James Nowlan

James Nowlan

Stop the world, I want to get off

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By Jim Nowlan

Even though we are overall much better off than our grandparents in wealth, health and lifespan, many of us are unsettled, deeply concerned and even jittery about how the movie of life is playing out. Stop the world, I say, I want to get off.

First, some context. From reptiles to humans, we animals are continually scanning the horizon for threats and opportunities. We absolutely crave information. That is why, according to research firm Statista, Americans on average spend four or more hours a day on our smartphones. Underneath, it’s a survival thing.

JamesNowlan

James Nowlan

When television came into our homes post-World War II, the world shrank. Prior to that, we lived our lives largely confined, somewhat comfortably, to our own communities. By printed, rather impersonal newspapers we heard about earth-shaking events such as Krakatoa (1883) and recurrent wars in Europe.

Today, thousands of satellites beam happenings worldwide to our pockets and wrists almost simultaneously, overloading our brains with mayhem and scary possibilities. Unsettling.

Second, the rate of change in society has been accelerating lickety-split (a technical term). For most of human history, nothing, or very little, changed in the life span of most humans. Then, with the Renaissance in the 14-15th centuries, the Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, flight, and radio-TV, change took off. Personal computers are only a few decades old (remember the Apple computer of the 1980s?), and Facebook has been with us less than 20 years.

Third, the nano-world of science is incomprehensible to me, and thus unsettling. One thousand cells can sit side by side on a gossamer hair on the back of your hand, and within each cell is six miles of spooled DNA! And scientists can now, with some precision, snip into that coil of DNA, take out and replace defective genes. Magic.

Fourth, information sells. After all, social media and advertisers are in the eyeball business. So, the social media platforms suck us into scrolling through our devices even more of the time.

When it comes to information, fear trumps nice every time. Again, it’s a survival thing. For social media, this means, for reassurance, that on social media we tend to retreat into echo chambers of like-minded people. We come to fear and loathe those who don’t agree with us. We call it polarization.

Stop the world, I want to get off. But we can’t. So, what to do? What might calm the waters (and relieve my jitters)?

Many of us retreat to Florida and try to forget about all this. We love our grandchildren, we declare, yet leave what we have wrought for them to wrestle with.

We could use, and might follow, a charismatic leader who would take us out of this scary morass. Yet, such captivating leaders can be either good or evil, as we have seen through history.

Or we could use a secular Great Awakening, such as the two, broad, religious revivals of spirit in early American history.

Until recent years, I had hoped that Colin Powell might be that leader who would awaken the better angels of our nature. But it wasn’t to be, and I can’t think of anyone else of that reassuring, dignified and calm stature.

So, the opposite of giving up is “pitching in” to address our problems. We could start a new political party, which would be radical in the sense that its mantra would be, simply, “settle down, we can handle this, together.”

My cynical, practical friends who think they know much about politics would say that musings such as these are pure fantasy, yet they have nothing to offer in rejoinder, other than more cynicism.

I keep wrestling with this. We can’t step off the world, and we can’t give up.

James Nowlan is a retired professor of political science and former Illinois state legislator, agency director and aide to three un-indicted Illinois governors. He lives in Princeton, Ill.

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