The End of Innocence

In your own language

Eduardo del Buey
Foto: Reuters
La Jornada Maya

Miércoles 2 de agosto, 2017

Last week, I turned sixty-five.

One of the rites of passage is to evaluate the past I leave behind and look towards the future I face.

I grew up in the Canada of the fifties and sixties.

It was an age of conformity.

People trusted their governments and media, and had hope for the future.

When John F. Kennedy became President of the United States, it seemed that the age of Camelot was upon us. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country” was the mantra. People felt part of something bigger than themselves.

Government was there to help, and it seemed poised to do so. Liberalism was at its highest point since the Great Depression and its aftermath in the 1930’s, and the only challenges to the system were the inherent racism in many countries against those of African descent, and the opposition to democratic ideals by the communist bloc led by the Soviet Union, however imperfect those ideals were at the time.

This beginning of the end of this dream was brought on by three bullets in Dallas on November 22, 1963, and continued as the United States became mired in Vietnam, which especially disaffected youth.

The age of conformity gave way to an era of confrontation. During the sixties, the cultural revolutions took hold in the imaginations of the young in Europe and the Americas, and the music and values of the times reflected that reality.

The United States had its summers of fire, its assassinations, its race riots, and the confrontation between supporters and opponents of the war in Vietnam.

Paris had its riots in 1968, as did Mexico and other countries.

Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Soviet Union, putting an end to whatever dreams communism could have held for an increasingly disillusioned youth.

The threat of nuclear war began to give way to the threat of terrorism.

War was no longer fought between two uniformed enemies on a battlefield, but, increasingly, on the streets of our cities, with civilians no longer immune. Violence became the answer to all ills despite the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and this phenomenon has followed us to this day.

In the succeeding decades, disenchantment with government and authority continued set in, and politics took an ugly turn. Media, correctly, no longer toed the government line but openly exposed previously hidden scandals. While it was the right thing to do, this led to an even greater erosion of public confidence in their institutions.

Where politicians once sought to unite people, they now, increasingly, turned to the politics of division to gain and hold on to power.

Technology was seen as the great hope for the future, a way to bring the world together. The first computers gave way eventually to our current hi-tech devices, and television evolved into the Internet.

Once again, hopes were dashed.

Today we all seem to be shouting simultaneously, and cyberspace is full of noise. The educational opportunities created by the networked globe, like most things in nature, have been complemented by the dark web – a cyber place where arms, drugs, hatred, and lives are traded, and where terrorists plot their next attacks.

Sometimes it seems as though monologues have replaced dialogue.

Although we all have the ability to speak on a global level, we seem to have lost the ability to listen to others, and understand their point of view. Cyberspace seems to have divided people even more, with false news replacing the truth, and false leaders use “alternative facts” to create divisions and sow hatred amongst their followers.

Globalization was seen as the great hope for a more equitable world. Yet the plethora of free trade agreements has indeed created massive job losses and greater inequality between different economic and social strata, giving rise to a new and virulent populism that seems to have taken hold in many contemporary societies. Governments have not yet found the formula for translating macro-economic growth into micro-economic benefits for all.

Now I am sixty-five.

What world is my generation leaving for my son?

Today we see a major restructuring of the world we once knew. The leadership of the West and its democratic values is being complemented by other centers of power whose concerns are more hegemonic and material than the ideals of twentieth century liberals.

Canada, France, and Germany are leading the charge to retain democratic and pluralistic governments, and engage in global leadership. President Trump, on the other hand, appears to be leading the United States towards a more isolationist position, and seems to be attacking democratic allies while supporting more authoritarian governments such as Poland, Turkey, Egypt, and Russia. Recent speeches at NATO underscore this trend, as does the Trump administration decision to walk away from the Paris Climate Accords.

People once again seem to be willing to abandon freedom of expression and respect for human rights for some form of supposed security, forgetting Benjamin Franklin’s warning centuries ago that those who give up liberty for security deserve neither.

The media in many cases seem to prefer replacing truthful and accurate reporting with shilling for interest groups on the right or the left. Media today seem to be evolving into entertainment outlets, more concerned with ratings than with the truth. Politics have gone from respect for the opinions of others to a zero-sum game. And in many cases, opponents are now seen as the enemy rather than the opposition.

Racism is rearing its ugly head to a greater level once again as migration and the refugee crisis arising out of war and violence affect Europe and North America. The “other” has become the enemy, and the law of the jungle seems to be overtaking humanism. Instant communications are exacerbating this trend.

So, is there any hope?

Perhaps.

But people will have to abandon their monologues on social media and engage in true communications, sharing ideas and visions, motivating each other to learn more about the world in which we live and the future we want. Media will have to once again be responsible for shaping minds and not for propagating hatred and ignorance.

Leaders will have to assume their responsibilities and truly lead forward in a way that is inclusive for all and not just a sector of society. They must create and promote policies that will result in global cooperation. A world with an environment that is sustainable and generous for all, and for all time.

I grew up in a time of greater certainty. It is time to create social and educational systems that prepare the young, and not so young, to adapt to and flourish in changing realities.

It is time to create a new certainty, one in which all have access to a better future.

That is my only certainty as I turn sixty-five.