Resolved: To Stop Imagining that Anything's Been Resolved

Things that humans are probably stuck with: eating, drinking, breathing, sex, love, friendship, anger, fear, joy, death, hope and change.

Things that some humans used to commonly claim humanity was permanently and inevitably stuck with (but have stopped thinking about in those terms, even if the thing is still around): monarchy, slavery, blood feuds, dueling, human sacrifice, cannibalism, corporal punishment, second-class status for women, bigotry toward GLBT, feudalism, Eric Cantor.

Things that humans illogically, baselessly, shortsightedly, and absurdly assume must always be with us, as if nothing had ever changed before: environmental destruction, war, mass-incarceration, capital punishment, police forces, religion, carnivorianism, extreme materialism, nuclear energy and weaponry, racism, poverty, plutocracy, capitalism, nationalism, the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Senate, the CIA, guns, the NSA, Guantanamo prison, torture, Hillary Clinton.

The year 2014 will be remembered as yet another year in which we inched closer toward environmental and militarized catastrophe, but also perhaps as a year in which crisis and enlightenment combined to open a few more eyes to the full range of possibilities available.

How often have you heard things like “We can’t end war, because there is evil in the world, but we can end unjust wars” or “Renewable energy is a nice idea but can’t actually work (even though it works in other countries)” or “We need police — we just need accountability when certain police officers perform badly” or “We could legalize drugs but we’d still need prisons or we’d all be raped and killed” or “If we don’t kill murderers we’ll have more murder (like all those countries that have abolished capital punishment and have less murder)” or “We need reforms but we can’t survive without the CIA or something like it — we can’t just not spy on people” or “Ever-increasing environmental destruction is inevitable”?

That last one could be true if feedback loops have already taken the earth’s climate to a point of no return. But it can’t be true in terms of human behavior. Nor can any of the others. And I suspect a lot of people see my point and agree with me on it. But how many view all of the above sentences as ludicrous?

A serious argument could be made that a human utopia should be policed by a police force. But no serious argument can be made that a police force is an inevitable accompaniment of our species, a species that saw 99% of its existence unpoliced. Most people in the small number of places that are at war take no part in it. Nations go for centuries without war. Homo sapiens went most of our existence without war. Massive institutions cannot be inevitable. Hunger and love are the kind of things that are inevitable. We ought to start hearing assertions of inevitability for institutions as ridiculous nonsense. Doing so might be the most serious action we can take.

Of course reforming a criminal justice system a little bit is the proper first step whether you think another step can follow or not. But the direction of the step may vary if you have a different final destination in mind. There’s a difference between ending a war in order to be better prepared for other wars, and ending a war because it kills people and exemplifies an institution that should be dismantled and eliminated. Both efforts can have the same short-term result, but only one has the potential to go further and help avoid the next war.

An argument — I hesitate to call it serious — could be made that pretty much everything is going well, and that nothing much should be altered. Not only can such an argument be made, but it is subtly and powerfully made by just about everything that is ever said on our televisions and in our newspapers. It does not, however, add up to any argument that everything must inevitably continue unchanged, that nothing can be slowly or rapidly made over into a different sort of world.

We need to resolve to realize that nothing has been resolved, history has not ended, questions of politics have not been settled — and that they never will be, that the very idea is incoherent. And isn’t that what makes life worth living?