We’ve been hearing “change is good” for so long some of us believe it, but the more changes I see the more things get worse.
The newest and greatest improvements do not make for a better world, at least not my world. Google and cellphones and self-driving cars are huge advances but if they vanished tomorrow I’d be thrilled.
RANDOM EXAMPLE: Think of Sitting Bull, the Lakota chief who late in life visited the eastern shores of a still-young America. He left the big blue skies of Montana to witness a civilization illuminated by gas lamps above brick streets alongside buildings 60 feet high. Maybe he ate citrus fruit and chocolate.
In 1885 Sitting Bull co-starred in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, a touring act featuring Annie Oakley, William Cody himself, and a cast that included wild animals, soldiers and Indian warriors. He was applauded, gave out autographs, and earned a robust $50 weekly.
And yet, having seen the blossoming wonders of the late 19th century and the undeniable grandeur of Philadelphia and New York, mustn’t he have suffered despair all the while? How could he have not been melancholy? How could he have not longed for his tranquil past and happy life on the western plains?
He was famously quoted: “I’d rather die an Indian than live as a white man.”
Sitting Bull was marooned among people with whom he could not easily communicate in their chunky, staccato language, and must have felt semi-mute and lonely. No matter the comforts and amenities of Schenectady, only home across the countless miles of mountains and prairies, could truly be comforting and beautiful.
Everything in his new world we would view as improved compared to his primitive years among the ponies and the tipi lodges. But to Sitting Bull life must have seemed drab and sterile inside an artificially lit, plaster-lined room in Trenton.
All those marvelous changes and all those incredible improvements, yet life itself becomes less fulfilling? Less meaningful?
And I say, Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about, with today’s astounding digital wonders (5G networks! Uploads on demand!) because they all add up to no more than another big, shiny, hollow puzzle.
I’m lost in the 21st century and getting loster. The world keeps moving forward one gigabyte at a time, or six, while I’m standing at the station hoping to buy a bus ticket to take me a few decades back home. There’s a flask in my coat pocket and I’m ready to travel to yesterday to forget all the things I learned in the future.
I still don’t know what apps are, Bitcoin scares me, and though I can define words like streaming, chrome, cloud and apple, none of them mean what they’ve always meant. I dislike reading off a backlit screen, and soon enough there will be no books, no libraries, only digital impulses transmitting stories about dogs, celebrities and politicians saving the world. The stories will be assembled via algorithms.
Children educated at computer screens suggest we aren’t serious about educating children, and news from Harvard that one-plus-one no longer equals two proves it. To laugh and call such arithmetic nonsense is a crime at universities opposed to honest thinking and diverse opinion. Students are hypnotized into victimhood. Friends advocate banning freedom of speech. Airline passengers bring chickens aboard for emotional support.
Society turned a corner and I didn’t. I’ve spent 35 years out of step, vaguely misplaced, bewildered, unable to make rhyme with my fellow inmates. I don’t understand feeling glum at the death of a game show host. I cannot comprehend “Americans” destroying our monuments, dragging statues of our ancestors through mud, and vandalizing sculptures of Abe Lincoln and the Virgin Mary. Storming the Capitol and breaking beautiful old doors and stained glass sickens me. What is Beyonce?
Travel, getting simpler, is more difficult. I’m using sextants and a compass to make my way, while another layer of digital stuff “navigates” people where they’re going without anyone knowing how they got here. Cars are ugly and all look alike and pretty soon they’ll drive themselves, meaning machinery will guide me, not vice-versa.
But no. No it won’t. Let me thunder down Highway One again at 70 miles an hour in a Mustang convertible, Bob Dylan on the dashboard jukebox, Sitting Bull riding shotgun. At a sharp tall turn south of Gualala we plunge and become a tumbling metal boulder, shredded canvas fluttering behind, bouncing off the sand, hissing into the sea.
This will not be new to Sitting Bull, who returned to his beloved western plains as on old man, was shot to death by Indians in South Dakota, and as he died perhaps he wondered, not for the first time, how the world got so out of whack.
(Tom Hine, who writes this column via theTWK byline, asks ‘What corner did we turn that finds us in a land where election victory is not enough? Are we now sore winners, demanding the vanquished be humiliated, destroyed, impeached, ground to dust ‘neath the heel of a boot? An endless blizzard of petty lawsuits to burden, break and hopefully impoverish him? Shall we force him naked through the streets, ankles chained, while tormentors taunt and jeer and children jab him with sharp sticks? Is this what we’ve become?)