Placing our current anxieties in the appropriate historical context


At present, the outlook for our generation seems bleak. The general mood is pessimistic and the number of global and political crises continues to snowball at an alarming rate. It is hard not to feel a sense of foreboding and despair about the future.
Let us be completely honest, the 2020s have got off to a terrible start.
The Coronavirus Pandemic dominates the news cycle on a minute-by-minute basis. Borders, schools, universities and public meeting places are shutting down. China and the US continue to be engaged in a trade-war, whilst at home, China is reported to be imprisoning Muslims in ‘re-education camps’. Australia is on fire. The planet seems to be headed for a climate-change induced disaster, yet people still deny the science and countries have been painfully slow to react.

This article is not a denial of the possibility of change.

This article is in no way a denial or attempt to minimise the scale of challenges faced by the global community as a result of the Coronavirus Pandemic. The scale and nature of this pandemic is completely unprecedented, demanding actions not seen in peacetime by governments and leaders. Nor is it a denial of the possibility that our fundamental societal or political structures will (have to) change.

However, I think it is important to bear in mind that every generation before us has also faced a series of seemingly insurmountable world-ending circumstances. We have the benefit of hindsight in looking back at previous wars and crises and knowing that everything would turn out okay. Yet, for the people living in the moment, it wasn’t history. They were just as unprecedented and alarming; the consequences were just as catastrophic had people failed to react.

We have navigated dangerous and testing times before.

This is not to deny valid reactions of anxiety, paranoia or frightfulness about the current state of global affairs (which are useful to help drive political action). Of course, we live in dangerous and testing times, but we have navigated dangerous and testing times before.

Think of the widespread hysteria over AIDS/HIV in the 1980s. At the height of their powers, both the USSR and the US had sufficient nuclear arms to kill all life on earth. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world came perilously close to a nuclear WW3. Iran and Iraq were engaged in an oil war. The spectre of the cold-war haunted international relations. How many times have people thought they were the last generation, or living in the end of the world, but for humans to find a way to practical solutions.

However, attitudes towards those living with HIV have now changed for the better (although of course there is always still work to be done). The USSR and the US have drastically reduced their nuclear arsenals and committed to further reductions. The USSR eventually collapsed, and the Berlin Wall came down.
As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’. We are not living in some state where history has ‘ended’ and everyone accepts the norms of liberal democracy (as Francis Fukuyama, philosopher and historian, once infamously declared). 
The Cold War may have ended but relations with the Russian Federation are weakening, with plenty of evidence that the Kremlin has attempted to interfere in Western Relations. However, if Obama and Putin can be pictured sharing a joke and laughing at an international conference, this is testament to the goodwill of the human spirit finding intimate space even amongst the complexity of international affairs.

Humans are capable of as many wondrous actions as wicked ones.

This article is an attempt to place our current fears in their proper context, which is not to invalidate them. Action is required, but we need some reminding and some faith that humans are capable of as many wondrous actions as wicked ones. I truly believe we can get through the present challenges we face.

Call me unrealistically optimistic, but I like to think the glass is half full not half empty. Let us have faith that one day the list of current calamities will be accompanied by a corresponding list of attitudes changed, enemies made friends, guns tossed aside, walls torn down and diseases defeated. People will look back on the present state of crisis and hopefully reflect on how everything turned out okay because humans put aside their contingent differences and worked together.

Image: Nino Carè via Pixabay

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