So are things hunky-dory, or are we all gonna die?

I was struck by this contrast in The State this morning…

First, from a David Brooks column:

Widening the lens, we’re living in an era with the greatest reduction in global poverty ever — across Asia and Africa. We’re seeing a decline in civil wars and warfare generally.

The scope of the problems we face are way below historic averages. We face nothing like the slavery fights of the 1860s, the brutality of child labor and industrialization of the 1880s, or a civilization-threatening crisis like World War I, the Great Depression, World War II or the Cold War. Even next to the 1970s — which witnessed Watergate, stagflation, social decay and rising crime — we are living in a golden age.

Our global enemies are not exactly impressive. We have the Islamic State, a bunch of barbarians riding around in pickup trucks, and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, a lone thug sitting atop a failing regime. These folks thrive only because of the failed states and vacuums around them.

I mention all of this because of the despondency and passivity and talk of unraveling that floated around this summer. Now there is a mood of pessimism and fatalism evident in the polls and in conversations — a lack of faith in ourselves.

It’s important in times like these to step back and get clarity….

Then, from this feature from Carolyn Click about Rosh Hashanah starting tonight:

Jews mark the beginning of the High Holy Days at sundown Wednesday with the observance of Rosh Hoshanah, entering a time of personal reflection that comes amid a backdrop of fighting in the Arab world, a deadly Ebola outbreak in Africa and other world calamities.

“I think everyone is feeling the drumbeat of war in their ear,” Rabbi Jonathan Case, leader of Beth Shalom Synagogue on Trenholm Road, said Tuesday.

Older members of the congregation, those who lived through World War II, “feel that they have been in this place before,” Case said, “that the world seems to have gone awry. There is no doubt that people are scared.”…

Maybe Brooks is being a bit of a Pollyanna, but it would seem the Rabbi — or the people he’s referring to — are getting a tad overwrought. WWII? The Holocaust? Compared to now?

I think maybe Brooks and some of the folks at Beth Shalom should get together and compare notes…

26 thoughts on “So are things hunky-dory, or are we all gonna die?

  1. Mark Stewart

    Strategically, I am concerned about China and Ebola. All the rest of this stuff around the world is just the normal crap that has occured throughout human history.

    Today is a great day (all in all) and tomorrow is likely to be even better.

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    President Obama subscribes to both points of view. From his speech today to the United Nations:

    Today, whether you live in downtown New York or in my grandmother’s village more than two hundred miles from Nairobi, you can hold in your hand more information than the world’s greatest libraries. Together, we have learned how to cure disease, and harness the power of the wind and sun. The very existence of this institution is a unique achievement – the people of the world committing to resolve their differences peacefully, and solve their problems together. I often tell young people in the United States that this is the best time in human history to be born, for you are more likely than ever before to be literate, to be healthy, and to be free to pursue your dreams.

    And yet there is a pervasive unease in our world – a sense that the very forces that have brought us together have created new dangers, and made it difficult for any single nation to insulate itself from global forces. As we gather here, an outbreak of Ebola overwhelms public health systems in West Africa, and threatens to move rapidly across borders. Russian aggression in Europe recalls the days when large nations trampled small ones in pursuit of territorial ambition. The brutality of terrorists in Syria and Iraq forces us to look into the heart of darkness.

    I like the Conradian touch there…

    1. Bryan Caskey

      Those two paragraphs are good.

      Obama’s speech was good in parts. He did say some good things. This was supposed to be his “rally the world” speech, and it came out a little…clinical, but he said some good things. I did like this part:

      Belief in permanent religious war is the misguided refuge of extremists who cannot build or create anything, and therefore peddle only fanaticism and hate.

      YES. Good. He could have said “murders and rapists” instead of “extremists”, though. “Extremists” is so abstract. It’s so soft. We need to confront the enemy with the notion that they are not heroic. Heroes can be extreme. Killing isn’t necessarily bad. Our soldiers kill. Our President has not shied away from violence. But there’s a distinction that needs to be made.

      The difference is that the men fighting under ISIS are simply cowardly young men who are killing civilians, women and children. They don’t have anything good to offer the world; they’re frustrated young teenagers looking for respect as men. Just like we don’t like to flatter serial-killers, we should do the same thing to ISIS.

      They are not Men of Respect, as Vito Corleone might have said.

      They are low. They are not warriors. Obama is uniquely suited to bring this message home. We need to take away the respect that they crave. Quit justifying their actions, by saying: “It’s our fault for making them mad.” It’s not our fault that they are raping, murdering, and torturing.

      Expose them for what they are.

  3. Bryan Caskey

    Yeah, David Brooks probably does think we’re living in “a golden age”. He’s a ninny, who is impressed by trouser creases. From his piece, he seems to mainly base his view of our “golden age” on his life in New York City. Well, shucks. I’m sure life is pretty swell if you’re a rich guy living in New York City.

    The rest of his piece is basically how our leaders are super, but it’s just the people who have disappointed them. We underclasses just haven’t trusted and believed in our leaders enough. According to Brooks, the problem isn’t our leadership, it’s us.

    Our global enemies are not exactly impressive. We have the Islamic State, a bunch of barbarians riding around in pickup trucks…

    Huh. How about we just call ISIS a “Jayvee team”, there Brooks?

    For the record, they have tanks. Specifically T-55s (Soviet WWII tanks) and T-72s (Soviet cold-war era tanks). They also have some post-WWII artillery pieces that can fire shells quite a bit further than spittin’ distance. Having an artillery shell hit your location can really ruin your whole day.

    Most worrisome are probably the shoulder mounted SAMs (Surface-to-Air-Missiles) that ISIS has captured from the fleeing Iraqis. Specifically, ISIS probably has a few stinger missiles, which are very capable of taking down helicopters and low-flying aircraft. ISIS also probably has the Russian/Soviet equivalent (the SA-16) in slightly greater numbers. Used correctly, these have the ability to take down our aircraft.

    If you don’t think they’re working on how to take down a US aircraft, you’re fooling yourself.

    Oh, and they are likely awash in the ubiquitous AK-47, which is about as indestructible a battle rifle as is out there. It’s not sexy, but it’s quite imposing at close range.

    …and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, a lone thug sitting atop a failing regime

    Putin’s a “lone thug” with the largest military in Europe and Asia. At this point in time I’m not sure “failing” is anything other than wishful thinking to describe what Putin is doing. To me, it seems that Putin is doing exactly what he wants to do. He also happens to pretty much own Europe’s natural gas supply.

    But it ain’t WWII, either. We’re just simmering under low heat.

    I could fisk the rest, but I’ve been arguing with lawyers all day, so I don’t really have much energy left for ol’ Pants-crease.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yeah, in the early 30s, we probably saw Hitler as a loser trying to lead a failed state.

      But I must object to your characterization of Brooks as a “ninny.” He’s one of my very favorites out there in the pundit class. He doesn’t always hit it out of the park, but now and then his columns really impress me. And I’m not all that easily impressed.

      And he’s not “a rich guy living in New York City.” I don’t know his net worth, but he lives in D.C. He just works for a New York paper, which is why he writes, “I’ve been living in and VISITING New York for almost a half-century now.”

      1. Bryan Caskey

        Ok, so he’s a rich guy who lives in DC. I don’t know what your version of “rich guy” is, but when you have a $3.95 Million dollar house, you’re in the ballpark.

        Don’t get me wrong. I don’t begrudge him the money. I say good for him. No one pays me to write my comments here or at my own blog. Brooks has a pretty good gig going. My point was that his life is probably pretty comfortable.

        1. Mark Stewart

          The NYC mayor is pushing for a pied-a-terre property tax surcharge on non-primary residences – similar to what SC does, but at a higher rate of course. The minimum property value threshold is proposed at $5 million.

          In most leading cities, a million won’t get one more than a aged (though totally renovated) suburban tract home.

  4. Phillip

    Neither Brooks nor the Rosh Hashanah celebrants nor anyone else here in the comments (so far) has even mentioned the problem that (if not seriously addressed globally very very soon) will make everything else (ISIS, Putin, Iran, China) seem irrelevant by comparison: climate change and the domino-effect of environmental changes triggered by this phenomenon. I have a feeling that our children and especially our children’s children will shake their heads at our inability to address what (from their perspective looking back at 50-100 years) will have seemed like the obvious and most dire threat to humanity and the planet.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      POTUS addressed it in his UN speech today:

      America is pursuing ambitious reductions in our carbon emissions, and we have increased our investments in clean energy. We will do our part, and help developing nations to do theirs. But we can only succeed in combating climate change if we are joined in this effort by every major power. That’s how we can protect this planet for our children and grandchildren….

      Admittedly, he didn’t go on and on about it.

      1. Norm Ivey

        A non-starter perhaps, but not a non-issue. The earth’s climate is changing, due at least in part to human actions. We’re probably too late to entirely mitigate its impact, but we can still take action to limit its impact. Phillips is correct–a couple generations removed from us will wonder at our inaction.

      2. Phillip

        Silence, I take it that you’re not really serious, right? In the end, it’s probably the only issue. Bill McKibben gets to the crux of our seeming inability to give a crap: “Though on a geological time-scale it’s happening at a hopelessly rapid pace, in terms of the news cycle it happens just slowly enough to be invisible.”

        The signs come at us in the form of papers; studies, unsexy reports. They don’t seem to have the capacity of those shocking ISIS beheading videos to immediately jolt us into action; but though the ramifications of their content may not be obviously apparent to all, if we were really paying attention we would realize that the implications are far more ominous, long-term, than those news items and videos that “go viral” and dominate the headlines.

        1. Kathryn Braun Fenner

          Okay, P. I have long been concerned about climate change, as someone who hates hot weather. I voted for Gore. I bought a Prius and fly as little as possible.

          Nonetheless, I have not eschewed air conditioning, or moved to the much smaller house that would easily suffice for two humans and two dogs. I drive when I could walk or bike. I eat meat.

          What do you propose the average privileged reader of this blog should do?

        2. Bryan Caskey

          The earth warms up, the earth cools down. Beaches change over millions of years. Columbia used to be the beach. Glaciers carved out the great lakes, but have since receded. Plants and animals live, thrive, and die off. Continents drift around, bump into each other, thrusting up mountains, which are slowly worn down over time.

          The earth is a constantly changing place. Always has been.

          Don’t get me wrong. We should be good stewards of the earth. We should not waste resources. TR’s creation of national parks was a wonderful thing. Mostly, we should try to keep the place clean.

          But don’t get carried away thinking that we can hold the earth in some kind of stasis by anything we do. You might as well try to hold back the tide. Who says that this current particular moment in earth’s geological history is the “right” one, anyway?

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Is this what you’re saying, O Preacher?

            4 One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.

            5 The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.

            6 The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.

            7 All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.

            8 All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.

            9 The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

            10 Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.

          2. Norm Ivey

            It’s the right one for our species because it allowed us to develop civilizations and technologies. It’s a Goldilocks climate right now.

            The changes you describe are the types of changes that occur over a period of ten or hundreds of thousands of years. What we have done is increase the CO2 concentration from about 280ppm to 400ppm in about 150 years–far quicker than this kind of change has ever taken place before. (It took about 120,000 of natural processes to get the ppm down to 280ppm from about 300ppm through natural processes.) The earth is a closed system–it will correct for the imbalance, and it’s going to be a correction that doesn’t give a rip about whether we can handle it or not.

            Lots of folks like to focus on storm intensities and sea level rise when talking about the impact of climate change, but the most devastating effects are going to be more subtle, I believe. Plants may bloom earlier in the season before migratory pollinators have returned–reducing the rate at which the plant reproduces, but also threatening the pollinating species. Disease-carrying insects will move into an area where the organisms have no resistance to the disease they carry. Crops may no longer be suited to grow in some areas, threatening the world food supply. We tend to think everything will get hotter, but there may actually be some temperate regions that become colder–the United Kingdom is one place this could happen. Climate change is about a whole lot more than occasional storms and a changing coastline.

            1. Bryan Caskey

              Dr. Peter Venkman: This city is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions.
              Mayor: What do you mean, “biblical”?
              Dr Ray Stantz: What he means is Old Testament, Mr. Mayor, real wrath of God type stuff.
              Dr. Peter Venkman: Exactly.
              Dr Ray Stantz: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling!
              Dr. Egon Spengler: Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes…
              Winston Zeddemore: The dead rising from the grave!
              Dr. Peter Venkman: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!
              Mayor: All right, all right! I get the point!

    2. Bryan Caskey

      Don’t worry, Phillip:

      The President’s kinetic military action against ISIL is being conducted in the most environmentally friendly way.

      “Officials said the strikes wouldn’t target fixed oil fields, a precaution intended to minimize the potential for environmental damage,” according to the WSJ. “The U.S. instead targeted small capacity mobile refineries used by Islamic State around northeastern Raqqa province and other locations in eastern Syria, officials said.”

      It’s a green war..

      We’re not bombing the enemy’s primary money producing asset…because we’re worried about the environment. Well that’s just splendid. You know, when I see stuff like this, I’m glad we’re not putting boots on the ground. Can you imagine what kind of stupid rules of engagement we would have?

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