Is the world is going to hell in a handbasket?

This week the world seemed to be well down the road to hell in a handbasket.

Artwork by Plognark Creative Commons license

There is, I think, no need to recap the events that have been flooding social media and news feeds. If this is the shape of where things are going, I despair for the world.

What’s going on? What the fuck is going on?

These events, of course – including the near nuclear war crisis in the Pacific – have not stood in isolation. The world has been heading downhill for a while; and each new step down has been normalised. We seem to be seeing a confluence of issues, brewing up over the past 10-15 years. We can point to proximate causes, but I suspect there is something deeper going on – a wider change in the overall nature of societies.

What worries me is that evil is such a fundamental part of the direction. In a way it isn’t surprising. Evil is innate to the human condition. It’s the larger part, the one that offers best rewards. The reward mechanisms of revenge, of asserting power over others – especially if their ability to fight back has been taken away from them – all trump the mechanisms of good. Unless we’re wary.

The execution of Louis VXI in Paris, 1793. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

I recently wrote a novella, published a few weeks back, exploring some of the issues associated with a society that had slipped into totalitarian madness, where its citizens allowed their fears and hatreds to guide their ethics. I based it on Robespierre’s Terror – the moment when the French went through their ‘Nazi authoritarian’ phase. And the question was – what happens when those who might oppose such evil start bickering among themselves instead? What would somebody caught in the middle do?

The phenomenon of societies turning totalitarian is common enough across human history, even in recent western context; Elizabeth I’s police state, Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth, the French Revolution, Tsarist Russia, Nazi Germany and Stalinist Soviet Union among others. It appears to be a function of the way large societies work in specific circumstance. A dictator gives permission for people to unleash their dark side – and wham. Everyday citizens, those with good hearts and a proper sense of moral compass, suffer.

What’s the answer? It’s surprisingly simple. Kindness, tolerance and forgiveness are all virtues. As a species, we need to uplift each other – to accept and draw strength from our differences, and move forward together. All of us.

Of course it’s easy to say this. Doing it is quite a different matter. But it’s a challenge that humanity as a whole must tackle.

Copyright © 2017 Matthew Wright



9 thoughts on “Is the world is going to hell in a handbasket?

  1. I agree the situation is getting worse, but having watched a series of WWII documentaries recently I don’t think it’s anywhere near as horrifying as that period of time, or for previous generations when so many atrocious policies were in place.

    From my side, in the UK, the austerity measures imposed by the Tories have been horrendous in terms of future prospects, but the standard of living is reasonably high (especially compared to my parent’s time in post-war Manchester). We all have laptops and Netflix etc. Culture keeps us ticking over.

    What I am seeing, which disturbs me greatly, is online movements contorting facts, so we have the people who genuinely think the holocaust is nonsense, or the Nazi party is the definition of left wing values. This propaganda is being spread rapidly, so we’re clearly at a point where a demagogue is going to shine above common sense due to economic issues (as seen here in England with Brexit, which is ultimately going to be a disaster – it seems). A key point will be it Trump sees out his second tenure as da main man.

    Have you watched Dunkirk, by the way? I’d be pleased to know what you think!

    1. Yes, the ‘recency effect’ tends to blind us a bit to the fact that there have been other times when things ran downhill and catastrophe seemed to be just around the corner. Michael Moorcock captured the mind-set pretty well in terms of the ‘crisis’ of the early seventeenth century (which featured an ISIS-like rampage by a ‘Swedish’ mercenary army of thugs and goons across Europe) in ‘The War Hound and the World’s Pain’, which is a marvellous novel. What worries me is that the last major catastrophe was within living memory – and as you say, there are people who try to contort its realities to suit a current agenda. Ouch.

      I haven’t seen Dunkirk yet – keep meaning to, time has been against me. I need to get on to it before it vanishes off the cinemas.

      1. Recency Effect is a new one on me, I’m always so impressed by your intelligence and knowledge! Which major catastrophe are you referring to, of interest, as I think of Chernobyl as I was growing up (and the so obviously covered up results).

        I enjoyed Dunkirk a lot, for what it is. I’m not patriotic – it covers a moment in time when everything seemed to be collapsing.

        1. The recency effect is when the latest event falsely assumes greater proportion in the mind than past events. Humans do it automatically – largely, I think, because the ‘past’ event has been resolved and the issue is how to deal with the current one. Sorry, I was a bit ambiguous about the last crisis… I was thinking of a general crisis across the world in which multiple nations/areas/peoples faced what appeared to be imminent disaster or decline, largely on the back of the way human societies seem to behave as a whole (which is different from individual). The last big one was in wake of the First World War when the ‘old European order’ collapsed and the world seemed to be teetering on the brink of totalitarianism – and the nature of that totalitarianism then led to the most apocalyptic human disaster and the worst crimes against humanity that the world has ever seen. Luckily the democracies won… just. It wasn’t automatic by any means and the civilised world came very close to losing (as the events of Dunkirk underscore!).

  2. The world has certainly gone mad, and it keeps getting more and more scary.

    I think it is related to changes in society all over the world. As the world gets more secular, more progressive, and so on, traditional minded people – or perhaps, authoritarian people – are feeling threatened to see their way of life being challenged. For example, having Obama in the White House for eight years upset many racists, both overt and covert. It also rattled conservatives to have such liberal policies in our country for eight years. ISIS and other strands of Islamic extremism seems to be a reaction towards secularism spreading.

    As a result, there’s a lot of anger and fear towards all these changes. Conspiracy theories abound about a “New World Order”, George Soros, and so much more. When there’s that much fear and anger, violence is set to be in the works. For lack of a better phrase, there’s a ticking time bomb, and it is going off, day by day.

    It is scary. I live in NYC, where 9/11 happened nearly 16 years ago. That event was a good example of a reaction to a changing world. I also live in a liberal bubble here in NYC, where the support of conservative views is not done often. All of this anger, retaliation against liberalism, racism, etc., seems to have come out of nowhere.

    Anyway, this is all very scary and I’m not sure what can be done to stop all this madness. I guess just hope and pray, if you are the type. And in the meantime, without wanting to sound like a total hippie – spread peace and love. When the time bomb goes off – and it will! – at least know you did all you could to counteract the hate.

    1. What worries me is that the virtues of kindness, generosity, tolerance and reason are all self-evident – but as a species we seem to be geared to apply them only to those any individual identifies as ‘us’. The ability to de-humanise and demonise everybody else, defined as ‘not our group’, seems to be innate. It surfaces in all sorts of ways, even down to stupid arguments between academics, and it seems to be entwined with ego and senses of self-worth. The issue we face, as a species, is finding ways of extending the virtues we all have within us to encompass the whole of humanity – not just a select micro-cosm of it. I suspect I am not the first to think of this…

      1. In principle we have to attack the ideas we object to, not the people themselves. But as people we invest so much energy in ideas that we don’t often separate the concepts from their existence as mortal, fellow members of the same species.

        1. I agree. Too many people entwine abstract ideas with their sense of personal self worth. Gives an unreal power to the concept. If only, as a species, we could separate the two. (I can’t help thinking that Spock pointed the way out of that one…) 😀

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