What will the future say about us?

It is a conceit of each generation to think that they live in a particularly unusual period of history, seeing the troubles they experience as somehow particularly difficult and looking back nostalgically to the past. For example, some conservatives in the US look back on the 1950s and 1960s as a wonderful period that they wish they could return to. Trump’s slogan of ‘Make America Great Again‘ was designed to appeal to them by echoing that sentiment. In reality, that period was one of deep segregation, racism, sexism, and homophobia, not to mention living with the fear of nuclear war that required taking part in drills. It was by no means an idyllic time.

The reality is that there is a mix of the good and the bad in each generation’s lives and how they view the past depends on which segment of the population they descended from, whether it was the ins or the outs.

But we can sometimes identify some unique characteristics that can be overlaid on each generation’s experiences. I have been trying to think of what, some day in the future, people are going to look back at this current time and see as its identifying characteristic. I think that it may be to wonder how it could be that so many people in the US who had access to good information could, and urged on by major political leaders, refuse to recognize the existence of a deadly virus that was causing a pandemic and affecting people all around them, refuse to take the vaccine that had significant evidence of being able to prevent death and serious illness, fight against common-sense preventative measures, and then when they do get sick, decide to put into their bodies all manner of untested treatments. I do not know if anything even remotely similar has happened in the past or in any other country.

This is a level of irrational behavior that speaks to some deep-seated problems in the national psyche.


  1. Allison says

    I don’t think the refusal of many people to get vaccinated has a simple cause.

    First of all, Black people and other groups that are the targets of systematic racism have good reason to distrust what we privileged white people would consider the sources of “good information” — the government, the medical industry, and the mainstream media — as all three have a long sordid history of mistreating and lying to those groups, and this racism is also the reason those groups have suffered from the epidemic out of proportion to their numbers. It shouldn’t surprise us that many of them simply assume that anything they hear from those sources is a lie that’s intended to harm them.

    Second, for all that we talk of “good information,” at this point there are lots and lots of sources of “information,” and a lot of them are supplying reasons to not get vaccinated. You and I may think it obvious that the ones that are doing so are not to be trusted, but even the sources that we might consider reliable do a lot of lying and suppressing stuff.

  2. flex says

    With all due respect Mano, I think you are incorrect on all three counts.

    1. Throughout history, there are innumerable examples of irrational behavior by large segments of a population. There has been some recent discussion of the same sort of behavior during the 1918 Influenza epidemic. I would say these records were unearthed, but they were never really buried. It was only the academics who studied such topics who remembered them. There are also records of people during the Black plague in the fourteenth century taking actions which were counter to medical practices at the time, or deciding to slaughter Jews in the ghettos because they Jewish people (due to their religious requirements of cleanliness) were not as impacted by the plague as other Europeans.

    But beyond ignoring medical advice, similar irrational behaviors are present in other areas. Think of the major economic bubbles: The Mississippi Bubble, the South Sea Bubble, the 1920’s Economic Bubble, or the 1990’s Internet Bubble. In all these cases a significant portion (less than 50%, but greater than 20%) felt that the stock market would make everyone rich and it would never end.

    The seminal work in this area was Charles MacKay’s 1841 work, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds still in print and still very readable. Since subsequent research has both critiqued and endorsed his work (which is not unsurprising), his examples should be taken with a grain of salt. This book is available to read for free at Project Gutenburg, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/24518/24518-h/24518-h.htm

    2. In general people will not look back at the current time. Academics might, those who specialize in early 21st century politics. But the general population will not remember this event within 50 years. In 50 years the COVID 19 Epidemic will be a story grandpa tells his grandkids. In 100 years it will be forgotten by everyone unless some event, like another plague, brings it back into people memories. There will be the occasional click-bait story, “You Won’t Believe What Your Grandparents Used to Medicate a Virus! Follow Link to Learn More!”

    3. This irrational behavior is not a problem with the national psyche, it’s part of human nature. When there is a battle between people in authority, people choose sides. The reason for the side they choose is not rational, but usually depends on, “How alike am I to a specific authority.” People will choose the authority they identify more closely with. That’s why people will vote for a “President I can have a beer with.” I don’t really understand why the authority figures in the US have decided that political party is the venue they will fight. But both parties try to appeal to voters by creating personas they think voters will identify with. The trust-fund baby, Tucker Carlson, has developed the “I’m Just Asking Questions” schtick. This is highly effective because a lot of people think that if someone is asking a question, that person is being honest. They don’t realize that deliberately sowing the seeds of doubt is also a form of persuasion.

    So, in short, I don’t think the irrational behavior of today is unique, it will be forgotten soon, and the reason these behaviors occur is not a national thing, but so very, very, human.

  3. jrkrideau says

    This is a level of irrational behavior that speaks to some deep-seated problems in the national psyche.

    I think the sheer magnatude of the US response is shocking but most of the behaviours, other than that of crazed, mainly Republican,politicians are mirrored here in Canada, in Australia, and much of Europe. Germany seems a good example.

    The USA seems to have had the unfortunate confluence of a wildly polarized political situation, an institutionalized distrust of government, a president that would give Caligula a run for the title of “mad emperor”, and a lot of evangelical, anti-science, idiots all at the same time.

    These circumstances seem to have just magnified behaviours that were completely predictable.
    Wondering why society went off-kilter during the pandemic?

  4. birgerjohansson says

    Considering the ongoing mass extinction and the continuing CO2 crisis, they will look back at us and say ‘good riddance to bad rubbish’.

  5. billseymour says

    … that period was one of deep segregation, racism, sexism, and homophobia, …

    I was around during the middle of the last century.  It was a good time economically for white males; and I wouldn’t mind going back to that (strong unions, high marginal tax rates, a rising middle class) if all the disgusting shit that Mano mentioned didn’t come with it.

    I didn’t notice the disgusting bits until much later because I didn’t know anyone who was affected by it.

  6. Dunc says

    “The boundary layer which marks the sixth great extinction has a number of very peculiar features, which have baffled the the finest scientific minds for many years. Some radical thinkers have even argued that it was the result of the activities of a previous intelligent species, although this is generally regarded as implausible, since no species with the technologically capability to effect such a dramatic and widespread reshaping of the environment could possibly be foolish enough to do so.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *