To say we live in tumultuous times is an understatement. But is it one we could have predicted? Prognostication has always interested humanity. Who wouldn’t like to know the future? We’re always looking for signs and pathways from the historical (Nostradamus) to the sketchy (astrologers and palm readers). We want to be prepared and know what to expect. Data is now the currency of prediction. The stock market and politicians rely on past performances and historical trends to predict market swings and elections. But as we’ve learned, polls often fail to tell us what’s coming. It’s not the data; it’s the interpretation that fails us.
I look at a person’s past behavior, whether a friend or a public figure, to predict what they will do or say—how they will act. People are generally consistent. But I see it only as a guide, and sometimes I’m wrong. But a general sense is good enough for me. It’s a way of protecting myself and my expectations.
In 2000, Radiohead released their album, Kid A. It was a massive reset for them. “Kid A was Radiohead’s first No. 1 album in the U.S. Its foreboding music and non sequitur lyrics were off-putting to critics and fans at first. But today, they evoke the feeling of everyday life, from ‘glitchy cell reception’ and ‘decontextualized social-media updates’ to ‘the modern reality of omnipresent technological interconnectivity at the expense of genuine human connection,’” says music critic Steven Hyden in his book, This Isn’t Happening.
In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Hyden says, “When you heard the album in 2000, it didn’t make sense—as rock music, as a Radiohead record, even as songs. But when I listen to it now, it feels like what it’s like to experience daily life. We live in this world where we’re being inundated with information.” The 21-year-old Kid A conveys the destabilization we feel now. “We can’t really take it all in. We absorb as much as we can, the best we can, and we assume we’re right in the conclusions we make.”
Saul Bass’ 1968 iconic short film, Why Man Creates, celebrates the creative spirit, one that can sustain us as we traverse those ups and downs. The film notes the cyclic nature of our lives and humanity throughout. But there is one scene that always stops me when I come to it, a digression in the storyline in which two snails are talking with each other. One says to the other: “Have you ever thought that radical ideas threaten institutions, then become institutions, and in turn reject radical ideas which threaten institutions?” For one sentence, this packs quite a punch. This is the recurring nature of our civilization and our lives. A novel idea threatens accepted institutions and meets with resistance. Eventually, that idea may supplant the traditional thought until another discovery comes along and jeopardizes the sanctity of that belief. And, once again, it is met with resistance. People’s lives are made better or destroyed along this fault line.
Capitalism is a perfect example of this type of adjustment. For over a century, it has referred to an economic system in which privately or corporately owned companies produce products and services sustained by the accumulation and reinvestment of profits. During the duality of the Cold War, it was the bulwark against communism. Now, many, including politicians like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and CEOs such as Ray Dalio, Co-Chief Investment Officer & Chairman of Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, are reimagining capitalism. Income inequality is at one of its highest points in our history. Each wants to restructure the system to reduce the profits going to mostly CEOs and stockholders (today American CEOs make 351 times more than workers; in 1965, it was only 15 to one) while including companies’ workers in the profits. This is a hard sell on Wall Street. And, along with other initiatives that aim to redistribute our country’s wealth, conservatives call this socialism. Fervent opposition greets the new idea that challenges the old paradigm.
Boomers like myself have lived history. We’ve experienced many of society’s cycles. Sometimes we’ve been taken to a precipice like the Cuban Missile Crisis or a shared sorrow like the assassination of John F. Kennedy or 9/11. And, because of that experience, we assume that as shocking as such events can be, we will bounce back. That’s the way it was. But is that the way it is now?
When I was young, the pace of these phases was slower than it is today. There were sharp jags every so often, but our culture’s main direction, while often chaotic, wasn’t inundated with the amount of conflicting information we receive today. The speed of change has accelerated so much that many try to put their feet on the brake pedal. I often hear my fellow Boomers wax poetic about the 1960s and 1970s (which were anything but optimistic). Time has a way of leveling those good and bad times. Our children, who’ve only experienced our current pace, are not immune to its effects. Depression and suicide amongst teens and young adults are at an all-time high.
Opposing messages bombard us hourly. Not only is this broadcasted to us, we actively engage each other with these contradictory ideas via social media. Boom, boom, boom. It’s debilitating. Today’s contradiction: should we get COVID booster shots? The FDA’s decision to greenlight it for people over 65 is far from a firm YES! The CDC is still monitoring the situation, and there is still a question of whether the science supports it. And, if so, when will we know? We’re looking for an answer now when we may not have one yet. Politicians and federal and state governments haven’t adjusted to this new norm any better.
The pandemic presents us with an ongoing dilemma. Forget the anti-vaxxers and vaccine-hesitants for a second. Even if you believe in science and the efficacy of vaccines, this is unfamiliar territory. Science isn’t “facts.” It represents a process by which we learn facts. And these facts can change. So, scientists may not know the answers or may differ in their opinions. And, as new information becomes available, they may even change their minds. Many accuse Dr. Anthony Fauci of flip-flopping when all he’s doing is altering his opinion based on updated findings. When scientific inquiry meets public expectations, anger ensues. For people expecting answers, this makes them anxious and suspicious. After a year and a half, many are tired and stressed with nothing definitive to go on. In the spring, we thought we might see the end of the pandemic. Euphoria broke out with talk of a new “Roaring 20s.” Then, along came the delta variant. Once again, we’re trapped in this sped-up loop of additional problems and updated solutions supplanting old ones over and over.
This acceleration of change and influx of ideas has led to greater polarization. The Constitution tells us we’re a nation of individuals with personal rights. But look what’s happening when we plant our feet firmly in our belief systems and cling to our biases. We aren’t agile enough to live with so many unknowns, so many buckle down. Our system of governance is not changing to meet this new reality and engender confidence. Our inability to address the pressing issues that divide us (affordable health care, reasonable gun control, addressing mental health, teaching critical thinking, just to name a few) led to the authoritarian presidency of Donald Trump. The Republican Party’s platform, based entirely on opposition, has kept us in the same place even after Trump has left office. Radiohead predicted this dystopian world. And here it is.
Can we acknowledge the truth of our lives right now? Unlike the game “Truth or Dare,” this is both a truth and a dare. The truth is, we are in the vortex where one idea challenges another multiple times a day. We’re overwhelmed and insecure. And that insecurity has consequences that exacerbate solutions. It’s not the data; it’s how we interpret it that’s important.
I’m also daring us to accept and use this reality to alter our lives. Not only must we survive this chaos, but we can also change our country’s trajectory by our own actions. If we don’t, we might lose it all.
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Follow the history of our country’s political intransigence from 2010-2020 through a seven-part exhibit of these posters on Google Arts & Culture.
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