Meaning and purpose are possible for each of us. But we have to choose them.
Last week I encountered two writers on the same day who expressed skepticism at Dr. Martin Luther King’s confident claim that “the arc of the moral universe . . . bends toward justice.” This came on the heels of reading Anne Applebaum’s “The Autocrats Are Winning” and months of paying attention to what is unfolding on the world stage. I’ve been waiting anxiously to see if Taiwan will go the way of Hong Kong, or Ukraine the way of Crimea. And I’ve been wondering if anyone will seriously take a stand for the Uighurs in labor camps in Xinjiang or the young women hiding from the Taliban in Afghanistan.
All the while, the liberal democracies and the various alliances we’ve counted on to act as guardians of freedom and human rights stand by hesitant and in apparent uncertainty. Their failure to act is not just because of the sheer number or magnitude of the global challenges. Nor is it merely due to a preoccupation with domestic political gridlock, or the persistence of internal racism and Anti-Semitism, or even the ongoing challenges of the pandemic. It is also the complex intertwining of global economics, geography and technology that leaves no one trustworthy or credible enough to be—or to be perceived as—an honest broker or even a truly disinterested party in the international arena.
The current moment actually makes one look (almost) wistfully at the post-World War II decades of the Cold War. Back then, the rules of international diplomacy seemed clearer, and the “sides” more defined. Even the politics of nuclear brinkmanship and the managing of multiple “shadow wars” in that bi-polar world had taken on a kind of predictability—perhaps, even its own form of stability.
As we enter 2022, there are obvious reasons to be afraid—and even paralyzed—as we view the world from the small window of our personal vantage point. This is where historical perspective can offer occasion for hope and a framework for making meaningful daily choices.
This is certainly not the first time that liberal democracies have appeared at loose ends and ineffectual. Remember the 1930’s. After the heady optimism of the end of World War I—when people spoke of “the war to end all wars” or “the war to make the world safe for democracy”—the hard realities of disappointed expectations, failed promises, frustrated hopes, and, finally, global economic depression seemed too much for the liberal democracies of the world to handle. Then, as now, individuals and societies fled to the political poles, looking to authoritarian leaders of the far left and far right for someone to take charge, to provide answers, to assign blame, and to give direction for solving apparently insoluble domestic and international challenges. We know how that all turned out. And we have sought desperately since 1945 to avoid a general all-out global war. We need to continue to do that!
We would do well to pay attention to the lessons of that period. For since the late 1980s the world has been living off of another high, when it seemed that the values of freedom and liberal democracy were winning the day. Many of us saw the Berlin Wall come down; the candlelit Wenceslas Square of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia; the breakup of the Soviet Union; Nelson Mandela released from prison on Robbin Island, and the end of apartheid proclaimed in South Africa. The euphoria of victory for the “free world” was tangible. I remember a brief period in the early 1990’s when there was actual discussion about how we would spend the “peace dividend”—all those funds that were to be released now that we no longer had to worry about the Cold War. I have saved a textbook from that period which speaks of the “end of nationalism” in Europe during that time of increased international cooperation. Later on, we thought for a moment that the forces of democracy had “won” in Iraq; we saw the hopefulness of the Arab Spring in the Middle East, and perhaps even dared to hope for a new day for Afghanistan.
Once again, the optimism of the rhetoric and the hopeful ideals of freedom and democracy have run headlong into the realities of history. Building institutions that truly empower human potential and freedom is the work of centuries—and, even then, such institutions are at the mercy of perennial human imperfection and just plain selfishness. As a result, after the euphoria usually comes the disappointment, and then the cynicism. I remember a young Czech academic in the 1990’s sharing her disillusionment when her hero Vaclav Havel chose to live in the Presidential palace and “travel with a larger entourage than the Pope.” Even then, she saw the risks of the free market and how the very institutions designed to maximize freedom also allowed for the abuse of trust. As she once told a group of visiting American students, “It is the Black Marketeers who already knew how to make capitalism work for them—and them alone.”
The answers that history offers are not easy. Nor is the hopefulness automatic. The work of building institutions that create and sustain the conditions that make for justice, freedom, and the realization of individual potential is not accomplished once and for all in some gargantuan global gathering or in the halls of Congress in Washington. This is not to say that such gatherings as the United Nations, the World Economic Forum, or Congress have no purpose. But it is to say that we must not wait for them to bring hope to the world.
The hope that history offers is opportunity: the opportunities available to each individual—no matter one’s context and however limited one’s sphere of agency—to choose one’s friends, to choose one’s priorities and attachments, to choose to be truth-seekers and truth-tellers, to choose to promote justice, to choose to be creative, and to choose how to spend one’s love. (See chapter nine of Robert Putnam’s Upswing or chapter six of Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy for further development of these possibilities.) These choices are costly. But they permit us to live lives of meaning and purpose in the midst of whatever else is going on in the world. They permit us, in the spirit of Churchill’s wartime poster, to “Deserve Victory.” And, collectively, these choices magnify the surprising possibility that, in the end, the arc of the universe will, in fact, bend toward justice.
Let us choose to be on the side of hope, not fear, as we enter 2022.
Shirley A. Mullen (PhD) is President Emerita of Houghton College and longtime history professor.
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