"Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past."
Eliot is, I think, one of the greatest of poets, and as my own eye is distracted by ever more intractable problems in our political process, I have often taken comfort in the more nuanced and universal eye of a truly great poet.
This blog eschews detailed futurology, the present is difficult enough, and the future in detail cannot be accurately predicted. Yet there are ways we can think about the future. We can identify trends, we can make general statements, and as humans, most of all, we can use our imagination to shape the future.
Neither is this blog particularly relativist. There are some universal truths, and saying "it ain't so" does not change them. We can use the scientific method to establish facts about our existence. No matter how powerfully contrary opinions may be expressed, the facts remain supported by analysis and evidence, when mere supposition is not. More to the point the same, Socratic, method can establish worth for a variety of different concepts. We can establish the likelihood of achieving desired goals, and we can set relative values on those goals.
Objectively the world is not the mess of popular imagination. At no point in human history have we lived longer, more peacefully, or more prosperously. In general, we have been spared the pestilence and famine that has afflicted all previous generations. Even the crises that afflict our discourse: in the middle east for example, the level of violence- cruel as it may be- is pretty low by historic standards. We know more, travel more, see more, than we have ever known. We share each others cuisines', languages' and indeed countries' in ways that would astound people even two generations past.
Yet we do see, despite this unprecedented wealth, that there is one area which is weaker than the past: our leaders. Faith in democratic institutions is falling, and national leaders are generally assumed to be incompetent and/or corrupt. In a sense the emergence of the crooked braggart, Donald John Trump, as the leader of the worlds most powerful state is a symbolic symptom of a wider democratic retreat. But the root cause is a failure to recognize some universal truths. Responsible politics must rest on Socratic virtues like wisdom, temperance, courage and justice,.However, the political brands are marketed like soap powder. Instead of talking about establishing key principles for how difficult government decisions should be made, we turn political debate into a choice of which incomplete and ill thought out policies should be imposed, regardless of changing times, as parties seek to offer bribes to the electorate. We talk about "tough choices" without justifying them.
Yet the electorate is wise to this process, and the gathering disillusion has led to a dismissive "you're all the same", a statement that could hardly be more corrosive of democracy in general. Under such circumstances the voters turn to people who are demonstrably different- be that shyster American real estate celebrities or thuggish Brazilian neo-Fascists.
Meanwhile those who have espoused conventional politics, such as Angela Merkel, seem lacklustre or clumsy. A new broom in politics is called for. Yet the deep fear is that we are in a time that mirrors the 1930s, where violent and criminal leaders overthrew democracy.
It could indeed be so. I took the nom-de-blog of Cicero because I feared that I was living in a time of collapse, similar to that of the late Roman Republic. I still have that fear, but equally, and like Cicero himself, I believe that there are political solutions that can maintain freedom and wise, temperate and fair societies.
However in order to do this, we must relearn some lessons.
The first is to recognize that we have failed to express the higher goals of our society. We offered transactional policies, and when the bargain failed, we alienated the voters. People tell me that political messages need to be simple, and certainly when one listens to opinion polls that show many people still believe things that have been comprehensively disproved you do begin to despair a little. Yet dumbing-down has not improved the clarity of the debate, indeed in many cases it actually insults the intelligence of the electorate. Expressing well thought-out ideas should not alienate, even if not all understand them: they may still give you marks for intelligence.
The second is to relearn the virtues of moderation. There are ideas in every platform that have validity, and instead of belittling and attacking all ideas of our political opponents, we should engage and critique. If we know our own principles, we can accept policies that support those principles, while at the same time being coherent in our own world view.
The third is to express and to follow a moral course. It is the cynicism and self serving nature of politics that puts off most people. We need to praise those who serve the public good, as well as attacking those we oppose.
These are high principles, but as we examine the history of ideas, we see again and again that divisiveness is best fought with the counter-intuitive ideas of inclusion and collaboration, provided- of course- that we do not compromise on principles, especially the Socratic virtues.
We live in a time of fear. Our systems and leaders weakened, with the growing possibility of economic and social breakdown and even war- a war likely to involve a nuclear exchange. Yet this does not have to be a parallel to 1930s collapse. We have the ideas to solve our problems: ecological, social and political.
The question is can we, individually and collectively make moral choices to change things for the better?