Nothing works anymore, everyone is mad - and our society is a pile of kindling waiting for a match. (Plus, Ricky Gervais saves the day in Toronto.)
Here is one suggestion about why things feel broken (are broken): We used to know the people providing our goods and services, and we actively engaged with our goods and services. That provided a measure of accountability, and also we cared more about that accountability. We knew our cashiers. Our parents were friends with their bosses and coworkers, and we had big Christmas parties for kids of staff every year. We had to take time to accomplish anything, from grocery shopping to searching out information, and that meant that we had more of a stake in the outcome. Now we just click for our lives. The people providing our information, from local journalists to librarians, were local. Now our journalists provide opinions rather than reporting events, and Google is our librarian. We used to actively participate in our lives, and now we watch our lives unfold through processes far beyond our time and control. Our politicians now care more about what Twitter thinks, and less about what constituents think. That all feels chaotic, and feels like we don't have any influence. We don't have any influence, control, or stake in anything beyond our own households, if we have that.
A great starting point in fixing our country might be to acknowledge that our new Canadians should absolutely be invited to an in person ceremony to celebrate with other new Canadians, rather than clicking a button on a computer by yourself at home.
Community. Community. Community. Start with that.
I’m crying reading this. All the feels - grief, relief at the naming of things, the simple joy and heroism of good comedy, smiling at a dog from across the street.
I know historians of collapse of complex societies describe where we’re at as an age of decadence when celebrity is valued over service, and money over meaning. They consider the stages of collapse inevitable. What’s happening now is not new.
If that’s true I ask myself as a mother what to do? The best I can arrive at is to deepen my spiritual life, choose service and generosity, and prioritize caring above all else. To plant seeds of goodness that will one day emerge from the rot of our dying civilization. Offer prayers that my child or grandchildren can be a part of that emergence. In other words believe in the possibility of a future.
I also work towards a paradigm shift in education as our current system was forged to create obedient workers and passive consumers. It’s been successful. I want a world in which children are encouraged to develop self knowledge and live satisfying lives immersed in the real world with real communities and real families rather than housed in age segregated cells, moved about by bells, and taught implicitly that nothing is worth doing for its own sake or worth doing with depth and passion.
I hold out hope as well that humans are not destined to the cycles we’ve always created. Perhaps evolutionary leaps of consciousness do happen and tipping points can occur in multiple directions.
In any scenario though, choosing love and kindness, especially towards those I find difficult to love and be kind to, seems the best option.
Thanks, Tara, for this post. The questions you ask here are really great.
So you made the mistake of asking for suggestions on why things are broken - so here is one!
When i think of the mess we're in, i often turn to the moral philosopher Alistair MacIntyre and his incredibly influential book, After Virtue. He argued that modernity's abandonment of tradition as having moral authority, seen particularly in the loss of virtue as orienting our concepts of the good, has created an environment where "emotivism" is the ruling working morality. According to MacIntyre, "emotivism" essentially means basing our ethical life upon what individuals "feel" is best, and essentially saying that ethical judgments are based upon approval and preference rather than an objective good. When this is the case, fragmentation, incommensurate moral disagreements, and an intolerance for any appeals to an objective moral authority easily result. MacIntyre illustrates this through his well known "dystopia": imagine a society which has completely repudiated and destroyed science, but then later tries to recover it. They can only recover fragments of the tradition, and piecing them together can appear incoherent at best and self-destructive at worst. MacIntyre argues that this is exactly the kind of society we are living in - not in regards to science, but in regards to moral philosophy and ethics. No unifying concept of the good - based upon a respect for how those concepts may have operated in the past - is allowed, and thus moral disagreements about good and the true can ultimately be solved only by power - those with the most power can determine the kind of world we are supposed to live in.
While MacIntyre originally wrote this book in 1984, i find it as prescient as ever. i remember living through the Trucker Convoy in January 2022. Witnessing the intense polarization of the moment, MacIntyre's dystopia immediately came to mind: we have no common ethical center, which means no form of dialogue or encounter is possible, and then it merely becomes a power play. Instead of seeking conversation, parties only search for power. And power in its many forms: political, economic, discursive, etc. So it wasn't enough to have the power of a certain narrative about the Convoy dominant in mainstream press, but there also needed to be the economic power of freezing bank accounts, and the political power of the Emergencies Act.
And don't get me wrong. It isn't merely "woke" forces who seek power above all. In an age of emotivism and "after" virtue, we are all trained to seek power as the guarantor of the good.
This post has been long enough, so i won't go on further. But it seems to me the only way we can move forward is if we begin to have a more positive relationship with the past - whether that is through re-valuing traditional forms of knowledge and morality, or being more forgiving of previous generations, or putting more emphasis on conserving rather than "progress(ing)" or paying more attention to religious forms of knowing and being and doing. And to me this means slowing down, being more local, and quieting down our lives. Referencing the thought of Mary Harrington,, we have to at least rethink the place of the religion of progress in our societies, if not outright shelve it for a time, in order to recover some sanity and live authentically as human creatures on a beautiful yet limited and fragile planet.
Excellent weekend read and some interesting comments by readers.
I love my country and thank it for allowing me to grow up in a tolerant society with decent healthcare, infrastructure and schooling (especially pre 2000). I absolutely love living on Vancouver Island with the diverse wildlife and friendly people. Canada made me into a person who was able to live overseas for 15+ years (2003 to 2019) and to love doing so.
On the negative side my return from overseas has made me lament the much better healthcare of South Korea. The infrastructure of East and Southeast Asian nations (especially Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan) is better than Canada. There is no safetyism whereby life involves no risks. There are no Woke politics that divide and fracture society. There is no doomism from groups like Just Stop Oil that talk about extinction, emergencies and the end of life.
I do not see Canada solving the issues of housing and homelessness. Too many people grifting off these problems and politicians at all three levels too afraid to make tough decisions so I have given up trying to resolve them myself through NGOs and politics.
In summary, Asian countries have their issues too (air pollution, low birth rates) but I found people and societies moving forward and with people open minded to new things (like gay marriage).
Hopefully Canada can change the direction it is going in.
I wish I could remember the name of the principle of human system complexity and stakeholders. It goes something like this. If the system is three people then it is simply a three-relationship stakeholder process of negotiation between the three to find the center of acceptance and good. Add a fourth person and now there are six relationships and negotiations complexity increases. Keep adding people and you eventually have an impenetrable ball of yarn comprised of numerous human-to-human relationship connections that cannot be included in the negotiations process.
Hierarchical systems of governance have evolved to remedy this ubiquitous problem. In western countries the corporate management structure and representative democracy are examples. They were never perfect because perfection is impossible as there is no way to make all the stakeholders in a large relationship system happy. However, they were the best systems ever designed to maximize positive outcomes over time. To achieve those benefits, it was expected that the stakeholder constituency all owned some common values and views. Corporate culture would be ingrained into the workforce, and countries would adopt cultural norms and expect some level of assimilation.
The source of our problems today are corporate consolidation, government expansion and globalism (including immigration) causing the systems to be too large with too many diverse stakeholders. Everything seems broken because it is growing more and more impossible to achieve long-term positive outcomes because the systems are too large to govern, and the stakeholders do not share enough of the same values to make accurate decision assumptions. The consequence is that the decision-makers no longer care to achieve some level of optimum satisfaction from the constituent stakeholders... because it is impossible.
When we look at countries still doing rather well in terms of things not being broken, they are smaller and culturally homogeneous.
Ironically or not, the solution to these problems of broken systems is MAGA or MCGA. The principles of going back in time are exactly what we need. Frankly, most of know that if we canceled social networking, rejected globalism (not global trade) implemented actions of anti-trust and anti-monopoly to scale back the size of corporations that dominate full industries, stopped the massive immigration flow, shrunk the size of government and eliminated all government-corporate Quid Pro Joe type collusion... we could start to heal and eventually get back to where the systems could be effectively managed for a smaller and more cohesive ball of human-relationship yarn.
Globalism is a path toward a greater broken system dystopia.
Have you tried looking for God? As in, a present real omni-powerful beyond-comprehend-able Super-present Person and all the force emanating from that? Yet, as He has proclaimed, interested in relating intimately with each and all of us even though we are broken and imperfect? If more of us behaved as if each of us are accountable to such a Being-who created us and therefore knows all about us, and also therefore doesn’t like what He made - in all its artistry and beauty - trashed or trashing other entities equally lovingly made - we might re-discover all those old ideals and virtues such as accountability, integrity, honesty, honour, pride in good workmanship, community- as if we were acting and living trying even somewhat to stand up before our maker with something to show for His (the old inclusive of both sexes) investment in us. That’s what drives my daily walk-even if I alone know I acted well and to my best, or slacked off or hurt someone: I know. And that matters-because my maker knows. And I rely on His grace for my life. So I improve. If more of us returned to that- I think we will find life becomes much easier.
Before i read other comments i'll say this. During the term of Republican, Dwight D Eisenhower, the marginal tax rate for the highest earners was 90%. It was a holdover from the New Deal. That along with unions created a thriving middle class.
Now what is it? Somewhere in the twenties, and even then many of the wealthiest don't pay much. Things are headed the other way. More money for the wealthy and less for the bottom three quarters. We're going back to the gilded age and robber barons. So of course public services are collapsing. How could they not.
Although this is but one piece of the big picture, economics is always a significant slice.
I think the main problem is that we lost our sense of local community and, therefore, personal accountability. We used to know our neighbors and we knew that they knew us, and we didn’t want to embarrass ourselves or our families; so we kept our noses clean and we tried to be “good” citizens. Unfortunately, at the same time our communities were crumbling, our businesses quickly morphed into global corporations and moved into poorer parts of the world for cheap labor, no longer feeling any real sense of gratitude for their low-wage workers, or a sense of civic obligation to the towns or cities where their new low-wage workers lived. What gives me hope, though, in these dark times of chaos is that my personal interactions with the people of my life are becoming more authentic, more enjoyable, more worth celebrating. I think, perhaps, that when you’re living in Dark Times, you end up (without even thinking about it) turning on your “Inner Light” and you notice, more easily, the “Inner Light” within others. Yes, it sucks having to deal with customer service reps over the phone (I try to avoid those phone calls like the plague), but I feel a greater sense of “heart connection” to others than ever before. All is not lost. Humanity will make it through the crap we’re currently moving through, and I believe we’ll end up being better for it.
Wouldn't it have been nice if they would have crowned Ricky Gervais instead of Charles?
I too have been trying for some months now to create a list of everything that is broken. Now I don't have to. Thank you. And well done!
As for your questions, nothing can fix this and I'm pretty sure it is infinitely sustainable. I don't know why.
Long-time, first time, as they say. I’ve been a subscriber since reading your piece about leaving the CBC.
I hear you on feeling that everything is broken, and see it, too, all around me, all the time. It’s both global and personal: large scale concerns about the warming planet, war, disinformation, failed institutions, rapacious social media; and personal concerns, having lost my job quite publicly and shamefully and thus having had much of the modern experience of ostracism, abandonment, media pile-on, and the psychological wreckage that yields. I’ve gone through the public torture sessions, loss of income, hospital stays, therapy, recovery, and some attempt at re-building a new life while considered past my prime. It’s exhausting and scary. This is just to say that I’ve lived multiples sides of modern life full-on, and I agree with Tytonidaen’s reply about the smartphone being the primary culprit for a ton of what is broken.
What’s encouraging is that there ARE other sides, and they have great beauty, and you can find them without too much trouble by getting out in the real world. I used to be afraid to go out my front door, now I walk down my street and am greeted by neighbours, the teens working on their car, the retired police chief, people in the park with their dogs. I go to the grocery store, pubs, concerts and ball games. I bike and run, write emails and letters, and sure I use some tech, to zoom and email. I joined the Chamber of Commerce and the first time I went to a function I was scared shitless. I used to be a featured speaker at these things…... And a wonderful thing happened, as it has with all the above people – there was acceptance, tolerance, concern. There are real discussions and disagreements are civil and people work towards mutual growth. I have learned that phrases as simple as “I know who you are”, “It’s good to see you”, “I just want you to be ok” spoken in real time, can be more healing and soul-satisfying than their on-line opposites are soul-destroying. When given a moment to reflect and act, most people are mostly good most of the time, from celebrated comedians to the women and men on my street. People are wonderful, the world still has beauty, we're not as broken as we think.
There’s more of course, but it’s a sunny day, and my dog wants to tussle, so tech down and off to the park to see who we’ll run into today. Come over and say hi if you see us.
How timely Tara. I am reading this on a ViaRail train pulling out of Toronto after Porter cancelled THREE flights on me in eight hours. (Yes, this is the airline touting themselves as the reliable alternative to Air Canada.)
Upon arriving from Portugal in Terminal 3 at Pearson airport, I couldn't help but be embarrassed at the condition of our country's largest airport, with its shabby worn carpeting, dated barely serviced washrooms, broken escalators (plural) and out-of-service elevators; everywhere staff had fey, distant gazes with zero interest in answering questions or assisting passengers in need. It's painful to realize that this is what greets visitors to the largest city of a G7 nation.
And as I ride a dilapidated decades old passenger train on antiquated train tracks, passing by homeless encampments, I too ask myself why everything is broken and then find myself wondering where all the tax dollars have gone, let's say over the last 30 years. Into upgrading or even maintaining our transportation infrastructure, airports or railway network? Nope. Into our healthcare system? Obviously not. Into our schools and public education systems? No. Into providing shelter and basic income for the most vulnerable members of our society? Again no. Into developing first-in-class research and development facilities that put Canada front and centre of cutting edge technologies? Not unless I missed something.
I'm stumped too Tara: not only is everything is broken, but we pay hefty tax in this country at all levels, yet we can't afford to repair much of anything, nevermind maintain and upgrade the most essential physical assets of our society. Any insight into how the economics of this is working would be welcomed.
Well, speaking of the machine...
I think everything is broken largely because of the changes wrought by modern tech, including the internet, but -- most especially -- the smartphone. We have become alienated and atomized to an extremely unhealthy degree. The pace of change and cultural turnover is greatly exceeding our ability to comfortably keep up. As a result, interpersonal trust, social cohesion, and community investment are all desperately low. I think most of the rest of the issues we're facing are downstream of this fundamental problem.
I know this is an answer that nobody -- not even me! -- wants to hear, but I actually think that's a huge piece of why we're not doing anything to really address it. The tech is very, very convenient. It's actually too convenient. If you're literary, think of it as mainlining Soma like we're in Brave New World. If movies are more your speed, consider us locked into the Matrix. The point is, the technology itself actively saps our energy, motivation, and will to change things.
And look, I know. I know. I'm sympathetic to the argument that some contingent of folks have always been doomer-ish about new technology, including everything from the printing press to the radio. Maybe that's all this is. But a nagging part of me really doesn't believe that. I think there are fundamental differences in the transhuman nature of being so intertwined with the internet and our phones, differences with which our material bodies and minds can't cope. And even if it *is* just another technology to which humanity will eventually adapt, that adaptation could take a very long time. It might not happen in our lifetimes, and there might be a whole lot of upheaval and dysfunction until then.
In the internet's early days, I was *at least* as techno-optimistic as the next person, and honestly, probably moreso. I really thought the promise was endless and that the changes would propel humanity forward to an exciting future of widespread knowledge, rationality, and positive interconnectedness. It's clear to me now how very naïve that was. Because, well…here we are. So, ya know, I'm not that optimistic anymore. I wish I were, and I genuinely hope to be wrong. But I guess we'll see.