Ennui have a problem?
There is a lot of hand-wringing over how we could end up with home-grown terrorists, whether you want to talk about those killing for their view of Islam, or their view of Christianity, or their view of the government. Of these, it is the former that seems to incite the greatest concern. How could westerners, frequently raised in the comfort of our materialistic society, come to believe that their neighbors or coworkers deserved to die simply because they didn’t share the same faith? Realistically, with more than 300 million people in the US and half a billion in the EU, it only takes one in a million to create a sufficient cadre to make trouble, so maybe this is just an unavoidable consequence of large numbers.
GG wonders, though, how much of this is simply ennui, a society that is sort of drifting aimlessly towards no goal other than self-gratification, the result being individual dissatisfaction with broader reasons for being. What great cause is there to aspire to? Looking backwards, there was the Cold War to win, the Moon to reach first, before that Nazi Germany and its allies to defeat, before that the brutality of the Depression to survive. Maybe the 1920s were the last time when there wasn’t some greater goal, and even then there was the newly found excitement of long-distance leisure travel by road or air to induce exploration by all.
Sure, there are challenges today, but ending poverty was a 1960s initiative that didn’t end poverty. Wiping out disease, ending hunger, these are constants in the background that simply have not engaged the public. The “War on Terror” is looking a lot like the “War on Drugs”, an endless morass of constantly shifting opponents reminiscent of attempts to fully enforce prohibition.
Generations raised on books and even comics could be inspired to try to see the wonders that might be out there, whether it be space stations or aliens or super fast planes simply because such media required you to imagine how it would be to experience these things. But today CG artists have gotten so good that many really want to revisit that place created in the movie, not to explore what might really be out there. It almost seems at times that the great expressions of imagination in movies act to suppress imagination in movie-goers.
Having long ago been the focus of national pride, the space program keeps hoping to regain that mantle. But constant shifts in goals–we are making a moon base, no, we are going to Mars, no, we are going to capture an asteroid–makes NASA look little different than the Department of Education, its goals a political football for a President to use to try to define a legacy.
The irony is that there is a great cause that could unite the world, and that is to reshape society to allow humanity to share the world with all its other occupants; this is most strongly evident in efforts to limit climate change from human activities. But there is something anticlimactic in making a huge effort to prevent things from changing. Maybe there is a way to spin this to really make it less of a chore and more of a noble calling, but right now it seems to threaten people more than inspire them.
As a scientist, GG occasionally confronts the question, why should society support science? There are two answers. One is shared with endeavors like art and history, music and sport: it is to better understand ourselves and the universe we inhabit. The other is more practical, it is to learn how things work so that we can better do things (or know when not to do things).
Is there a way to make that search for knowledge something the entire nation can share in? The entire world? Is it possible for all of us together to work towards learning both beauty and truth in the world around us without fighting over it? (well, fighting with bloodshed; there are plenty of worthwhile disagreements that help to sharpen new investigations). Would finding a way to engage the population in such a quest end national ennui? Would that reduce the numbers of westerners enticed by a wanna-be caliphate to kill and maim?
You have to at least wonder.