#3. We Don't Recognize That Flaws Are Just Alternatives to Much Worse Flaws
I went through the same phase in high school and college as everybody else. You read a book that blows your mind and you can't stop talking about it for like two months. Then you read another book and find out that a long time ago somebody tried to implement the radical changes demanded by that first book and like 100 million people died as a result. Then you just kind of quietly drop it and grow up a little.
This is why adults get that smug look when they hear 20-year-olds with fire in their eyes saying, "It's ridiculous that we haven't given communism a try! Why can't we all just share?" or "I know this is going to be unpopular, but I don't see why we can't just stop the bad people from breeding!" or "Damn, Atlas Shrugged just blew my mind!" or "Have you watched Zeitgeist?" Hey, I did it, too -- it's totally natural to look at the inexcusable failings of human society and assume that not only is there a better alternative, but that the better alternative is obvious. It always brings to mind one of my favorite quotes, from H.L. Mencken: "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."
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He's four seconds away from taking the stickers off.
He also could have said, "If the solution to the world's problems occurred to you in high school, the odds are that other people have probably tried it already." And the current way of doing things, no matter how ridiculous and shitty, is almost always the alternative to some much worse way we tried in the past (or as Churchill put it, "... democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried ...").
To pull a random example out of my ass, we have the controversial practice of aerial drone strikes. Every week there is some new outrage where these remote-control murder bots have blown up a bad guy plus two dozen random people in the vicinity, and there'll be talk of how these killer machines are the terrifying forefront of "a faceless global war."
But drone strikes weren't invented as an alternative to negotiations and dinner parties, they were an alternative to either putting boots on the ground (thus risking the lives of the soldiers) or just bombing the shit out of everything in the vicinity (killing far more bystanders than drones). The sight of a robot plane taking out a terror suspect with a missile is horrifying, unless you compare it to Black Hawk Down.
Or whatever the hell is going on here.
"But why can't we wish for a world where governments don't kill people at all?" We totally can! Just as we can work toward a system that gives people a better standard of living than capitalism, or a breed of cats that aren't assholes. But to be clear, in each case we're working toward something that does not exist and has never existed, anywhere. Humans fight wars, just as animals kill each other over territory and resources. As do plants, and microbes, and cells.
Real change happens incrementally as we find little ways to lessen the horror over decades and centuries. Yes, 4,700 people have been killed in drone strikes, and in the war in Afghanistan as a whole, up to 20,000 civilians have been killed (most at the hands of insurgents and sectarian infighting as a result of the war). But in Vietnam that number was between 250,000 and 500,000, with another 200,000 killed in post-war bullshit.
Think I'm cherry-picking my examples? Fine, add up all of the wars and you find that worldwide deaths from combat have been plummeting. During the Cold War era, about 180,000 people a year died from war-related violence. Over the last decade we've slashed that number down to about 55,000 a year. It's still 55,000 too many, of course. But my point is, the horrors you see now are the better, more humane alternatives to greater horrors. You have to compare the world to the world, not to your imagination.
Also, stop air drawing. Someone has to clean that shit up.
And if you do that, it's actually very rare that you find a system in place now that isn't a superior version of an older, shittier system, no matter how flawed it might be. You can hate the greed and cutthroat competition of capitalism, but before that it was the much-worse feudalism. You can say that communism was never given a chance because countries like Russia and China were taken over by crazy assholes, but you have to understand that susceptibility to crazy assholes will always be one of the fundamental weaknesses of that system. You have to give credit to the people who worked hard to make things less bad today, but we don't do that because ...
#2. With People More Powerful Than Us, We Only Count the Bad Things They Do
Even those of you who don't believe in any particular religion have to think the concept of Judgment Day is pretty awesome. Every human is put on trial for every terrible thing they did in life, the sum total of their good and bad deeds put on a scale. Think about it -- all of the rich shitheads who got away with greed and corruption in life are finally called to task before some greater power. No lawyers, no loopholes, no bribes -- just justice. Enjoy your eternal hellfire, Mr. Comcast!
So, here's a weird question: If the people who run Exxon (or Walmart, or Goldman Sachs) wound up standing before God on Judgment Day, surely they'd have to answer for the pollution, tax evasion, wage theft, and whatever backroom deals were made to keep politicians on their side. But in their "positive" column, would the Exxon guys get credit for all of the oil? You know, the fuel that ran the ambulances that took sick people to the hospital, and the farm equipment that grew food for hungry people, and the cars that let people travel to visit lonely relatives?
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"It runs on the blood of poor people!"
The rich venture capitalist who screwed his employees and owned two sweatshops, but who also invested money in a new life-saving treatment for heart disease -- does he get credit for all of the sick people the invention healed? The Internet loves viral stories about corrupt cops -- do the corrupt cops, upon judgment, get credit for all of the lives they saved and crimes they stopped or prevented? Does Steve Jobs only hear about the dead workers at Foxconn, or does he also get credit for all of the happiness his gadgets have brought people? Does Monsanto get credit for all that corn?
Why not? Why would all of the things productive people produce be taken for granted?
And we do take them for granted. If I tell you that workers are better off today because the average 1970 worker couldn't afford a smartphone or Internet access regardless of their income, you'll roll your eyes and say, "Well duh, those things didn't exist back then!" OK, so we just take the continued invention of these marvels as if it's as inevitable as the rising of the sun, rather than the dedicated work of people taking risks and getting up early in the morning when they'd prefer to stay home and browse porn?
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Dude's dick is so big, she's going to need a better graphics card to display it.
Why can't we acknowledge that those inventions happen because right now we have a system that encourages and rewards their invention? Or that the same system that gave you your iPhone also gave you job uncertainty and poor health benefits? Millions of the people who take to the Internet and scream about how Walmart treats its employees can, in fact, boast that they don't do the same to their employees, but only because they don't have any employees. Because they've never taken that risk or put in those 100-hour weeks to build something up from nothing. So in the process of hating the people who have, shouldn't we also appreciate that our homes are full of the stuff they gave us access to?
I know from experience that many of you reading that point not only disagree with it, but are actually made physically angry by it. But I think there is something else at play there ...
#1. We Want the World to Be Bad Because It Gives Us an Excuse to Withdraw from It
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And here's the bottom line. The most common objection to "Things aren't so bad!" is "Oh, so I'm supposed to just sit back and smile while children are raped to death in Malaysia? You think Martin Luther King Jr. would have changed the world if he hadn't gotten angry at the state of things?" It's like people think that if they stop being cynical or stop interacting with the world through a layer of detached irony that they're selling out or giving consent to the world's evils. And I think this is another bullshit lie we tell ourselves.
Martin Luther King was able to do what he did because he was optimistic. Not optimistic in the sense that he thought if he just stayed home and played pool all day that things would work themselves out, but optimistic in the sense that he thought we could correct injustice if we pushed hard enough -- that people would come around. Just as Steve Jobs was confident that computing could change the world if enough geniuses put in enough 100-hour weeks. Optimism is believing that going out in the world and doing things is worthwhile. It's the cynics who stay home and do nothing. This is why the most cynical hipsters among us are also the most unemployed.
"Oh, great," you say, "look at you again mocking the young and poor from your lofty perch atop Dong Monster Mountain. Not everybody gets that kind of break." But I'm talking about myself here -- I spent the hiring boom of the Clinton years working a series of terrible office jobs because that hiring boom was going to people with certifications in Cisco networking, not journalism majors proficient in GoldenEye. And during those bad years I wanted very much to see headlines telling me how awful the job market was. What else could explain employers refusing to hire someone with no unique skills who would have performed the job with a combination of reluctance and detached irony? Cynicism became a blank check for failure.
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Why should she bother? She'll never afford the luxury of windows and furniture.
The same young people who take to Reddit to scream about how corrupt the current leaders are also don't bother to vote for different ones. "What's the point of leaving the house on election day," they say, "the whole system is rigged!" Convenient, considering you didn't feel like leaving the house anyway. "What's the point of giving money to the homeless? They'll probably just spend it on crack!" Convenient, considering it also lets you keep the money. "Why bother starting a business, I'll just get crushed by the corporate giants!" Convenient, in that it also saves you a few decades of 16-hour work days and three ulcers. "Why try to make friends, all of the people my age are shallow, brainless jerks!" Convenient, in that this lets you just stay home and watch a Breaking Bad marathon instead, which just happens to be what you wanted to do anyway.
This is why I've grown to find cynicism so frustrating -- cynicism doesn't cause inaction. The desire for inaction causes cynicism. And so you fight to defend your cynicism tooth and nail.
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"You mean I have to go outside to get a job? Ugh. The sky is so stupid."
That's right -- there's a reason many of you felt a gut-level negative reaction to talk of mankind's "golden age" earlier -- you have quite a bit invested in the idea that the world is rotten. So ask yourself: If the Star Trek utopia ever came to pass, would you be up there on that starship having adventures? Or would you be at home, thinking the whole Federation thing was bullshit?
Because to a kid living 200 years ago, this world is the Star Trek fantasy come to life. All of the information in the world is available to you via the same machine you're using to read this. Why aren't you a genius yet? What are you doing with this power?
You have a long list of reasons/excuses, and that's your business. But it's not because the world is in terrible shape. It isn't, no matter how much we may want it to be. Now watch this entire video:
If that doesn't inspire you, nothing will.
David Wong is the Executive Editor of Cracked.com and a NYT bestselling author; his long-awaited new novel is about cybernetic criminals and other futuristic shit like that. Pre-order it at Amazon, B&N, BAM!, Indiebound, iTunes, or Powell's. You can read the first seven chapters for free by clicking below:
Related Reading: The news has done a great job of misinforming you on guns, too- let David Wong and Jack O'Brien bring you the truth. All this lazy reporting is just one more thing leading us to a future of B.S.. Not enough Wongian wisdom for you? Read how modern men are trained to hate women and then devour these ten critical things you never learned in school.