Living In Interesting Times

The expression, May you live in interesting times, is usually considered an ancient-Chinese curse. Whether it’s true that it is an ancient Chinese curse is doubtful, but the part about the curse definitely seems true. The reason the expression is considered a curse rather than a blessing is that interesting “times” result from political intrigue and wars rather than from peace, happiness, and tranquility. We (and that includes the mass of humanity at this point) are living in interesting times. Charles Dickens begins his great novel, A Tale of Two Cities with the following paragraph:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

The two cities are London and Paris, and the setting is the French Revolution. Although the causes were complex, the main antecedent of the Revolution was the extreme disparity of wealth: the rich lived in luxury while the poor were essentially starving. The same basic situation led to the Russian Revolution, and the Chinese Revolution.

When I consider the current political and economic situation in the States, I wonder whether we could be heading in a similar direction. I am old enough to remember the 1960s, including the sit-ins and marches for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. I was, after all, there. Although the youth of the time had a lot of anger, it also had a lot of hope—and great music. Here’s a brief video clip that gives you an idea of what was going on in those days:

I would be surprised if you haven’t seen similar video clips. It is one thing, of course, to read about interesting times in the past, and something completely different to live through those times. The recent events in Charlottesville are one example, but not the only one. Pretty much everyone is “uneasy” at this point, with a few being really angry.

One of the things I find most interesting is the way that those who were deficit hawks when Obama was President, have completely changed their position. They now cite the the Laffer Curve to support their idea that reducing taxes on business and the wealthy will create economic well-being for all. They fail to remember that Kansas already implemented Laffer economics with disastrous results. Although the idea that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it is usually attributed to George Santayana, many philosophers have made similar comments. History is, of course, replete with examples. A similar idea is doing the same thing while expecting a different result. The criterion for repeating a process should be happiness with the result.

The process is, of course, more complicated when people have competing interests. If you’ve been married or in another partnership, you are familiar with what happens when one of you wants A and the other wants B. When that difference can’t be negotiated, the relationship ends. When A and B are large segments of a society, the result is often a civil war. I think we came pretty close to civil war during the Vietnam era. If one side hadn’t been populated primarily by peaceniks, the differences of opinion about the “rightness” (righteousness) of the war in Southeast Asia might have become even more violent that it was. I wonder if we can be so lucky a second time.

The current problem is, of course, not limited to what we’re experiencing in the States. Mass migrations have become common, primarily as a result of war, but also as a result of global climate change. When surviving in one location becomes impossible, people move—regardless of the risks. The destination for those fleeing South American and Central American countries and Mexico because of civil wars and/or crop failures is the United States. Those fleeing wars and crop failures in Africa and the Arab World tend to go to European countries. Assimilation is neither quick nor easy and usually requires two or three generations to accomplish. I am not sure that we have that much time.

T.S. Eliot Ends his poem, The Hollow Men with the following lines:

        This is the way the world ends
        This is the way the world ends
        This is the way the world ends
        Not with a bang but a whimper.

Another poet, Robert Frost said this about the end of the world:

        Some say the world will end in fire,
        Some say in ice.
        From what I’ve tasted of desire
        I hold with those who favor fire.
        But if it had to perish twice,
        I think I know enough of hate
        To say that for destruction ice
        Is also great
        And would suffice.

As for me, I have been hoping to leave the world in better shape for my grandchildren than I found it. At this point, however, it is hard to see how we can get from “here” to “there.”