Nothing brakes the train of progress and learning more effectively than apocalyptic panic.
After a week at this month’s conference near Baltimore, I’m returning to Miroslav Volf’s latest book, Flourishing: Why we need religion in a globalized world. (I wrote about Flourishing briefly earlier this month, and you can still join the group that’s reading it this summer.)
Chapter 1 includes extensive quotes from Marx’ and Engels’ 1848 Communist Manifesto. These authors, both younger than me when they wrote, imagined that burgeoning global capitalist industrialism would so spin the world into crisis that a communist social structure could not only emerge but also be welcomed.
Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” —Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, in Volf, p. 30
A bit dramatic, no?
Whether the world is dissipating before our eyes and whether everything is terrible seems to depend on who we ask, which scales of time or scope we have in mind, and whether we’ll accept the facts.
Because there are still facts.
Scientist and writer Steven Pinker has reviewed international and inter-personal violence trends and announced that, headlines notwithstanding, violence is in decline around the world. Other authors concur. Of the US, Marian Tupy writes, “the homicide rate is now at a 51-year low.” Trends for terrorism are similar. Seismologists record more kinds of earthquake more often, but according to the British Geological Survey and California’s Department of Conservation, large earthquakes aren’t happening more frequently than in the past, and deadly earthquakes are becoming rarer due to a combination of better building construction and stronger disaster response and mitigation planning.
That’s not the impression anyone would get from the conventional bad-news industry or from most Christian televangelism. In the news industries’ case, a steady stream of bad news means a steady stream of nervous viewers and support from advertisers who use consumer anxiety to prime us for sales. In the televangelism industry’s case, angst about natural and human disasters makes us receptive to teachings about a better world to come and faith that can protect us during a deeply uncertain and discomforting era.
Over the last decade, I’ve done a fairly good job of not supporting media outlets that trade in social or moral panic, and I can largely avoid religious rhetoric that does the same. But because of the branch of Christianity I work with, I still sometimes catch accounts of “worse and worse.” It’s hard to know how to respond.
That anyone suffers in street, state violence, earthquake, or famine speaks to me of an urgent need to repair this world. It doesn’t inspire me to pine for an end to this world. I grant that every transformation is a sort of ending, but a transforming apocalypse is rarely the kind of apocalypse promoted around me. Instead, many of the evangelists in my tradition promote their vision of a judging, destructive apocalypse, one that morally “cleanses” the planet with mass death.
When all information is freely available at the click of a mouse, our attention naturally nosedives in the sickest and most grotesque we can find.” —Mark Manson, July 28
Direct surveillance via cellphone videos or indirect surveillance through embedded network news teams brings us all the current affairs we can stand. And in this time of attention saturation, we still get to choose the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about what’s happening.
Are we spinning stories to reinforce fear, escapism, and futility? Are we using the facts to inspire constructive action for ourselves and others today?