As I have grown older and as retirement has given me more time to think about both my life and the state of the world, I have come to appreciate how much of a gap has opened up between mankind’s social evolution and the lack thereof in our political and religious spheres. You do not need to be a historical or philosophical scholar to appreciate how much progress we have made as a race in the fields of personal freedoms, human rights, fair labour practices, gender and racial equality, justice, economic opportunity, social welfare and education. To be sure, most of this evolution has been fairly recent, with most of it happening in the past two centuries, which makes it even more impressive.
Regrettably, our political and religious structures have changed little over that same period of time, negating many of the benefits and quality of life that have accrued in the social sphere of our lives. The political state of affairs throughout most of the globe is particularly prominent in its reactionary tendencies. Although we no longer have oppressive and authoritarian monarchies and empires, their place has been taken over by equally odious tyrants, fascist dictators and egotistical power mongers that continue to foment chaos, conflict, wars and oppression.
Although this is obvious in the case of such evil despots as Putin, Kim Jong Un and Ali Khamenei, even in the so-called bastion of the democratic free-world, the United States, we see signs of a fascist, anti-democratic resurgence in the form of the Trump-led MAGA movement, which makes no bones about turning America into an authoritarian, intolerant state. In Europe and other areas of the world, we see a growing rise in populist, ultra-rightist governments seeking to reverse much of the social progress made over the past century. Amoral politicians have become very adept at using the media to persuade ordinary and largely gullible citizens everywhere to act against their own self-interest. Propaganda as a weapon has been bolstered immeasurably by modern communications technology and most media consumers are too naïve and unprepared to discriminate between truth and “fake news”, to their ultimate detriment.
These reactionary political developments have been significantly assisted by fundamentalist religious leaders of all stripes. In the U.S., the various fundamentalist sects have played a leading role in trying to turn back the clock on social progress and take America back to some imagined glorious age of Puritanism, where a narrow interpretation of Biblical texts form the basis of all laws and government practices. In the Mid-East a virulent form of reactionary Islam has perverted what centuries ago was a progressive, tolerant and educated religion into an evil and oppressive “revolutionary” movement that fosters terrorism and internal oppression more appropriate to the dark ages. Even the dominant Christian religions in the western world have been strongly resisting adopting reforms appropriate to our modern times. As one of the more prominent examples of this, even though it has been proven conclusively that women are no less intelligent and capable than men, most of the major Christian faiths remain strongly patriarchal, excluding women from any positions of power and influence in the church hierarchies. Even the Jewish faith and its people, whom I have always admired for their principles and integrity in the face of unimaginable adversity, have developed cracks in that reputation over their recent treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza.
In the face of all this, we seem like a civilization that has lost its way in achieving that better future that the 20th century seemed to have promised. In the past, at crucial points in the world’s history, outstanding individuals and leaders emerged that helped steer the course towards successfully meeting the challenges that arose. People like Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi, Winston Churchill, Lech Walesa, Mikhail Gorbachev, John Paul II, Rachel Carson, David Suzuki, John and Robert Kennedy, Albert Einstein and many others made significant contributions in making this world a better place. Over the past several decades, I have seen little sign of comparable individuals taking their place.
We are at a critical crossroad at the moment where the world could easily go to hell in a handbasket if we don’t smarten up and act more responsibly as a civilization. We certainly don’t lack the tools or the intelligence to do better; what we need is a lot less emotional reaction and a lot more rational thought, and as I have said before we need each of us as individuals to become more engaged in not just being consumers of events, but contributors and creators of solutions to make the world a better place for our children and grandchildren. Towards that end, we need to learn the appropriate lessons from history, and not just try turning the future into a feeble copy of the past.