Back in September, I wished everyone a Happy New Year, according to the nature-based French Revolutionary calendar. We have now arrived at the end of one year and the beginning of another, based on an arbitrary calendar. By the Revolutionary calendar, January 1 is nothing more than the eleventh day of Nivôse, the snowy month, but it is a date on which a lot of people are looking back and looking forward in an attempt to make sense of both the past and the future.
Usually, when we humans attempt to predict what will happen in the coming year, we try to understand the past year. But if we have learned anything from the past year, it is that our future will follow a largely arbitrary trajectory. Was there any progress on rebuilding our economy or on preventing global warming or on enhancing science literacy? It doesn’t matter, because for any reason or for no reason Congress can simply decide to cause our economy to collapse. They actually started the process in October, taking us a few hours into government default, just to prove to us that they could. They want us to remember that they have the knife to our throats. Therefore, to use just this example, default is not something that might occur as a result of deficit spending or of depleted resources or of not taking care of long-term environmental problems, but something that extremists in Congress can impose arbitrarily. How can one possibly plan ahead for that?
Therefore, many people look ahead into 2014 with a numb astigmatism. We know that some emergency will come along, but we cannot guess what it will be. We must remain tensely vigilant, ready for anything, and as far as we know, we have to remain under these stressful conditions forever. We will not be able to see the emergency until it arrives. It was bad enough to have nearly insurmountable long-term problems, and to be prepared for the actions of crazy dictators and extremists, but now we also have to consider our own unpredictable government.
All you have to do to see this vision of a future filled with unpredictable emergencies is to go to the movies. My family and I went to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The main thing that happened in this movie was that the good people (humans, elves, and dwarves) slashed and impaled orcs. The orcs looked like half-decomposed monsters. The special effects were good, but after about the six hundredth orc was killed, I was pretty much satiated, even though the movie was only half over.
I believe that The Hobbit, as well as several 2014 movies whose previews we saw, reflect the kind of conflict that many people anticipate for the immediate future. After all, studios do not make expensive movies unless market research shows that millions of people will be attracted to them. And not necessarily to enjoy them. People sometimes go to movies to deal with the demons inside their minds. Specifically, in these movies:
· The conflicts consist of totally unpredictable attacks. Gandalf could sense that something evil was emerging from under the earth, but no further prediction was possible. You cannot anticipate these conflicts.
· The foes are incomprehensibly evil. They seem motivated primarily by their love for evil, which makes them even more unpredictable. And they are all alike. The orcs all look nearly alike and have the same voice and the same feelings. You cannot negotiate with them collectively nor can you find even one of them who is not totally evil and with whom you might be able to reason.
· The governments are totally dysfunctional. The elves cared only about their walled kingdom, and the humans dwelling beside the lake had an inept and hedonistic king. The only possibility of salvation was from little militia groups (in this case, a little band of dwarves) taking matters into their own hands.
· The response can be only to slash the evil foes early, often, and perhaps forever. There is no time to negotiate or understand; if you hesitate for even a moment before slashing, you will be dead.
It occurred to me that this is the kind of future that the moviegoers anticipated for 2014. Our government will not deal with or perhaps even admit any predictable long-term issues such as global warming or gun violence or immigration, and are likely to create new and unpredictable conflicts; we cannot trust our government to deal with any emergencies that come along, even those that they themselves create; and the only possible response is to remain stressed-out, ready to instantly respond to emergencies by extreme and perhaps violent measures, on our own. We know we have to get and keep our own personal finances in shape, because we cannot individually succeed if we do not; but we cannot know whether personal financial wisdom will keep us alive in a chaotic economy. Over the long term, many people actually expect a dystopia, a grim future in which there is no altruistic society but in which each individual, or each little band of people, has to look out for himself or itself. If our popular entertainment is any guide, a lot of people actually expect to descend into a future of chaos.
Few people will openly admit this. Financial and policy prognosticators make it sound like we know where we are going and how to get there. That’s their job. And Congress wants us to think that they have suddenly become good people. They want us to think that the budget deal worked out by Republican Paul Ryan and Democrat Patty Murray is the beginning of a Congressional lovefest during which Republicans and Democrats will become comrades. But, as indicated by the kinds of movies we will be seeing in 2014, deep down we anticipate that the future is an incoherent mass of emergencies for which we cannot prepare.
Oh, and Happy New Year. Actually, it might be a happy year. But if it is, it will be because we got lucky. We should all plan ahead responsibly, and be kind to our fellow humans, and tread lightly upon the Earth—because it is the right, and satisfying, thing to do, not because it will guarantee success.