Commentary: Whether right or wrong, doomed attempts to regain what's been lost aren't unusual.
The Ghost Shirt Dances in the 1890's involved an outbreak of violence by Native North Americans a couple of decades after they'd last posed any threat to the peace of the United States. The Indian Wars were over. Sitting Bull had surrendered in 1881, and worked in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show. Then Kicking Bear induced Lakota Sioux to believe that wearing “ghost shirts” would protect them against white men's bullets. The Sioux had legitimate grievances, but no chance.
Coming to believe we've lost something can spark a reaction to grab it back, whatever the odds. (In Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut gave the name “Ghost Shirt Society” to rebels “making one last stand for the old ideals” against the mechanized, hierarchical U.S. of the future.)
Among nations, periodically some military or technological or organizational innovation puts one empire on top; then that empire spends far too much on protecting its far-flung interests, fails to ride the crest of the next wave, and starts falling behind. The fading empire's resentment over lost preeminence has led to war. Consider Germany in the early 20th Century.
Take religion: polls in most countries (including ours) show that far fewer young people than older folks believe in god. Religion could be on its last legs. Yet extremists in Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism not only grab headlines but, directly or indirectly, governing countries where those religions are prominent.
It has seemed that our future will be less dependent upon superstition; more diverse, in shades of color and sexual preferences; and more tolerant.
Young folks don't care so much about ethnicity. To white kids who grew up with black basketball players' posters on their bedroom walls and listening to black recording artists, and even a black president, the idea that whites have some inherent superiority sounds like a tasteless old joke.
Yet here's Donald Trump, campaigning on express or implied racism just when whites are becoming a minority in the U.S. Suddenly our government is spouting racist rhetoric, abandoning affirmative action, and slyly purging poor and minority voters from voting lists. Cruelly separating immigrant families violated treaties and international standards, and stopped only when it grew too ugly for the evangelical right.
Young folks also seem pretty comfortable with the variety of genders humans come in, something their parents found threatening. So Trump promised to curtail gay rights, and his Supreme Court might soon outlaw same-sex marriage along with abortion.
My hopes that humanity could continue to progress toward a better world may be ridiculously misplaced. After decades of increasing democratization, dictatorships are suddenly in fashion again, as Putin, Xie, and perhaps Trump make clear. After increasing internationalism, we're back to petty nationalism and trade wars – compounded by disunity and discourtesy.
Being humans, clinging to this minor planet for an all-too-finite moment, is tough. Individually and collectively, we need all the help we can get. Heightened cooperation is help. Debilitating fears and prejudices, and the massive waste of resources on weapons are not. They are badges of fear, often whipped up by demagogues.
The world has been growing more tolerant and understanding. Is this international revival of autocracy, prejudice, and superstition a brief interruption? Or, whipsawed by climate-change, refugee crises, water shortage, and economic equality, will we descend toward a world of violence and chaos?
Are we progressive humanists wearing the ghost shirts?