A while ago, as I languished in Houston over the few months prior to departure, I decided to explore the theme, or at least the reality, of peace in our times. Despite the multitude’s whinges, despite the certainties that the world was getting worse by the day, I didn’t exactly feel the same way. The following, which I posted a few months back (and edited a bit of here), is what I found:
If you’re reading this, consider yourself lucky. Not in any breathe-easy, Dirty-Harry-style, but in a karmic, eyes-wide-open manner of appreciation. I hope you would do this every day, in every action and realization and respite. Your eyes are sound enough to make out these pixels; your literacy, computer or otherwise, was strong enough to lead you to this text. That husk of furniture, though dented and sagging, is sturdy enough to hold both you and your laptop, and your stomach, despite girding for another burger, knows only of guarantees of next meals. Maybe your car spits and burps and lurches – but it still runs, doesn’t it? And maybe your job sends you home aching, burnt out from being a waiter or a desk jockey or finger-sore photographer, butting up against a glass ceiling or an uninspiring corporation – but at least you can pay the bills, right?
Point is, you’ve – we’ve – got it good. Better than most. Better than nearly all, at any time, in any place. We’re not sweltering as Crimean serfs, or locked in the antebellum South, or gnawing on dusted radishes as we walk the streets of Cairo under whip-ready despots. I don’t wake in the morning and worry about polio. You don’t wake in the morning and sit in a bread-line. Not only does your education allow you to elucidate and explain your beliefs, but you can preach them with impunity, with easy access to the most pervasive medium the world has ever known. The roads are paved, the coffee’s fresh, and Nordstrom’s is having its spring sale. What more could you want?
Which is why it chafes to hear people complain, especially in America. (I know, such a statement is a self-defeating premise* – but I chide in the hope that it will end others’ complaints.) It sucks to hear those who’ve had a better life than most have lived, let alone imagined, still find fissures of complaint. I get it – you need that iPad; your final examination is truly that hard; your congressman took how much from that lobby? I understand where desires, extrinsic or innate, come from. Melodrama is the stuff that makes the world interesting. And I’d be a fool to say I don’t share those desires with you.
*It’s also a bit hypocritical, as a few months back I went on a Twitter tear about how much Houston fell short of any quality-of-life measure. I stand by these comments, but I’ll clarify that Houston falters solely in respect to other American cities. New York? Better. Birmingham? Definitely. Dallas? Yup. Maybe there’s one out there – Stockton? (Dunno; pretty close to the Bay Area.) Pensacola? (Maybe, but the Florida beach beats the Galveston swill any day.) Spokane? (Nope – if only for Mark Few.) Houston’s got Whataburger, BOF, Agora, and trivia at Firkin and Phoenix. And the dropoff after that is remarkably steep.
But get your head out of that commercialized, self-infatuated sand. The iPad is just a palliative; no one’s forced you into that class; we’ve elected the politicians we deserve. This is the life, exact and precise, that you’ve chosen to take. In the States, the only one pigeon-holing you is yourself. Be the change you want to see, and all that.
Americans’ average income is five times higher than the rest of the world, and we have a social net that, by and large, keeps a population of 300 million satiated. As a nation, we’re richer, more powerful, more educated, more (legalistically) moral than at any time in the history of humanity. You could extrapolate such progress to the rest of the – world, with others – Portugal, Switzerland, The Netherlands – leading, and others – say, the developing world – still playing catch-up. Progress comes, not inevitable, but entwined such that as one rises, the rest will follow. And America careens forward, shining that city-on-a-hill light such that the rest will know how and where to go.
But in 2008 former senator Phil Gramm (R-TX) turned a mirror on us, daring to call us, those providential sons and daughters, a “nation of whiners.” While I’d like to dissuade him from calling us a nation of anything – generalities only abrade – it’s easy to track his vein to its logical origin and conclusion. Quick-draw lawsuits, fire-brand moralism, and red-faced pundits lead not to discussion but to platforms from which we can whine and bemoan. Yes, criticism is easy, and restraint is difficult. But every time we encounter this base behavior, it is all-the-more stamped into our blood. Every time our desires weren’t met, we searched not for readjustment but for reason. Every time we watch(ed) Glenn Beck, we’re turned irate – either at him or the Islamo-Communistic-Soros conflation that the lamestream media is too corrupt and inbred to cover. Every time we hear a complaint, it’s easier than before to join in.
So it’s funny, really, that as the ratchet of complaint has turned up through cable news’ harbingers of doom over the last decade, the world, under American unipolarity, has actually become safer and more stable than it’s ever been. Domestically, the crime rate is continuing its downward spiral – and if and when marijuana legalization passes, the number should drop all the more. Internationally, if you delineate the wars we’ve seen over the last ten years, you find there are but a few: Iraq, Afghanistan, Thai and Congolese in-fighting, Sudan’s ethnic strife, Pakistan’s urban rumblings, a few flare-ups in Gaza, Timor, and Chechnya, and … that’s it.
That’s to not trivialize the valor, not to gloss over the thousands of assaults and death and horrors, but you’ve gotta look at these conflicts in context. The civil wars of the 1990s – Algeria, Rwanda, Tajikistan, Angola, Yugoslavia – have slid into the past; Iraq and Iran will not be renewing their mutual bloodthirst anytime soon; China cannot afford any form of fallout over Taiwan; and Liberia – christ, Liberia – is led by a progressive female. The Southern Sudanese secession, while still a bit bloodied, has been anything but the genocide some were expecting, and the Armenia/Azerbaijan and North/South Korea tensions, while heated, have refrained by boiling over.
That’s not to say that clamp-downs and intra-state violence have ceased – Haitian gangs, Kashmiri stone-throwers, Mexican cartels, and pan-Kurdists have all wrought their problems and malaise. But these problems are far cries from the wars of anti-colonialism or empire implosion that beset the 20th century. Yes, Israel is slowly becoming an apartheid state – but legalized discrimination has collapsed around the world. The Arab Spring has seen slaughter through self-immolation or police-state brutality – Syria rages, Libya burns, and the House of Saud still squats. But Egypt, a country of 85 million, lost only 800 of its finest; in 1789 the French lost four times as much, with a population one-third the size. Meanwhile, localized, the Russians lost nine million during the October Revolution, and Stalin, according to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, caused some 60 million unnatural deaths. Decades later, Kyrgyzstan saw only a few dozen fall – after bloodless independence from the USSR – in its continued path toward democratization.
That’s is not to say that food shortages, water privatization, or narco-ills won’t cause future distress within or between states. Kashmir still simmers. Gaddhafi could still fall back on his terroristic ties. Guatemala is looking ever-ready to join Somalia as a failed state. There’s no guarantee that increased stability is a trend, rather than a pendulum – this may very well be a Golden Age, a halcyon time, that we’ll some day speak of wistfully. But … look where we are. Look at this time. Look at this peace:
Above is the Cato Institute’s graph of declining global deaths due to battle. Since I can still claim amateur status, I felt comfortable enough eyeballing the annual regional death estimates and came up with what I believe to be an even more telling graph than that presented by Cato – instead of raw numbers, I reached for ratios.
(Bigger version here.)
As illustrated above, and as should be expected, the ratio’s decline is even steeper than the raw numbers’ drop. As the global population has boomed, the strife-borne deaths have plummeted. (“Make more babies, make more peace”?) Inter-state commerce, nuclear proliferation, the decline of nationalism, the close of colonialism, and increased minority rights have all allowed increased assurances of peace. And not just peace – freedom. As Andrew Mack says,
Since the mid-1980s the number of autocracies in the world has declined by some 70 percent. Yet strikingly few of these transitions were the result of violent insurgencies; still fewer resulted from foreign military intervention. A substantial number, however, were brought about by unarmed “people power” movements–and without any help from external powers.
Yes, Omar al-Bashir, Than Shwe, and Vladimir Putin are still in charge. But Charles Taylor, Hosni Mubarak, PRI, Nicolae Ceausescu, Saddam Hussein – all are gone, relegated to the dustbins of history. And if Yemen, Bahrain, or (somehow) Iran fall – and if that movement somehow spreads beyond the Arab people, emanating east and south – then our world becomes, as it were, eminently better.
All of this happens concurrent to America’s zenith and subsequent decline. And yet, as our debt stalls us and China’s and India’s motors continue to purr, as the multi-polar world finally settles, America’s soft power hasn’t kept (and won’t keep) it from pushing for the kind of democracy Bush called for and Obama furthered. America’s distance during the Egyptian protests allowed its success; Western support for Kosovo helped The Little Country That Could. Big Power support is still, invariably, necessary for these revolutions to succeed. But traditional powers are notably less important than they once were for these smaller nations. (That is, so long as they’re not pro-Russian – just look at Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia.) And, as far as I can tell, that is a good thing. As we move toward this world of BRIC-polarism and universal internet and waning religious foment, we’re on a path toward increased ethics, increased economy, and increased accountability.
So, as much as America The Entity has fallen short of America The Ideal (here’s looking at you, Patriot Act), America The Example has succeeded all the further. Which makes our petty complaining that much worse for the wear. People have asked me more than once why I’m choosing to volunteer abroad rather than at help out home. America’s problems are rampant, they say. Schools are failing. Government is growing. We’re becoming a banana republic, with inequality more Honduran than homeland. Which may well be true. But we have the mechanisms to stop it. You have the mechanisms to stop it. It’s in our constitution, in our law system, in our freedom of assembly and petition and voice. Don’t complain – go do something about it. Because those in Uzbekistan, or in China, or in Burma, can’t. Not legally, at least. Those laws are still stuck. If the past is any consideration, it’s but a matter of time before reform comes to these nations. But it won’t happen without the necessary players, and I’ll be damned if I’m teaching Dickens to some Oklahoma middle schoolers – as admirable as that may be – when it does.
I hope this optimism isn’t coming across as mawkish or cloying, as Peace Corps typique. But you’ve gotta realize how nice it is to be us. I know the middle class is shrinking, and Obama’s jipped the Millennials with his budget proposals, and we still have troops lining the roads of Kabul and pushing further into Pakistan. I know that the cost of college is ever-increasing while the subsequent value is ever-diminishing. I know the NFL may not be back next season, and that Twilight sucks, and Christina Aguilera really, really let herself go.
But look at the context. Look at your context. Here you sit, taking in your wireless, taking down your coffee, taking your second nap of the afternoon. Taking it easy, and free. Look how god-damned nice your life is. And in the macro context, while America’s fallen short of where it needs to be, the rest of the world is picking up the slack. There are a few left on the other side of the curve, and it’s our duty – our humanist, fraternal, ethical duty – to help. It’s our duty to ensure this peace, which exists so wholly in our times, passes into the future not as fleeting phenomenon, but as mankind’s certainty.