A Better World Is Worth Fighting For
Cynical defeatism doesn’t make you sophisticated or trendy. It makes you a loser.
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There’s a general attitude pervading our culture and politics. It’s the sense that the world is more or less fucked. The sense that we’re faced with unprecedented and insurmountable problems that will only continue to worsen. That politics is irredeemably broken; that our institutions, governments, and economies are headed toward inexorable calamity; that we’ve trashed the planet beyond repair; that greed, corruption, extremism, and ultimately chaos will prevail. That we can do nothing to stem the tide of impending doom, and the best we can hope for is a managed decline, a soft landing into the dystopia that awaits. We see this in the polling on trust in government, experts, political systems, representative democracy, a more prosperous future, and other people.
While this attitude has seeped through the culture, it has saturated the younger generations in particular. It leads some to the growing fringes of society, fantasizing of revolutions, utopias, and other such imbecilities. Others turn to self-medicate with nihilism, with a shrug and an ironic smile that doesn’t quite reach their eyes, resolving simply to enjoy the ride until the circus ends. But it’s a sham, a hollow fiction spun up by a vortex of bullshit, laziness, and fear.
Growing up in a world racked by the Great Recession, soaring wealth divides, a global pandemic, and a looming climate crisis, with algorithms and a news cycle engineered to amplify tragedy, disaster, and drama at every turn, it’s easy to get a distorted, decidedly bleak picture of society. Everything is doomed, and yet paradoxically, we have politicized every aspect of existence, while simultaneously believing politics is a fundamentally impotent vehicle for change. You can hardly take three steps without tripping over an activist or stumbling into heated political discourse. And yet we are collectively losing our faith that anything can ever get done. We are quickly discouraged at the first sign of friction, or when progress doesn’t happen overnight. As a result, we have seen activism increasingly shift from the political and into the cultural. But the cultural realm is also shrouded in pessimism, a feeling that nothing can ever truly change for the better.
Years ago I posted some ideas about how to improve politics. A commenter who I knew to be deeply politically engaged said it was a fool’s errand; that politics was rotten and irreparable. I asked if he was a masochist. Why else would he take such a keen interest in a hopeless cause? I never got an answer. Activism has become a performative stand-in for meaning, a convictionless ritual whose motions are a psychological balm to soothe our self-inflicted confusion and emptiness. We want to feel like we’re doing something of significance, but in the back of our minds we incongruously tell ourselves that nothing matters.
Defeatism is a lazy dodge. It’s a chickenshit strategy to avoid hurt and disappointment. It’s like closing yourself off from love for fear of heartbreak. This is a feeble mindset held by fragile people who see protection in lowering their expectations and mentally preparing themselves for unconditional failure. Making a difference means putting yourself out there, vulnerable, exposed to criticism, attack, rejection, upset, loss, and maybe even humiliation.
Think back to history, to generations who faced down the terror of World Wars, civil wars, famine, theocracy, tyranny, intolerance, and plagues that wiped out half the population. People who lived without electricity, air conditioning, sanitation, medicine, or dentistry. It’s a good thing they weren’t all too “exhausted” by the challenges of life and gave up on the future. We stand on the shoulders of those who did not flee when adversity came knocking. They opened that door and did something that mattered, something that was hard, and not merely something that felt good. Be worthy of that inheritance.
Think of the amazing arc of human progress — even recent progress. You don’t need to be Steven Pinker to appreciate the incredible victories that have been won for humanity in just the past 20 years, in areas that run the gamut from sweeping medical advances to progress on LGBT rights, sexism, and neurodivergence. Over a billion people around the globe have been lifted out of extreme poverty since 2000. We have discovered gravitational waves and the Higgs Boson, photographed a black hole, discovered water on the moon, sent civilians into space, explored Mars with robots, and decoded the human genome. Everyone with a smartphone, an internet connection, or even a library card has greater access to information than any head of state in the 1990’s. Don’t tell me we can’t get things done. You’re just afraid to believe in something and be let down.
People are so afraid to fail, so afraid to be a loser, that they try to flip the script by refusing to play the game. But when that game is life, society, and the future, there is no refusing to play. To refuse is to forfeit. You know what’s worse than a loser? A quitter. And what’s worse still is the one who lacked the courage to try in the first place. The road to progress is hard-fought. It’s a long haul that takes years. There are many setbacks. And there are no shortcuts. I can’t promise you victory. There are no guarantees in life, save one: failure follows those too scared to try. Defeatism is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I know posing as a jaded, cynical, world-weary doomer seems trendy, but it’s actually lame as fuck. And it always has been. It’s forgivable when you’re 15. It’s sad and embarrassing when you’re 25, much less 35. The problems we face are real. And daunting. You can’t hide from them in a web of lies, self-indulgence, and fantasy cyber worlds. No one has all the answers. No one even knows all the questions. But I know what the first step must be — giving a shit. In the blink of an eye, the young people of today will become the leaders of tomorrow, but only if they will lead. Heaven won’t help us, and history won’t forgive us if we haven’t grown out of this gutless sophomoric nihilism by then. We’re not screwed, but we will be with this piss-poor attitude.
“Neither a wise man or a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him.”
— Dwight Eisenhower
Thanks to Timothy Wood for helping edit this article.
See also: “To Improve Your Country, You Must Love It First”
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