Thursday, April 30, 2009

Are We Doomed to Repeat History (Literally and/or Figuratively)?

Last night's episode of Lost might be a metaphor for what happens in real life. Without many spoilers (or context), the episode in question is about a physicist named Daniel Faraday who used to believe that the events of the history of the Universe are set and "whatever happened, happened." Somewhere along the way, Faraday changed his belief system and tried to alter the future by changing the past. Faraday failed at his attempt to change the future, but believing that he could defy the Universe seemed to be what he was supposed to do anyway. In other words, whatever happened, happened. It is cosmic irony, where determinism ("fate") creates the illusion/perception of free will for individuals, but the outcome is already predetermined on the whole.

With our 2009 and earlier technology, we cannot yet travel back in time to see whether or not we can change history or it is truly a Universe where "whatever happened, happened." However, we have experienced the cyclical nature of civilized human history, and have theoretically an expansive knowledge of it, but we - as a sprawling local/regional/national/global civilization - don't quite know how to truly learn from history. Therefore, as the proverb goes, we are doomed to repeat it.

In broad strokes, a successful civilization struggles in its infancy, competes with other forces (whether rival societies and/or physical conditions) in its adolescence, prospers in its adulthood, overreaches in its middle age, and breaks down in its old age. We're not going to touch the more-or-less Roman Empire model for this rant, but I'm just placing this idea on the table.

In slightly more detailed strokes, in recent (let's say) American economic history, there is a recession, which is followed by a recovery, which is followed by prosperity, which is followed by greed - and depending how big this bubble becomes - this is followed by a collapse. With some variation, the cycle repeats. If you don't want to think of the recent housing market bubble, think about last century's Internet bubble. Think of the late 1980s.

In recent American economic politics, the voter zeitgeist tends to favor progressive/liberal/bigger government-type spending during an economic downturn. As the economy recovers, the ideology of the moment becomes more moderate. At some point, the status quo is favorable, and fiscal conservatism/smaller government (when it comes to domestic spending) is en vogue by the majority. Beyond that point, greed creates some sort of chaos in the balance - it might be toxic loans, outsourcing to other nations, and tax cuts that may counter-intuitively have the wrong effect - which creates a new downturn. And we choose our elected officials with fiscal policy in mind, depending on the moment in this seemingly infinite loop.

As far as social politics goes, that's a bit harder to align with fiscal issues, without making several contradictory generalizations. In any case, the "status quo" (whatever that is at the time) reigns supreme when there is a "feeling" of "majority prosperity," to the exclusion of a significant disadvantaged "minority" of the population. Social change happens during a time of tumult, whether economic, political, or natural. This social change is soon met by a backlash (by a usually equal and opposite ideological movement), which may somehow settle as the new status quo. Then the cycle repeats.

In any case, if history is cyclical as a whole (the rise and fall of civilizations) and in part (eras during a civilization), then we might be doomed to repeat our triumphs and mistakes with both similar triumphs/mistakes and greater triumphs/mistakes. We can choose to recognize that we can't truly change the cycle, and therefore resign ourselves to passively let the spirit of the time shift from damage control to recovery to prosperity to greed to collapse and back to damage control.

Or we can fool ourselves that we have the free will to end the cycle of civilization. If we are progressive, we can believe that science, innovation, technology, education, social programs, etc., will never end in an ever-advancing utopia. If we are conservative, we can believe that our idealized past should be the guide of our civilization, lest we stray and suffer any number of consequences. If we are moderate, we can believe that nuance and caution will provide sustainable - albeit mundane - prosperity. Maybe perceiving that our chosen ideology is better than the rest IS what we're supposed to think. And so we attempt to fight, persuade, and eliminate our ideological foes in the process. If the left has a victory, the right will eventually have a successful backlash - and vice versa. If the middle finds balance, something inevitably happens to create an unbalance, which is eventually counterbalanced, and temporary balance happens long enough for another shake-up to happen.

Whatever happens, happens. But the perception or reality of free will is still a good thing. I think that's what we're supposed to do. We're supposed to believe in our own free will and therefore take responsibility for our actions, so that whatever happen will happen because of our choices. Keep fighting and deciding, my friends. The choice is yours, even though it really isn't...or is it?

Then again, this is an incoherent rant that won't do much to affect the future or change anyone's thought process...or will it?

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