With everything that’s happening on the planet these days I’m paying increased attention to all its cycles–cosmic, solar, historical, political, business, gestational and creative. Some, like cosmic, solar and gestational are immutable. The others are at the mercy of humans and human events.
In the fifth century B.C. the Greek historian and geographer Herodotus was the first to categorize and investigate ethnographical, geographical, and historical events and come up with a theory regarding their origins. It was the first systematic theory of history. Over the 2600 years since other theories have been propounded–Thomas Carlyle’s Great Forces or Great Man theory, Arnold Toynbee’s Challenge and Response theory, and Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The “random” theory,” currently in favor, holds the interaction of billions of humans and their choices along with all the other natural and unnatural factors in the world creates history with no discernible flow or path.
In college I had the good fortune to study with the remarkable Giovanni Costigan. For 41 years he captivated University of Washington history students. I went to his classes even when I wasn’t enrolled. Costigan subscribed to Oswald Spengler’s philosophy of history as articulated in his two volume treatise The Decline of the West. The German historian believed that each civilization has a life cycle that includes childhood, youth, manhood and old age, and at the end of its cycle a civilization becomes “a petrified body characterized in the modern age by technology, imperialism, and mass society which he expected to fossilize and decline from the 2000s onward.” He published the theory in 1918 but 100 years later his forecast is turning out to be as timely as it was uncanny.
I wanted to believe otherwise, but recent events, natural and political, have moved me closer to Spengler’s view. In the past I described myself as a short term pessimist and long term optimist. Today I see myself as an existentialist watching the world unravel.
I’ve lived a life of privilege–born white, born in 20th century America, born healthy, born into a middle-class family. I was the beneficiary of a free public education from kindergarten through law school, became a Marine Corps fighter pilot during peacetime and a Pan Am pilot during the glory days of commercial aviation. For the past 25 years I’ve lived with my fifth-grade girlfriend. All good fortune.
Despite that good fortune, seven years ago I began to doubt my positive view of our civilization. It was jolting. It’s clear that we haven’t lived up to our potential or honored those who gave us our system of government. We ignored both nature and our “better angels.” We didn’t learn the lessons of our own Civil War or those of WWI or WWII. We never accepted the equality of races, genders or religions. We didn’t listen to what science was telling us about climate change and the effect it has on our planet.
And while we have elected some visionary leaders, we are also electing ignorant, greedy, ambitious demagogues–Putin, Xi, Orban, Bolsonaro, Milei, Modi, Netanyahu, Trump, and the unelected military juntas in Afghanistan, Myanmar. We celebrate and reward the wealth of ego maniacs like Elon Musk and largely ignore the grace and generosity of Melinda French Gates and MacKenzie Bezos.
My steadfast belief in America’s aspirational values has cracks and dents. It’s existential now. We were flawed but I believed in our system. Even after Trump’s defeat I believed we could recover. But Biden has squandered whatever good will America gained in uniting NATO in support of Ukraine. His handling of our departure from Afghanistan and his tone deaf full-throated support for Netanyahu and Israel’s destruction of Gaza are unforgiveable. The last straw was Friday’s American veto of a UN resolution demanding an immediate humanitarian cease fire.
The score today is 1200 violent Israeli deaths on October 7th in contrast to the 18,000 violent Palestinian deaths and untold thousands of maimed, displaced, homeless, and starving Gazans at the hands of the IDF (Israeli Defense Force). Unconscionable.
I still believe in cycles. My granddaughter, Georgia, and her wife, Lisa, hope to have a child next year. My grandsons, Will and Charlie, are in college. Eamon is planning to become an apprentice electrician, and Matt Jr. is in a bank training program. Ben and Lucie, are excellent student athletes, and the youngest, Leevi, is in elementary school. I hope the world takes care of them. They don’t deserve less.
There must be a degree of optimism baked into our DNA, because even I, at some level, remain aspirational. In September I was accepted for a two-year online novel writing program at Stanford. There are 60 of us in the program, and I’m encouraged when I see the talent and positive energy the others generate. Keep me, and them, in your thoughts this holiday season. I will keep you in mine. Be well.