Friday, 6 January 2017

Generation Ruin

For the first time I can recall, I am greeting the New Year with more fear than optimism. My personal circumstances are all right, for which I am very grateful; but the wider direction is frightening. I was born in 1978 and came of age in the 1990s. My generation grew up in a time of extraordinary optimism, which is now dead and gone.

It wasn't all sunshine. The first event in world news I clearly remember was the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989. At school, they showed us the news on television, and we saw the brave student protestors with their version of the Statue of Liberty, named the Goddess of Democracy. Then we saw the tanks roll in. It was educational, although not in the way our teachers had hoped.

A man stands in front of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square.
Image source: Wikipedia


After that, though, came an era of spectacular progress. The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989; across Eastern Europe, one dictatorship after another fell, to be replaced by a fledgling democracy. Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, and would be elected President of South Africa in 1992. In 1991, a multinational coalition ejected Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait, and we naively supposed the UN might become a great force for peace. Talks began to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the very end of 1991, the USSR dissolved with remarkably little violence.

In 1997, the UK elected a young and energetic Prime Minister named Tony Blair. In 1999, the Good Friday Agreement provided a path to end the Northern Ireland conflict. Paramilitaries on both sides laid down their weapons.

There were shadows: The assassination of Israel's Prime Minister Rabin, the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s. But it was easy to believe the overall trajectory was upwards. In hindsight, the millennium was a halcyon time, when our biggest concerns were a software bug and a stained blue dress.

Then came the September 11 attacks, the Iraq War, the financial crash. All of them were awful, but I think the optimism of my formative years had become a habit. All right, this batch of leaders have messed up, but surely the next ones will correct their mistakes. Surely we can overcome these setbacks and get back on the path of progress. Surely President Obama's wise and constructive leadership will make a difference.

Unfortunately our leaders learned too little, too late, and sometimes the wrong lessons entirely. In Barack Obama, the USA had an extraordinary but flawed President, stymied by an all too ordinary Congress. In David Cameron, the UK had at best a mediocre and unimaginative Prime Minister; he had a brilliant scheme to shut down his party's internal battles over Europe, which turned out to be rather like killing an infestation of ants by dynamiting your house. In Francois Hollande, France had a total nonentity of a President, so unpopular he isn't even bothering to run for re-election.

Now we have Trump, and Brexit, and the French National Front on the march. Progressive parties decline into irrelevance, and at best we have a choice between heartless conservatives and outright fascists. Germany's Angela Merkel is the last responsible leader standing, and she has problems of her own.

It's time to face facts: We're in deep trouble, it is likely to get worse, and we'll be lucky to escape without total disaster. No hero is going to save us. Our problems are deep and systemic; fixing them will take collective effort and ingenuity over many years.

I'm thinking of how this looks to the generation after me. People who turned eighteen last year were born in 1998. They were two or three years old when the Twin Towers fell, five when the Iraq War started, ten when the financial crash occurred. They've come of age in the aftermath of catastrophe, as our leaders stumbled haplessly about in the wreckage. Now some of our inept and blundering leaders are being replaced with actively malevolent ones, and the worst may be yet to come.

Sorry, guys. The older generations have well and truly fubar'd the start of the twenty-first century. I hope we can make it better, but the signs so far are not good. It may be left to your age group to try and rebuild from whatever is left. On behalf of my son, who has just turned two, I hope you do a better job than your predecessors.

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