Is there any shelter from the storm?
Maybe, as an historian, I don’t feel as worried as appearances would seem to demand. No matter how bad any given situation is today: politically, socially, environmentally, and otherwise, it is possible to point to times past when things looked equally gloomy. Other times of pandemics far worse than the one we’ve been going through for the past few years. Social and political upheavals which changed the very structures of society and brought revolution to governments and regimes.
That’s one side of things. The other is less comforting and requires a bit more consideration. The fact is that nothing stays the same for long; as they say, change is the only constant in life. The reason why such change is seen as a threat, and why so many people are indulging the most outrageous conspiracy theories is, in part, because we have been led to believe that we’d got things just about right. Statistics pointed to higher standards of living in the last half century, better healthcare available to more and more people, longer life spans, and an increasing level of education and employment opportunities.
But there’s a problem with that approach: it isn’t necessarily the full picture. Yes, things generally have been improving since the end of World War II, and, as long as you ignore less-favoured countries and their challenges, all seemed to be going in the right direction. The myth that a rising tide raises all boats was accepted almost without question. But the 2000’s have shown up many cracks in the walls surrounding our complacency, and we are very aware of major changes taking place all around us.
For some, the changes are welcome, seeming to show society becoming more open, tolerant, inclusive of all. But to others, the changes are worrying, causing a sense of being under attack, with deeply-held values threatened by strange and unwelcome ideas. Things seem to be changing too quickly, without any real consideration: values that seemed to be established are now either in peril or completely discredited.
So, how are we, individually and as a society, supposed to deal with all this, and where do we find shelter from the storm? Perhaps we first need to accept that we, as a society in the 21st Century are not as unique, evolved, or sophisticated as we’d like to think. As one wise man once wrote: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun”. History has recorded times like these over and over again, in many parts of the world, through millennia. Perhaps a few lessons in history might allow us some perspective and a chance to re-evaluate our times.
Empires come and go, and we’ve seen that happen a few times, even since 1945. Such changes can be chaotic, violent, sometimes peaceful, but they always bring the kind of situation we’ve been finding ourselves in recently. Both the U.S. and Russia are experiencing various levels of meltdown, while Europe and China, and perhaps India too, are developing a different kind of imperial status. Things change, it’s as simple as that. But, having been led to believe that we had reached a plateau of social and political stability at one point, it is very disconcerting to see it all unravel. One thing to remember: although all this has happened before throughout history, we are more aware of it taking place in real time now because of technology. Social media, mainstream media, and instantaneous transmission of news in video, print and pictures means that we are aware of all the disturbing events and changes as they happen. Previous generations did not have that blessing, or curse.
The positives? If this all happened before, and will happen again, we know that society survived it all, albeit by adapting, changing to meet the new realities. How do we adapt in these times? Information and perspective, a willingness to be open and always learning. Reacting blindly to threats to our values and traditions will not help, and will not prevent time, history, doing its thing. As I say every time Air Canada loses my luggage, cancels flights, fails to get me to my connecting flight in time: It’s all part of the Great Adventure!
And, as a famous crooner once sang: “That’s life!” May you live in interesting times? We do.