It’s enough to be worried sick about the catastrophic consequences of climate change. But in this very unsettling 2023, there are daily signals of new and different threats to society as we know it. We appear to be every bit as cavalier about these new threats as we have been about global warming. With a government in permanent gridlock, what are we, the people, doing about it?
There have been many points in history when thoughtful people must have felt the world was spinning out of control, hurtling toward Armageddon. In the Fourteenth Century, the bubonic plague killed one-third of the human beings in Europe – some 25 million souls, roughly 40% of the population. William Butler Yeats spoke of a “widening gyre” in the mid-19th century, and the 20th Century witnessed two world wars, the Great Depression, the Holocaust, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
As we enjoy our leisure time in contemporary America, with food in the fridge, nice cars in the garage, and a world of entertainment in our pockets, it’s hard to argue that our moment even begins to compare with the horrors facing prior generations.
But of late I find myself in conversations with thoughtful people who are deeply unsettled about the trajectory of our society.
Feeling queasy about the prospects of humankind? You’re not cray-cray.
Signs of apocalypse are all around us… if we only choose to look.
Today people get gunned down for turning into the wrong driveway or ringing the wrong doorbell. There have been 202 mass shootings in the United States thus far in the 127 days of 2023. That’s more than one mass shooting every single day. We have more guns – some 350 million – than people.
And yet because of radically polarized politics, there is no meaningful change to our gun laws, no matter how many six-year old children are slaughtered while attending kindergarten. Our laws would give you the impression that we, as a society, care more about an individual’s right to tote an AR-15 than a child’s right to be safe and feel safe at school.
The combination of access to deadly weapons and unhinged anger is lethal. But who is to blame? We have spawned an entertainment culture that glamorizes gun violence and a “news” culture that pours gasoline on beliefs of victimization and hate. Psychologists speak of a societal PTSD… we, as a nation, have had our outrage against assault rifles in elementary schools pistol-whipped into passivity that accepts daily mass murders as simply the new abnormal.
A radically polarized society with hyper-angry militarized fringes that has more guns than people is a recipe for carnage. That we accept daily mass murders is a sign of the apocalypse.
But here’s the really crazy thing. The majority of Americans do want new, tighter gun laws. But that majority has been ineffectual in making its representatives act. The will of the majority is being ignored, and it appears powerless against the inertia and gridlock of our own government. That majority is, for all practical purposes, a silent majority.
Our financial markets are sailing directly toward a massive iceberg.
Right-wing posers pretending to be politicians in Washington may be able to prevent our government from raising the debt ceiling. No one seems to have a very clear picture of what exactly such a failure to pay our debts would entail, but speculation includes a deep global recession, halving the value of the DJIA overnight, and sending the world’s markets careening into uncertainty. In the past, cooler heads prevailed, and the posturing and brinksmanship of an impending debt ceiling vote would dissipate in compromise rather than trigger economic catastrophe.
But this time, it is different. Rogue players like Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebart are emboldened by castrating Kevin McCarthy, and they seem to see no personal downside in the ruin a debt failure would cause. Indeed, their calculus is probably that ordinary American citizens would blame Biden, the man on the bridge when the boat smashed into the iceberg.
Three gigantic banks have failed in two months, apparently due to the incompetence of bank management and the failure of regulators we pay to do the oversight they are paid to do.
It’s all part of the new abnormal.
So we now know that our economy can be held hostage by right-wing fanatics with a very questionable grip on reality, and that the people who supposedly have a grip on reality don’t. That is a sure sign of the apocalypse.
The majority of Americans do not want a pointless, needless economic catastrophe. They want their government to raise the debt ceiling. Yet we cannot be the least bit certain that our government will be able to steer clear of this iceberg.
And the majority sits patiently and hopes for the best, in silence.
The odds are extremely high that a former President of the United States will soon stand accused of a cluster-f of felonies, ranging from interference in our free and fair elections to stealing top secret documents, to leading a coup to overthrow the government of the United States of America. The only President to have been impeached twice, and one of a small group who failed to win a second term, he nonetheless is the overwhelming favorite to be nominated by his party for the third consecutive time.
Why is this happening? It is now proven fact that one of the largest self-described “news organizations” in the country has routinely spread false misinformation and disinformation about the legitimacy of the 2020 election to pump up its ratings. Fox viewers have never been told that Donald Trump’s claims that the election was rigged or stolen were lies. So they do not view him as they should: a loser who is destined to lose again. If they perceived that correctly, they would probably not renominate him.
So for all of its lying, Fox News did nothing to undo the results of the 2020 election, and may have ensured that the Republican Party would not move on from its losing candidate. Nice work, Fox.
But for the rest of us: the realization that a man who tried to overthrow the United States government will very likely be nominated yet again is a sure sign of the apocalypse. That a supposed “news network” that spouts more lies than Pravda can continue unabated, unpunished, and unrepentant is a sure sign of the apocalypse.
And yet we, the people, can do nothing to mitigate the societal carnage caused by professional liars on mass media. It is all part of the new abnormal.
Computer scientists who have worked in A.I. for years are now screaming from the rafters that this technology is on track to out-think human beings in a matter of years, not decades. So far, all we have heard is that this might result in fewer lawyers (which some think might not be a bad thing), and that movie scripts will be soon be written by bots who are trained to make other bots laugh uproariously.
What we have not been hearing enough of is this: soon, a hostile nation or rogue malevolent actor will be able to equip a warehouse of servers with A.I. software that is “smarter than humans,” and will set those A.I. computers on the task of hacking into every major bank, energy provider, and communications company in the world. Man vs. machine, and the machine is smarter, more powerful, and never gets tired. Who wins?
But it is not simply the specter of A.I. falling into the hands of malevolent actors that has the computer scientists spooked. The real problem is the potential that some form of A.I. itself becomes the controlling agent. Geoffrey Hinton, the computer scientist who is considered the “godfather of A.I.,” addressed the issue at MIT’s EmTech Conference. “These things will have learned from us, by reading all the novels that ever were and everything Machiavelli ever wrote, how to manipulate people. Even if they can’t directly pull levers, they can certainly get us to pull levers.”
Spend ten minutes on Google and find out just how many computer scientists – in addition to Hinton -- believe that A.I. has the potential to end civilization. Spend another hour googling and find out many are not sure what can be done about it. It is extremely unnerving to read Hinton’s own uncertainty. “I wish I had a nice simple solution I could push, but I don’t. I’m not sure there is a solution.”
The sudden dawning of recognition that computers are actually on a fast trajectory toward overwhelming human intelligence – and the fact that this is not an urgent priority of our government -- is a sure sign of the apocalypse.
Who is thinking about this? Why does every company in the world have a Chief Technology Officer, but the United States of America does not have a cabinet level official focused wholly on the ever-accelerating impact of technology on every facet of our lives? What are we doing to make sure that the 'HAL 9000 from "2001: A Space Odyssey" does not become the new – and permanent -- abnormal?
We, as a society, are accepting the new abnormal wherever we turn:
There is no indication that civilization learned enough from one global pandemic to protect itself from the next one.
The previous administration ripped children from their parents at our southern border. Now, with the good guys in charge, our country still has no sane plan for dealing with immigrants.
86% of young Americans want to become a “social influencer.” Huh? What happened to doctor? Lawyer? Engineer?
Private wealth has never been more concentrated in the hands of fewer, more selfish, greedier, and more soulless people. The collective wealth of the richest 735 people in the United States is greater than the 150,000,000 least wealthy.
A woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy is considered murder by pretty much the same people who think that the ubiquity of guns has nothing to do with our obscene per-capita homicide rate.
Our supposedly august Supreme Court, it turns out, is just a bunch of slimy politicians with a hidden agenda and a hand in the till.
A shockingly immature 21-year-old lost, lonely, online loser has access to our most sensitive military secrets and can distribute them across the internet without being detected.
We are providing enough military assistance to Ukraine to keep fighting a war but not enough assistance to win it. An increasingly desperate Russia is now routinely raising the specter of using nuclear weapons, making the Ukraine war the most serious risk of nuclear Armageddon since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. For fifty years, we have relied on the notion that mutual assured destruction ensures that sane actors will not initiate nuclear war. What happens when Vladimir Putin can no longer be considered sane?
It is all part of the new abnormal.
Oh, yes. Global warming. Estimates range from dark to downright dire, but the earliest prediction I have encountered for when global warming will destroy civilization as we know it is 2050. Given the laundry list of imminent catastrophes noted above, I am beginning to worry less about Global Warming. We’ll be lucky if we live long enough to experience it.
And now, the bad news.
I do believe that Joe Biden and his team want to do the right thing.
But Biden’s intelligent half of our government is forced to try to address these huge, terrifying issues while the stupid half of government is consumed with what bathroom a trans person should use, on how to systematically attack “woke” behavior, and a feverish, all-consuming lust to know what is really on Hunter Biden’s laptop. There is actually a bill before the North Carolina legislature to ban the awarding of “participation trophies.”
You are not imagining it… there is a whole lot of crazy going on in our country and in our world today. We are living in the new abnormal.
But here is the craziest part of all: the majority of Americans are letting it happen. The majority of Americans are going along with the madness. We are not screaming with outrage at the AR-15s, the right-wing bomb-throwers, the rigged-election liars, and the global warming deniers.
The majority of Americans are enabling the new abnormal by not fighting it.
Last century, when we faced all those terrifying threats to humanity, we came together as the world’s leading nation. We were led by serious people – Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy -- and we responded to their urgent calls for action. Both parties saw the dangers, and no one pretended the threats were not real.
In the past fifty years, we the people have allowed racism to flourish, guns to proliferate, greed to prevail, ignorance to metastasize, lying to become accepted, and – above all – abdication and sloth to replace involvement and belief.
Fifty years ago, the term “silent majority” was coined by one of Richard Nixon’s speechwriters to glorify a voting segment of lemmings who believed whatever the government told them about Vietnam.
Today, our “majority” once again disagrees with our government on guns and abortion, and no one wants a needless economic catastrophe. But we are allowing the government to fail us.
We have become the new silent majority.
Because we are accepting the new abnormal.
The answer is difficult, but it is not to be found in Geoffrey Hinton’s befuddled surrender.
There is an answer in a democracy, and – maddeningly – it is always the same.
The answer is for all of us to get involved.
Pick your battle.
Find the sign of the apocalypse that most terrifies you, and start doing something about it.
Find an organization. Volunteer. Donate. Get Democrats elected wherever you can. Do something.
Because right now, the new silent majority is enabling the new abnormal.
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