This week, in issue #658, I discuss three more crises in my series about The Big Crisis – the Crisis of Democracy, the Crisis of Empire, and the Crisis of Climate.
My point in discussing the six crises that I’ve been discussing in this series I will explain in the next Nygaard Notes (i.e., when I figure it out!). For now I will just say that, lacking visionary leadership (or, at the moment, any leadership), solutions to these crises – and, indeed, to The Big Crisis – will have to come from the bottom up. How this will look is impossible to tell, but whatever happens will require you and me to play a part.
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The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) does so many things that nobody knows about. In 2019 a branch of the CDC called Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication put out a 16 page paper called “Psychology of a Crisis.” It was published long before the pandemic was a factor in our national life, but the following quotation is so relevant that I have declared it to be this week’s “Quote” of the Week:
“Denial can, at least in part, be prevented or addressed with clear, consistent communication from a trusted source. If your audience receives and understands a consistent message from multiple trusted sources, they will be more likely to believe that message and act on it.”
Democracy is much more than voting, but even if we limit ourselves to voting, long-term trends are troubling.
The Decline of Journalism
If an informed citizenry is the lifeblood of democracy, then the decline of journalism is bad news for the democratic process. And it’s really declining. The Pew Research Center reported in April that “Newsroom employment at U.S. newspapers continues to plummet, falling by around half since 2008.” The pandemic adds to the stress, as indicated by this April 8th headline in the Washington Post: “The Coronavirus Crisis Is Devastating the News Industry. Many Newspapers Won’t Survive It.”
Historically, most investigative journalism is done by newspapers, with television and radio serving more-or-less as headline services. So a decline in the number of newspapers creates an information vacuum. And rising up to fill the vacuum is social media, and online information more generally. But the problem with online “journalism” is neatly summarized by Kevin Kelly, a technology author and co-founder of Wired magazine: “The major new challenge in reporting news is the new shape of truth. Truth is no longer dictated by authorities, but is networked by peers. For every fact there is a counterfact. All those counterfacts and facts look identical online, which is confusing to most people.”
And thus the rise of “fake news,” misinformation, disinformation, and a new world where the validity of a narrative is based not on its factual basis, but rather on who is telling the story. So the Oxford Dictionary folks report that “After much discussion, debate, and research, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 is… post-truth. Post-truth is an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.”
The stories we believe affect HOW we vote, which is why the stories we tell ourselves (or that are told to us) are so important. But there are also longstanding forces that limit WHO can vote. The Brennan Center for Justice has long studied the issue of voter disfranchisement—sometimes called voter suppression—for years. Here are a few recent quotes from their website:
“The voting process should be simple, convenient, and fair for everyone. But millions of Americans never make it on the rolls or to the polls, while hurdles like long lines, limited voting times, or malfunctioning voting equipment block many more. Communities of color, low-income communities, students, and seniors are especially vulnerable.”
“American elections are marred by an infrastructure that is rickety, excludes too many, and is prone to partisan manipulation and deliberate voter suppression that often targets communities of color and young people.”
“Over the last 20 years, states have put barriers in front of the ballot box — imposing strict voter ID laws, cutting voting times, restricting registration, and purging voter rolls. These efforts, which received a boost when the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act in 2013, have kept significant numbers of eligible voters from the polls, hitting all Americans, but placing special burdens on racial minorities, poor people, and young and old voters.”
Demographic Good News
On the bright side, as I pointed out in the last issue of the Notes, there is the ongoing erosion of the majority status that white people have had since the founding of the United States. One profound and inevitable effect of this demographic reality is this: As the population of white voters shrinks, so will shrink the pool of voters motivated by appeals to white supremacy and xenophobia. Over time this will mean no more “Southern Strategy.” No more Willie Hortons. And, logically, it will decrease the numbers of overt white supremacists rising to positions of power at all levels, while weakening the chances of electing future Donald Trumps or other racism-reliant demagogues.
The demographic change now underway in this country is carrying us toward a future where white supremacy will lack the absolute majority that is needed to enforce its will. This change is unstoppable, and its meaning profound.
After World War II, the world system was reconstructed with the U.S. at the center. With its military and economic power undisputed, the de facto U.S. Empire relied on (as I said in Nygaard Notes #444) “a general acceptance of, if not the legitimacy of the Imperial Order, at least the inevitability of that order. Countries that wish to ‘get along’ with ‘the international community’ must give evidence of their acceptance of the rules of the game. Or else.”
Acceptance of the rules has never been unanimous, and cracks in the Imperial structure have become ever-more visible with each crisis in the new century, including the 9/11 attacks, the disastrous non-victories in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Great Recession of 2008-2009. By the time Trump came along, whispers of the end of U.S. hegemony had become shouts (albeit shouts to which few were listening), and Trumpism was born shouting back the tragi-nostalgic slogan “Make America Great Again.”
Then came The Pandemic.
Back in March, as the shape and size of the disaster began to come into focus, the inimitable journalist Patrick Cockburn voiced an early response, writing in the London Independent that “The US may be reaching its ‘Chernobyl moment’ as it fails to lead in combating the coronavirus epidemic. As with the nuclear accident in the Soviet Union in 1986, a cataclysm is exposing systemic failings that have already weakened US hegemony in the world. Whatever the outcome of the pandemic, nobody is today looking to Washington for a solution to the crisis.” The intervening months serve to underline that last sentence.
It would be easy to imagine that the pandemic—or rather the massive failure of the Trump administration in addressing the pandemic—is “the moment” that marks the end of The American Century, which is the establishment term for the period of US hegemony that began after World War II. But a systems analysis tells us that it’s not that simple. The point was well-made a few weeks ago by the ultra-establishment Council on Foreign Relations in a paper called “Perspectives on a Changing World Order.” Here are a couple of paragraphs from that paper, dated June 2020:
“Observers of world affairs like to point to a defining moment or pivotal event to proclaim the end of one era and the beginning of another. Not surprisingly, the novel coronavirus pandemic has already spawned much speculation that the world will undergo profound change as a consequence, even that contemporary history will forever be divided between what happened BC (before coronavirus) and AC (after coronavirus). Historical eras, however, and certainly international orders—the complex amalgam of rules, norms, and institutions that govern relations among states at any given time—rarely, if ever, hinge on singular events. They, and the power relationships that undergird them, are simply too entrenched to change rapidly. For this reason, it is more accurate to identify transitional periods that span the rise and fall of specific international orders. In these periods, elements of the old order are still discernible, albeit functioning below their peak, while features of the new order are clearly emerging and playing a more influential role.
“Just such a situation appears to exist today. The international order largely constructed by the United States in the aftermath of World War II is still very much in evidence … [based] on the understanding that America retains sufficient power and influence to enforce compliance. At the same time, the global distribution of power is inexorably shifting with the rise of new powers as well as influential nonstate actors, such as multinational corporations and transnational terrorist organizations. The United States is also growing more reluctant to bear the costs of world leadership [sic], especially when it comes to using military force. China and Russia, along with lesser regional powers, have taken advantage of this reticence in recent years to assert their own interests and to undermine the United States’ international standing and authority. Their actions have at times openly flouted the rules and norms of the U.S.-led order without incurring a serious price, which has demoralized its supporters and emboldened its detractors.”
As power in the world system continues to shift and the U.S. goes from the undisputed leader to being one among several regional powers, life for all of us will change. We can expect rising prices, stagnant wages and, perhaps most importantly, the U.S. dollar losing its special status in the global economy. And what else? It’s impossible to know, but we are sure to be facing a decline in living standards. And many, many struggles over who gets what.
I can’t say it better than the historian Alfred McCoy, so I’ll re-quote (is that a word?!) a statement of his that I quoted a couple of years ago. Speaking about the meaning of the ongoing decline of the U.S. empire, McCoy said:
“There will be lots of tensions that are going to occur in the society from what will be a major rewriting of the American social contract. This will not be pleasant. And arguably, I think it’s possible if we look back, we could see Trump’s election and all the problems of the Trump administration as one manifestation of this imperial decline.”
Note that McCoy does not say that Trumpism is a cause of imperial decline, but rather a manifestation of that decline.
Manifestation is an interesting word. The dictionary says it means “an event, action or thing that is a sign that something exists or is happening.” Which leads me to talk about the final crisis in this series: Global Climate Disruption.
Why is it that Global Climate Disruption – the one truly existential threat that is facing us at the moment – is not on the front pages every day?
The broadcaster David Attenborough, in a recent podcast, neatly summed up the problem: “The trouble is that right now the climate issue is seen as being rather in the distant future because we’ve got the virus to think about.” And (he may have added) we’ve got racial justice to think about. And we’ve got late-stage capitalism to think about. And we’ve got the election to think about. All of these things are happening right now, it’s true. But there is no shortage of evidence telling us that Global Climate Disruption is also happening right now.
Recall that I said in the previous article that “manifestation” means “an event, action or thing that is a sign that something exists or is happening.” With that in mind, consider the following facts:
It was a record 125 degrees Fahrenheit in Baghdad in July.
Temperatures reached 100 degrees above the Arctic Circle in June.
Last year was the wettest year on record in South Dakota.
Taken together, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Key West set over 120 combined daily warm records in 2020.
The catastrophic 2019-20 Australian bushfires charred more than 20% of the country’s forests, destroyed over 1,400 homes, and killed an estimated 1 billion animals. The smoke plume rose higher into the atmosphere than ever previously documented.
The year 2020 is on course to be the world’s hottest since measurements began.
These are all manifestations of Global Climate Disruption.
As huge as is the problem of the coronavirus, Global Climate Disruption is on track to be far, far bigger. It’s big and bad enough right now, but when we look into the future the need for action in the present moment becomes even more clear.
On August 4th the London Guardian reported that “The growing but largely unrecognized death toll from rising global temperatures will come close to eclipsing the current number of deaths from all the infectious diseases combined if planet-heating emissions are not constrained, a major new study has found.”
Think about that: If we don’t take major action, and soon, more people will be killed by Global Climate Disruption than are currently killed by all infectious diseases combined. If it’s true that this fact is “largely unrecognized,” it is the responsibility of each and every one of us to get it recognized.
To address such a mammoth problem will require revolutionary change in our sociopolitical and cultural systems. Such a change can only come about as a result of a grassroots movement that has massive popular support. Whoever is our next president, building that movement is the task at hand.