One variant of this phenomenon, exacerbated by our former President, rejects the outcome of the election and, more fundamentally, the profound changes in US and global society wrought by technology, mobility, and economic growth. The overlap with the first group is unsurprising.
Our ability to tolerate change, particularly adverse change, is limited. As with death and other modes of trauma, the most common first reaction is denial, followed shortly by anger. Denial manifests in the construction of an alternate past in the hope that the future will build off of that mythos, rather than stay on its current trajectory. Thus, the spate of recent legislative proposals to politically constrain what is taught in schools and colleges. Thus, the Arizona electoral “audit.” Thus the other “conspiracy theories” ranging from malevolent Chinese virus-mongers to Q-Anon’s on-going rant about Liberal child-molesters (who, as the latest incarnation of the Illuminati) control the world.
All of this brings to mind one of my favorite lyrics from my youth, in Jackson Browne’s “Fountain of Sorrow” (1974):
And while the future's there for anyone to change, still you know it seems
It would be easier sometimes to change the past.
Now, it’s not so clear that our current political tensions can be attributed to Browne. Indeed, I’d be surprised if many “(fill-in-the-blank) deniers” were even aware of his song. But they do seem to be animated by the same desperate angst.
Fear of change will do that. Alas for those of us who live in the “modern” era (the past few hundred years when, as Karl Marx said: “all that is solid, melts into air.”) Indeed, modern change, at an apparently ever-accelerating pace, is likely the major cause of stress and mental illness in the 20/21C. Whether in terms of globalization, technology, employment, or social mores (including gender and race), it’s a lot; and a lot of people are overwhelmed (afraid, angry).
While I share concerns that these type of changes could overstress our society as a whole, I am most concerned with the looming environmental catastrophe (both climate change and ecosystem disruption) in light of many folks inability to cope.
Let’s be clear: We, as a species, are facing an unprecedented emergency whose impacts in the medium term (i.e. 20-50 years) will likely dwarf wars and all the other disasters we have faced over the past 5,000 years—combined! I need not rehearse the litany of short-term manifestations, but I suspect that twenty years from now we will look back wistfully and say: “ Remember when we thought 2021 was tough.”
The extent to which we will have to change is mind-boggling. Ever since the Bible portrayed man as dominating the Earth, a species-centrism, hyped up the Western Scientific Revolution/Enlightenment’s enshrinement of material/technological “progress,” has made man the measure of all things. But, just as Copernicus and Galileo showed that the Earth was not the center of the Universe, and Darwin showed that humans were but one branch of the tree of creation, we have been struggling with our loss of status. One need not go all the way towards a “Gaia hypothesis” to realize that a human attitude that “It’s all about us,” as if we were some preening/pouting adolescent, won’t cut it anymore.
The epistemological change required is profound and, in an important way, existential. It is understandable that many of those who feel overwhelmed by social change feel that their existence, at least in the sense of their understanding of themselves and the world, is at risk from those changes. Indeed, one could argue that their “burn-the-bridges” mentality is a sensible (necessary?) response to that type of threat.
Even without these social changes, the environmentally-mandated epistemological change is daunting and disorienting and would, in the absence of catastrophe, likely take a few hundred years to permeate. Climate denial is thus an unsurprising response; and is of a piece with vaccine-rejectors and “stop-the-steal”-ers who marched in Washington on January 6. While we might hope that normal social evolution would, in the course of a few generations, leave them in the rear-view mirror along with the defenders of hereditary power, slavery, and misogyny.
Unfortunately, we don’t have time.
An interesting piece in the NYT last month raised the question of whether US democracy was up to handling the climate crisis. It wasn’t optimistic. Neither am I. And it is no comfort that the shortcomings are neither unique to the US, nor to democratic governance. Nor is the problem the competitiveness and insularity of nation-states. Those things complicate the situation, but the root-cause remains at a personal, pre-political level. Changes in behavior are necessary, to be sure; but they ride on changes in attitude. Leadership on the political, moral, and educational (beyond scientists) fronts would help, but as demonstrated by vaccination/mask-wearing levels, they would have limited effectiveness.
Some people will change individual behaviors. Solar and wind farms will sprout. Disasters and famines will, eventually, scare enough people that policies will change. Noble values and freedoms will, at some point, be prioritized at a lower level than fundamental social preservation. In the meantime, we need to shift our framework from prevention to mitigation.
We might also spare a thought for reconstruction. We can’t go back to “normal” and some extensive rethinking of society, economics, and ethics will be necessary. These will be the challenges of the late 21/early 22C. They won’t be easy. Perhaps they, too, will think that it is easier to change the past.