The Other Columbus: We could have changed the world but alas
On lost opportunities and the larger message of John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’
The pandemic has been filled to the brim with all manner of sadness. The 739,000 people that have died to date; the 45 million people who caught a case; the innumerable millions changed by depression and loneliness. Each of those statistics should stop any reasonable person cold, and they’re still going up, which should be enough to stop an unreasonable person 18 months into this hellscape. And yet, sounding too much like my mother whenever I would complain about something as a child, it could be worse. And because it’s 2021, it is. I do not intend to do a roll call of social problems. Who needs that laundry list spelled out for them at this point? But I can’t stop thinking about what we could have had as a country in the last year and a half.
As someone who has lived under some form of oppression for his entire life (most notably racism, but there is a rogue’s gallery of discussion options), I have recycled over and over the frustration that comes with knowing that we, as a country, had an opportunity during the pandemic to change our world and we did not.
We had every resource and technology at our disposal as a society and we did not change the world for the better. And for once, many of us suddenly had the time. Forced to stay home for months (and even now it is not the worst recommendation), Americans had an opportunity to consider the world we had been living in, process what that world should look like, and then maybe — if we could just break past the Trump bubble — effect some kind of social change.
We have more or less survived the pandemic. But not only didn’t we change the world for the better; we refused to.
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Perhaps the world is too large to consider. Let us simply consider our country. For all of our self-righteous nationalism (in all quarters, to some degree), we didn't come close to changing our country for the better. We could have changed education. We could have changed labor and business models. We could have changed how we define and deal with racism. We could have changed this country and yet we leaned into politics. And we did it, not for change, but out of fear. Pick your party; the answer is the same either way.
Politics can change the world but it is not the only way to change the world. In small pockets here and there individual lives were changed for the better. People stepped up and supported causes that they had never supported before. Some began to donate money to causes and people in need for the first time, sensing we were living in a different time and for once having the resources — the bandwidth to learn, the willingness to engage, the money to spend — to participate in hopeful change. But somehow we could not collectively coordinate the power of social media to tie enough of these beautiful pockets of support together to inform our politics, let alone change the world. Our political system was too strong, too entrenched, too rich and too willing to run out the clock until any criticism of the status quo became toothless.
So the question isn't, can politics change the world? It could. But will it? It’s not too hard to see that the answer by-and-large is no.
I am never making a case against being political. I think people should vote, but I also believe that it should be prioritized in our lives a certain way. I don’t think you should vote because it’s massively effective, but because it’s the least you can do and still say you’re participating in a democracy. If we as a society lean into the things that can change the lives around us in our pockets of the world, then politics becomes a lot less important, or at least is reprioritized more in line with how people live and not how politicians deal. It ceases to be the end all, stops being the thing that we do that's “good enough.”
We could have changed the world. It was right there ripe for change. For a moment, I even believed it wanted to be changed. And we didn't do it. So the question we need to ask ourselves moving forward is, what does this mean? Did we need more time to ourselves locked away to consider what we were doing as citizens? Did we need more money? Did we need more freedoms? Did we need to protest more or or show up at more meetings? (I’ll answer that one for you: no.) Did we need to have more conversations? Did we need to have more Zoom meetings? Did we need to fire all of the politicians? Do we need more mandates again? More rules?
I’m sure some of the answer lies in those questions, but none of the answers will mean anything if we cannot build the will to change.
That got a little nihilistic, didn’t it? Here, take this movie recommendation in the spirit of reconciliation and Halloween: John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982). It is not only the perfect Halloween movie, but the perfect movie, period. Also, extra credit: It portends a world in which humanity could be lost if the will does not exist to save it, though the culprit is an alien and not just people you disagree with on the internet.