Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Better Than Despair

If you haven't read Jack Layton's last letter, I encourage you to do so. Even if you didn't agree with the man or his politics, I believe that the thrust of his letter is such that it's valuable across the political spectrum. Like Layton himself, the letter represents a fundamentally optimistic view, that "we can be a better, fairer, more equal country by working together. Don't let them tell you it can't be done."

There's no recourse to fear in it, which is only natural - even during the election, the NDP's campaign materials hewed toward the hopeful side of the spectrum, while it was the Conservatives that aimed straight for the fear centers with rhetoric like "Canada is an island in a sea of chaos." That's important today, I think, more so than it's been for a while. Because these aren't only trying times, but times have been trying for so long that people are starting to buckle with the strain. Rips in the social fabric are becoming more and more prominent.

"Love is better than anger," Layton wrote. "Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair." He's right... but what he doesn't say is that hope is harder than fear, and optimism is more difficult than despair. Sometimes it seems that pessimism comes naturally to humanity, which isn't all that shocking, when you consider that hundreds of thousands of years ago, pessimism - or, at the least, a disinclination to sit back and be assured that the world would deliver what was needed - could have been a survival trait. Within reason.

In recent years, though, I feel as if a profound sense of pessimism has sunk into mainstream culture - and by "recent years" I mean the entirety of the twenty-first century thus far. The last time I can remember a general cultural agreement that things were just awesome and would continue to do so was early 2000, before the dot-com crash and ensuing recession. A year later, the September 11 attacks, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the steadily creeping security focus of Western governments precluded any significant renaissance of optimism. The economic crash made pessimism more of a fact of life, and with today's headlines filled with stories of panicky herds of sheep-like investors and speculation about another recession - because, you know, the last one wasn't enough - there's no sense that things are going to get better any time soon.

Ducks are also better than despair.

Personally, I think this ties in with the disappearance of the future as something to look forward to, something to strive toward. There was a time, not so long ago, where the future was something that was going to change the world, was going to deliver better lives for everyone, was going to be glorious. That all changed once the future - that is, the twenty-first century - got off the plane and picked up the twentieth century's baggage. Culturally speaking, I don't feel as if there's any sense that the future is going to be anything special anymore - if anything, the seems to be a sense that tomorrow is going to be worse than today. While this isn't an unusual perspective in the grand sweep of history, it's a dramatic reversal of the last hundred years of cultural expectations.

It feels like we've settled for mediocrity and are retreating into the past. Whenever I'm in public now, I find women wearing those off-the-shoulder shirts imported direct from the 1980s - and I hear even legwarmers are coming back into style now. The neo-Victorian steampunk ethos is slowly approaching the social mainstream. The past is known, it's comfortable to many people, and - presuming that you ignore that vast, staggering social problems and inequalities that made the actual past an incredibly unpleasant place for huge sections of society - it's a place where you can be optimistic. Where you can forget about the future we're heading towards and try to create a new one instead.

It's easy to fear the future, because we don't know what's going to happen. It's easy to have despair for the future, because it will take long, difficult work to solve the problems we've got today. It's easy to forget that the difficult things in life are those most worth doing.

Hope and optimism are better things, and we still have a chance to use them in building a better world. All we need is the will to do so - because it can be done.

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