Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
As a Latinist, I’m pleased to see the phrase “annus horribilis” cropping up everywhere. But it bespeaks our incredible comfort and wealth that we are bemoaning a year that, in the context of even recent history, our ancestors would have called an “annus mirabilis” –– a year of wonders.
No doubt, on many levels 2020 was dismal. A pandemic––relatively mild as pandemics go, and concentrated among the elderly already dying of something else–– was met with hysteria, confusion, incoherent advice from “experts,” outbursts of petty tyranny from blue-state governors and mayors, and rank politicization aimed at bringing down one of the most effective presidents in the postwar period. A booming economy was stopped in its tracks by lockdown orders based on whim, panic, or politics rather than science or even common sense. Riots and protests over a mythic epidemic of police murdering unarmed black men were tolerated, encouraged, and at times funded by civic leaders. Tens of thousands of small business have disappeared, most forever. Children were cooped up at home staring at computer screens instead of interacting in real time with real human beings. A presidential election was marred by patently fraudulent practices, and will probably stand as the Supreme Court, the DOJ, and the FBI worry more about their institutional reputations and guild loyalties than their duty to the Constitution.
As always, though, such dire complaints always demand a coda––Compared to what?
Indeed, compared to the past, these disasters appear to be luxuries for the privileged wealthy. The violent riots, vandalism, and looting of 2020 don’t even come close to the assassinations, kidnappings, and hundreds of bombings in the Sixties and Seventies, or the anarchist mayhem at the turn of the 20th century. “Racist” oppression today would have been paradise to the black Americans who lived through slavery and legal segregation, when daily insults and humiliations were punctuated with race-riots and lynchings, and there really was “systemic racism” in Jim Crow laws validated by the Supreme Court and the “scientific racism” of our most credentialed elites. Black people back then didn’t need to invent “implicit bias,” because real racism was regularly expressed with physical, often lethal violence.
Or take our hysteria over the coronavirus. Infectious diseases once swept away millions of people of all ages––most of the Civil War dead died from infections, not fatal battlefield wounds. Our current coronavirus toll, 80 percent of whom comprise those over 70, is an artifact of the astonishing longevity modern medical science has bestowed on us. We may think 330,000 dead is frightening, but the Spanish Flu of 1918 killed 675,000 of all ages in the U.S.––the equivalent of about 2,000,000 dead today if one controls for our larger population. The world before us, as Raymond Tallis has said, was a “kingdom of pain,” one without the cheap analgesics and antibiotics that we take for granted.
Our modern freedom from this sort of everyday pain results from our liberation from the other daily suffering that in the past was a tragic constant of human life. Just consider the infectious diseases and parasites that we in the West are now mostly freed from or, if we still suffer them, kill us in miniscule numbers: salmonella, polio, cholera, typhoid, viral hepatitis, whooping cough, diphtheria, parasitic worms (pinworms, threadworms, hookworms), intestinal parasites, malaria, chickenpox, smallpox (300 million just in the 20th century), measles, mumps, influenza (50 million killed as late as 1918), plague (a third of the population of Europe in the 14th century, around 20 million people), tuberculosis, typhus (a million in Ireland from 1845-47), yellow fever, and numerous venereal diseases, all of which devastated our ancestors, who simply had to endure the pain, live deformed, or die.
Throw in chronic hunger, malnutrition, famine, everyday cruelty, back-breaking labor, and physical violence as other constants of daily life that we modern Westerners suffer rarely if at all, and one begins to take Dostoevsky’s point when he said human beings are ungrateful animals.
This sense of entitlement and elevated expectations for human life is a consequence of improvements that have ended or mitigated those evils, and our incredible wealth and its wide distribution. Freed from pain, institutional cruelty and violence, hunger, malnutrition, and many diseases, we can afford to elevate ever more subtle injustices, disappointments, and psychic wounds into cosmic evils. And progressivism is the political ideology founded on this false promise of endless improvement and progress toward the utopia of perfect equality and social justice, a world freed from the tragic constants of human experience as documented on every page of history. Yet still we are unsatisfied and disgruntled because utopia is literally “nowhere,” and ever recedes beyond the horizon no matter how much life improves or how well-fed, entertained, or safe we are. Until perfection comes, such material well-being will never be enough, and demands for improvement will never be satisfied.
The phenomenon of “woke” racialist political activism illustrates this tragic flaw of human nature. Despite the vast improvement of black American lives since World War II, activists still complain about “racism” and “white privilege,” and demand policies and funding to alleviate these heinous injustices. More paradoxical, the existing dysfunctions among the black underclass are a function not of “racism,” but of patronizing, ill-designed government programs and the erosion of traditional virtues and mores that both exploded in the Sixties.
Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley summarized this by now obvious consequence of the federal government’s baleful effects on the most vulnerable of black Americans:
Between 1890 and 1940, for example, black marriage rates in the U.S. where higher than white marriage rates. In the 1940s and ’50s, black labor-participation rates exceeded those of whites; black incomes grew much faster than white incomes; and the black poverty rate fell by 40 percentage points. Between 1940 and 1970—that is, during Jim Crow and prior to the era of affirmative action—the number of blacks in middle-class professions quadrupled. In other words, racial gaps were narrowing. Steady progress was being made. Blacks today hear plenty about what they can’t achieve due to the legacy of slavery and not enough about what they did in fact achieve notwithstanding hundreds of years in bondage followed by decades of legal segregation.
In the post-’60s era, these positive trends would slow, stall, or in some cases even reverse course. The homicide rate for black men fell by 18% in the 1940s and by another 22% in the 1950s. But in the 1960s all of those gains would vanish as the homicide rate for black males rose by nearly 90%. Are today’s black violent-crime rates a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow or of something else? Unfortunately, that’s a question few people on the left will even entertain.
And Donald Trump’s economic policies that unleashed the “animal spirits” of American capitalism were improving black employment numbers until feckless lockdown policies in response to the coronavirus reversed that progress.
Finally, this dissatisfaction with a life our ancestors would have only dreamed of, is stoked and exploited by progressive ideologues. Their most effective tactical axiom for a hundred years has been “never let a crisis go to waste,” and if there is no legitimate crisis, make one up. Our own tendency to always raise the bar of well-being and contentment is a constant of human nature that progressives exploit to make this tactic successful. Indeed, aided by anxiety and fear over the coronavirus and violent riots, hyped and amplified by the lap-dog media, the Democrats took advantage of too many voters who scapegoated the president for the virus, or had grown tired of his brash and insulting tweets, or just wanted the incessant 24/7 screeching about Trump to stop.
So much so that they forgot all his achievements that, in a second term free of virus hysteria, would have no doubt multiplied. Instead, they allegedly voted into office a known grifter and life-long Leviathan, Inc. company man who will return to the failed progressive policies of the Obama years.
If the election stands, next year will provide even more occasions for apocalyptic angst. But let’s remember that we are the healthiest, freest, richest, most indulged people who ever walked the earth. And we have been blessed with a Constitution that, despite a century of attacks by progressive technocrats, still provides us with regularly scheduled elections every two years through which we can change course. We are still free citizens, who can demand reform of election laws and procedures if we hold state officials accountable with our votes.
That political freedom alone makes every year in America an annus mirabilis.