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Americans are up to their necks in urgent crises, from an ever-evolving pandemic to climate disaster to supremacist autocracy, and can't bring themselves to tackle, let alone acknowledge any of them.
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Every day, it feels like we wake up to too much news. We are bombarded with announcements of new and vicious state laws, of shifting guidelines on the most recent receding wave of the pandemic, of atrocities committed half a world away before we even have breakfast. The flashpoints of this young century—federal dysfunction, state-level oppression, international conflict on a scale we have not seen in decades, and a global population on the move—seem like an introduction to chaos for a living American memory that has always been focused on its own peace. With so much to learn and so much to know, it’s no surprise that we insist that we have received a reality that is too much to understand.
So we don’t try. Instead, we collectively use our credulity and kindness, our extended empathy and sprawling interconnectedness to seek nuance and complexity in the explosion of noise. We find space for brutal dictators who could simply be missing the appropriate dose of childhood love; we are baffled by the lack of response from a grand old party when multiple elected representatives under their banner publicly cavort with white supremacists. There is always another explanation for cruelty, another rationale for bad behavior, a detail or perspective that we are missing that would make it comprehensible and thus forgivable.
Some of this is deliberate, designed to muddy the waters and delay a response. Some of it is innocent, an earnest attempt to bridge political chasms that threaten to swallow us otherwise. But regardless of the intention, all of it is chosen: We want to believe this world is too complicated to be summed up because it absolves us from seeking solutions. As long as we remain overwhelmed, it is a gift that the world is too complex to fix.
We hedge our discourse about the difficult issues of our time with “perhaps” and “maybe,” hoping that we can perpetually preempt consensus and the hard task of reaching it. Ours is a society of easy permission: Let everyone have their own source for information; burnish the idea that we are all entitled to our opinions; roll with the resentment and anger of a political minority rather than try to defuse it. Whether it is disappearing mask mandates when we have just finished burying our millionth body due to the pandemic, or the arbitrary skepticism offered to lawmakers who have explicitly and tacitly endorsed a violent coup against the federal government, we have become so afraid of jumping to the wrong conclusion too quickly that we have forgotten the risk of reaching the right answer too late.
So here is the simplest read of our current paradigm and the forces arrayed against our collective survival: We are in a global fight for multiracial democracy and self-determination against the repressive forces of authoritarianism and the regression it craves.
All of our other conflicts and conundrums derive from this battle over power and who will make the decisions that shape this next century: pandemic response; climate change; technological advancements; economic distribution; infrastructure; information and social networks; national mythologies and the harsh realities they hide. These are the battlegrounds for the sides in a conflict that has been fed by the transformations of the last hundred or so years—the tremendous leaps of progress in the 20th century have finally clashed with a reactionary force determined to claw it all back. So obsessed, so broken, so incoherent is their rage at a changing world that the child who defines their own gender is treated as much of a threat as a nation that defines its own sovereignty.
No matter how we deny, reject, and stall it, our society is neck deep in the confrontation between multiracial democracy and supremacist autocracy. The fight is on a thousand and one fronts. It is in the free speech that allows conservatives extolling the virtues of hierarchy to profit from their words while banning the stories of Black and brown accomplishments from classrooms. It is in the massive disinformation and propaganda campaigns that tear apart democratic allies and uplift repressive authoritarians. It is in the brutal starvation of Afghans and the unmarked graves of Syrians and the tested resilience of Ukrainians. It is not hidden or unfathomable, missing or incomplete; we simply do not want to look at it directly because if we can keep it murky enough, maybe we do not have to see what we must change.
Yet the deeper we go into the conflicts, the more they reveal their own solutions. We have denied our need to switch to less extractive renewable energy to forestall the worst of climate change, and now our addiction to fossil fuels holds us hostage to the authoritarian ruler of the third largest oil producer on the globe. We have mortgaged our future to enrich our present and have overleveraged our economy with unstable debt that threatens an intergenerational conflict that could decimate society. We have eschewed equality to coddle supremacy, and now find that supremacy seeks to destroy anything it cannot control, even if it comes with self-immolation.
Keep kicking the can down the road and eventually you drop off of a cliff.
We have ignored the patterns, minimized the obvious connections, erased the through lines — all in an attempt to unmake our responsibility to leave a better world for those who come after us. In return, our nagging issues have become intractable calamities. The truth of our situation is stark and simple; it is our lack of will and our empty actions that are complicated.
Our reluctance has rested on either good will or bad faith, the desire to protect people from the consequences of their decisions or protect ourselves from accountability for our own. We imagine ourselves heroic but refuse a hero’s work of accepting the cost of our limitations and failures and thus surpassing them. We insist on comity but resist understanding the sources of our unrest. It is clear now that our escape relies on embracing the reality of the conflict; the only way out is through.
We are tasked in this era not with preserving the old world but salvaging what we can for the new one. We must invest in our next spaces and selves, prepare generations for the possibilities we were denied, strengthen the structures of continuity that heal us and abandon mentalities that harm us. We must define communities not by nationality or language, race or gender, or whether they are “civilized” or chaotic, but through the voluntary work of solidarity and recognition of the incontrovertible truth of human equality. Our age has handed us a question, and depending on our answer, we will either live in the ruins of the world we loved or on the foundations of the one we imagined.
Nuance will be an essential part of building that future—but it lies in the process of progress, not in the clarity of whether a problem exists. The evidence of our issues is not in dispute; we are merely fighting over perception. Nuance, complexity, doubt, and reflection are hindrances in a war of words. Victory depends on being direct about our opponents, their intentions, and our plans to stop them.
Our collective will cannot be clouded by calls to further study or understand the reactionary rebellion to the world as it should be; it is time to act. Those who want to re-create the past are preventing our future and sowing chaos in our present. It is obvious, undeniable, irrefutable, and uncomplicated. It’s about time we accepted that.
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