All Along the Watchtower, or The End of the World As We Know It
I answered our door around noon and found a pretty young woman and a portly, middle-aged man standing there.
“Can I read you a few passages from the Bible?” she asked.
I used to sell door to door myself, so I’m a sucker for the rap. “Sure,” I said.
“Know this,” she read, “that in the last days critical times hard to deal with will be here, for men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, self-assuming, haughty, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful….” The list went on. When she finished, she turned to me. “Does that sound like the times we’re living in?”
I looked at my disobedient, unthankful three-year-old standing behind me. “Sort of,” I said.
She handed me a brochure and urged me to be vigilant. The end times, after all, were nigh.
All this reminded me of a spat I had recently with some commenters on World Hum, who accused me of “sheer arrogance” and suggested I was a poorly read, hopelessly naive “modern day Candide.” The argument was about whether globalization is a good thing, a bad thing, or just a thing. But underneath that disagreement ran a darker existential angst, of the kind that has dogged humans for eons. People have been predicting the end of the world since the world began and liberals are no different in this regard than conservatives. Tom Junod pointed out in his brilliant review of Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us in Esquire. Either way, our sins are the root of the evil, and the cause for society’s inexorable demise. Belief in humanity’s decline is not the sole province of those awaiting the rapture.
It was a similar strain of thinking that I ran into in trying to argue against mistaking “change” for “end” as so many people do. Every generation thinks they are witnessing the end of their civilization. And in a way they are, since every generation reinvents its culture the same way they reinvent its language.
Yet with so many quality of life indicators improving these days, it seems sad to me that so many people think they are declining. In the 1990’s, the murder rate went down 20%, but 2/3 of people thought the number of murders was “soaring,” according Barry Glassner in his book, The Culture of Fear. Since that book came out 10 years ago, the news cycle has only gotten more relentless, and the fear deeper, and a new edition looks set to come out next year.
Is life getting worse by the day? A few years ago, I walked through a 200-year-old graveyard in Boston, I was shocked at the ages when people died. There were children. There were people in their 20s and 30s. And there were just a few who’d made it into their 70s or 80s. Today we all expect to make it there. Is our era more violent than ever? No. A recent article by Steven Pinker points out that we live in a much less violent era than humans have ever lived in. Are our kids in more danger than ever? No. Lenore Skenazy points this out on her blog and in a in her new book, Free Range Kids, which argues that the dangers facing kids are the same, or less, than they’ve ever been.
The main question this raised for me is why we have such a hard time enjoying our successes, and why imaginary dangers and potential failures cloud our days. After all, we have lengthened our lives. But if we just use all our extra time to worry about how terrible the world is, what kind of trade off is that? As Horace said, “Remember you must die whether you sit about moping all day long or whether on feast days you stretch out in a green field, happy with a bottle of Falernian [wine] from your innermost cellar.”
Or, as Art Buchwald put it, “Whether it is the best of times or the worst of times, it is the only time we have. “