It's the End of the World, and I Feel Fine
Humankind is a pestilence, and other happy thoughts.
Have you seen the news that Australia has recently added a new color to their weather maps to indicate temperatures above 50 Celsius (122 Fahrenheit)?
It’s purple, the color of a three-day-old bruise.
2012 was also the hottest year on record in the U.S. by a full degree.
Our United States Congress is in the midst of a fight about whether or not the country should pay for things its already bought. The debate over gun safety is…well, I don’t want to get into it because honestly, what’s the point?
Big picture-wise, I am a bit of a pessimist when it comes to humanity. Really, as far as I’m concerned, we’re a pestilence hell-bent on destroying each other and the Earth itself in the process. Maybe that’s more than pessimistic. To my mind it’s realism.
These issues above in addition to all kinds of other things are my evidence.
It’s human nature that’s the problem, really. “Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.”
The television show The West Wing has recently been added to Netflix, and I’ve been binging on episodes. It’s hard for me to believe that it dates to the Clinton administration, except that it first aired fall of 1999. The opening several episodes have a subplot involving proposed gun control legislation. In the West Wing universe, the weapon used by Adam Lanza in Newton and the killer of two firefighters in New York was already banned, so the debate was about other issues. The White House is a vote short of passing the legislation and chief of staff Leo McGarry goes looking for it with an African-American congressman representing an unnamed urban district who is against the bill because it doesn’t go far enough. He sees it as window dressing, a political move to bolster the president’s flagging popularity. Leo lectures the congressman about how the guns are primarily being used to kill black youths, and that the bill, as imperfect as it is, is an important first step towards a larger solution.
Because it was a network show, the congressman doesn’t tell Leo to go F himself, but that was the gist. He wasn't prepared to vote for a symbol that he didn’t think was going to effect any real change.
The drama of The West Wing often seems to be about this tension, the practical and possible colliding with the ideal. In another episode, after the president’s personal physician and dozens of others are killed by a terrorist attack emanating from Syria, the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommend a “proportional response.” President Bartlet demands plans for a “disproportional response” that will bring “god’s own thunder” down upon the perpetrators and those surrounding them.
The president decides against the “disproportional response” when the cost in civilian casualties is brought to his attention. Before making his decision, Bartlet muses aloud to his staff about how a Roman used to be able to freely walk the Empire without fear of retribution, and seemingly longing for the same protection for Americans.
In this scenario, it’s framed that the practical (not risking world-wide condemnation) is chosen over the ideal (proving that it doesn’t pay to mess with America), but the more I watch these early episodes, the more I realize that the show is really about the competition between and among our ideals. It is not about compromising those ideas, but negotiating the different ones we hold.
As my wife and I were watching the conclusion of one of the episodes she articulated what I was thinking, namely, whether or not I thought a show like this would play in this day and age, and my answer was “no.”
It’s become increasingly hard for me to believe that when we disagree, we still mean each other well. The clash is no longer about competing ideals, but warring tribes. I don’t know how those things are possibly reconciled. Even if they were, what good would it do?
And yet, frequently, at the end of a typical episode of The West Wing, as the decisions of government, made by the people trusted to run it are made, I can feel myself getting a bit verklempt. It’s not because the side I was rooting for “won,” because who really cares about a policy dispute in a fictional presidential administration from more than a decade ago?
It’s because I’m seeing a universe where ideals matter. My ideals may not win the day, but at least in that world they have currency. I think I’m getting misty thinking about it as a form of mourning.
On its surface, teaching college seems like an odd choice for someone who thinks humanity is doomed to exterminate itself. Why bother educating subsequent generations if I don’t really believe the tide is reversible? Why work the long hours for low pay if I can't even pretend that I have even the smallest possible impact on making things better, even as I wish it was the case? In the grand scheme of things, all of this is pointless. I know that.
But I don’t live in the grand scheme. I live now. I work now. What I recognize is that I enjoy and find sustenance in teaching because it allows me to practice my ideals. I believe helping students figure out how to form their own views of the world is a good thing. I believe the experience of art, both experiencing it and trying to create it ourselves can be life-changing, at least for a moment. I believe we are smarter and wiser collectively than as individuals. I believe writing a sentence with the exact right words is a great achievement.
My ideals do not matter, except that I feel better when I’m doing my best to live by them.
In giving them word, I will not change the world, but I will at least get to live as myself.
I'm usually much less gloomy on Twitter:
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