Writing in the Washington Post on Tuesday, "The Arrow of Time," Michael Gerson asks us to consider the long-term prospects for humanity in light of the creeping expansion of nuclear proliferation, the second law of thermodynamics (entropy), globally-devastating asteroids as written in the fossil record, the Sun's pre-ordained world-cindering expansion far beyond Earth's orbit, the possibility of artificially-intelligent systems deciding humans are simply not worth keeping around and the ultimate hopelessness of heroism.
Gerson delivers a dour sermon, with just a bit of light at the end of his otherwise dark tunnel, when he concludes,
"Perhaps, it has been said, we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience. It is an unlikely, even outlandish, hope. But it reaches, on good authority, "even unto the end of the world."
Gerson had me at entropy, a word I've mulled over since my earliest days as a junior scientist, mixing chemicals from my little Christmas gift laboratory, learning about the equality of energy and mass in my physics books and diving deeply (as deep as any amateur can dive) into the Big Bang literature to try to understand why things run down, and why, no matter how hard you try, you will never get the toothpaste back into the tube. So it is true in the macro sense for the world at large: we are not getting out of it alive, either as a species or as a globe.
But there is a more present death awaiting Americans, and it, too, involves entropy and ultimate hopelessness. When America was a true melting pot of people and cultures, we were a relatively small vessel, geographically and demographically speaking. At the start of the 18th century, we were a loosely-linked collection of colonies spread along the Atlantic shoreline with our backs to the Adirondacks, the Alleghenies, the Blue Ridge, the Appalachians and the Smoky Mountains. A political fire fueled by outrage over taxes, unjust import and export laws and a distant royal governance heated our little pot of civilization and it did not take long to bring our blood to a boil. And boil we did. The steam from that roiling cauldron of conflict distilled into clouds of freedom, and as the fires of revolution were banked, the cool rain of independence fell from those clouds and began to wash over the mountains and across the continent. It was not, however, a soothing, healing flood of righteousness.
We were a nation on the move, growing and exploring, building, advancing relentlessly with a selfish sense of divine destiny driving our wheels along ever-lengthening tracks. In the process, we overwhelmed and nearly obliterated another culture -- the First Americans -- and we abused millions of newcomers -- Chinese, Italians, the Irish, slavs and, slaves -- who were nothing more to the sons and daughters of the Founders than cheap labor, good for little more than cotton-picking and pick-and-shovel duty. Their discarded bodies enriched the soil along every railroad track, and in every plantation field. The feet that stepped off the Mayflower, now pressed down on the necks of the unfortunate millions who missed that boat.
Some say the Civil War was about slavery, others say it was all politics and still others say it was about economics. There are solid cases to be made for all three -- and more. But in the end, the Civil War was about brute force and which side could bring it to bear first, fastest and with finality. The goal of that war was punishment, pure and simple. And in victory, the North sought to castigate the South by the worst possible punishment: abandonment. You lost; you are shunned. You will wither on your twisted vines of discontent and treachery, and we will pick over what is left of your vision until even that is gone.
I don't believe America ever recovered from the Civil War; the conflict continues to this day in forms not always recognizable, but with patterns that cannot be denied. The secessionist family of states that was left to die at Appomattox 150 years ago this month managed to bear more young whose hate and bitterness bubble up among disaffected black and white Americans and immigrants like the flame-fed roiling waters in that first pot of revolution.
The Congress is a sadly divided, no-compromise, winner-take-all body of some of the most selfish politicians this nation has ever raised; with every bill that is fought over partisan ties, America slips further and further away from the fixes we so desperately need. In this, the 21st century, Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, published 150 years ago, is still unacceptable to a staggering percent of members of Congress, many of whom are proud deniers not only of climate change, but of the basic sciences that underpin the functioning of everything. Bible-thumping adherence to the strict interpretation of your god's word is fine in its place, but not in the halls of Congress, not where reason and open-minded inquiry are in such desperate need. If that is how you truly feel, take to the pulpit, don't take to the floor of the House or Senate.
Our national budget is a farce; our debt is deplorable; some of the most basic institutions set in place to help the poor, sick and homeless are held hostage by Capitol Hill hysterics and shut-down threats. Our national defense is stretched so thin by our incessant need to solve everyone else's problems that the young men and women who are doing the fighting -- and dying -- are coming home in bits and pieces, even when they look whole.
The White House has been held by a string of do-nothing presidents, Republican and Democrat, incapable, apparently, of recognizing the real threats to our national security: a failing education system and racial and economic divides that are tearing us apart faster and faster each day. When I think of the money that was wasted in creating the Department of Homeland Security, I weep.
The Supreme Court, in its Citizens United vs. FEC ruling dealt the coup de grâce to any hope of fairly-financed elections, and virtually ran the average American out of democracy's picture. Now, we are but a page-turn away from becoming an oligarchy financed by a heartless fraction-of-a-percent of alleged Americans who have little use for the little guy.
What has happened over the years since the Civil War is a dilution of the original spirit of the Revolution -- national entropy has set in and all our institutions are slowly winding down, no longer able to address the needs of a burgeoning, racist, dumbed-down society. There are the occasional glimmers of our prior greatness -- but I cannot name one right now. Oh, yes...our men and women in uniform and our veterans. They represent the goodness of our national soul. But they, too, are a dying breed.
Michael Gerson's column almost got it right: we are in peril. But not from without, but from within. I give America 75 years...maybe 100 if we're lucky.