A nervous and dangerous time: How to sustain optimism in a dark world

“We Come On The Ship They Call The Mayflower

“We Come On The Ship That Sailed The Moon

“We Come In The Age’s Most Uncertain Hour And Sing
an American Tune”

Paul Simon, 1973

WHEN he wrote ‘An American Tune’ in 1973, Paul Simon reflected the world he lived in. The optimism of the 1960s was fading. Richard Nixon, as yet the only American president to resign, still clung to office. It would be another year before he quit over Watergate. Huge numbers of British workers were on a three-day week; power was rationed. That January, Ireland, Denmark, and Britain became seventh, eighth and ninth members of the EEC. Five British soldiers died in an IRA bomb in Omagh. Later that year, three IRA terrorists escaped from Mountjoy in a hijacked helicopter.

There was a lot to be glum about but, as there always are, there were moments of optimism. Offering a glimpse of today, of how opportunity was to be democratised, the first Open University graduates were conferred. Those moments allowed Simon to leaven his song with the hope that sustains us through our dark moments, but could he do that today?

Presidents Trump and Kim Jong-un have locked horns. The world can only look on in disbelief, struggling to prevent the blowhards’ belligerence becoming a catastrophe. Climate change, that self-inflicted Armageddon, accelerates. Despite strident warnings, we plough on as if there were only a few hundred million of us, rather than the end-of-century population predicted by the UN — 11.2bn. Slavery, the evil we pretend is consigned to history, persists. Between 21m and 46m people are, one way or another, enslaved. Famine endures — 20m people face death by hunger in Africa today.

Democracy is in retreat — Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Venezuela, and Kenya all totter towards the cliff edge. Even secure democracies struggle because they cannot levy today’s conglomerates — they used to be called robber barons — so adept at minimising tax bills. Automation is destroying work opportunities needed to support swathes of humanity. Keeping the human in human resources becomes ever-more challenging. Brexit, a process rooted in 1973, exacerbates those fears.

Anyone with a proclivity for despair has more than enough pegs to hang their shroud on today. They may be overwrought and sleepless, especially those derided as the Snowflake Generation. But what can be done? Are the assurances about human ingenuity and resilience offered in every discussion on what the future might look like enough? We can only hope they are — and it may just be that the answer is in ‘An American Tune’. Simon used a melody from a chorale from Bach’s St Matthew Passion, the soaring 1727 masterpiece. Simon’s plagiarism can be forgiven, Bach used an earlier secular tune as his inspiration. Any consideration of history over the intervening centuries suggests we shall indeed overcome. That assessment might help engender that most precious jewel in today’s world — optimism.

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