The Future is NO

What will the world be like one hundred years from now? To understand the meaning of this question clearly, imagine that you are a forty-year-old person living in 1870.

If you are a native American in 1870, conditions will grow much worse for you and your people in the future: The number of surviving tribes will dwindle to a small number, many native traditions will be lost forever, the amount of native range land will continue to shrink, and the level of alcoholism among native Americans will rise.

If you are a "colored person," your conditions will not improve: The black infant mortality rate will be much higher than that of whites; black family structure will decay; most of your people will live in the middle of giant cities in the poorest neighborhoods; and your life span, job opportunities, and educational opportunities will be much worse than those of white people. Several of your greatest leaders will be assassinated, and virtually none of your people will hold public office, certainly no more than in 1870.

If you are a white woman, your female great-great-grandchildren will nearly all have to work outside the home, even after they have children; few will go to church regularly; and most will have sex before marriage. Many of them will have sex with other girls or women or have friends who do, and it will be publicly acceptable. They will drink beer and liquor often and will not be uncomfortable swearing. Much of the time they will wear pants and feel more comfortable dressed that way; they will go on dates unescorted, visit saloons with ease, and have virtually no skills that are of use on a farm. Almost none of them will know how to clean a fish or a chicken, and few will cook more than one meal a week or be considered a good cook. They will not spend much time at home with their children, and most will be divorced several times during their life.

If you are a white man, in your future few rivers will have native wild fish; many birds and wild animals will become extremely rare; there will be no spittoons anywhere; smoking will be banned nearly everywhere; women voters will be in the majority; and nearly everyone will have a wage job in the city. Horses will be gone, as will most small farms and farmers, and crime will be worse than ever.

If you are a Southerner, the South will not rise again, Abraham Lincoln will become as important in American history as George Washington, and the South will be economically the poorest part of the United States, with the poorest educational system.

Fortunately, we will never really know what human life will be like one hundred years from now, though of course we can try to imagine it. Here is one possible scenario: Your descendants will have to lead their entire life in a 4-by-4-foot space, their occupation and the number of children they will bear (if they bear children at all) will be decided for them before they are born, they will not eat food in any form, and they will never see the sun. How does that sound?

An Uncertain Future Is What We Want

In 1975 I discovered information from research on demographics about an early wave of post-war baby boomers in the United States. This earlier baby boom occurred after the Civil War. I think we can posit some elements of the future based on what happened at that time.

No one published any of the articles I submitted on the probable future effects of this second (current) baby boom. A small pamphlet I wrote and printed was ignored by nearly everyone, with fewer than a dozen exceptions. Fewer than 100 people wrote in for a free copy of an audiotape on the subject after I discussed it on a national FM radio program.

The most rational explanation for this lack of interest was that of a friend who said: "The future is a gestalt of all the current forces; the most you can do is suggest the directions it might take." I believe that the widely conceived "uncertainty" of the future is a fundamental and valuable metaphor of our society. (Other societies see the future as divinely ordained, part of a cyclic repetition and as subject to prophetic insight).

The Need for the Myth of Uncertainty

We tend to deal with the future by ignoring it, much as masturbation was ignored in recent centuries. The reason we largely ignore any discussion of the future is that the likelihood of a negative future could cause disruptive behavior by individual members of our society.

Would any of the individuals imagined above--the native American, the "colored person," and so on--have behaved positively when told of what the future held for them and their people? Of course not. The most extreme reactions could include suicide, political extremism, or violence. When people think they have nothing to lose, social restraints can disappear. The Sioux were an example of this.

Progress Is a Hollow Word

The ecology movement has pointed out that we have invested the future with the idea of progress, probably to our detriment. But the word progress means more of the same, more of what we like about the present. The American Heritage Dictionary defines progress as "steady improvement . . . advance toward a more desirable form." But historically, many people have not seen their lives improve over the years, as is shown in the examples above.

A perceptive and humanitarian friend of mine, returning from a recent trip to the Middle East, decried what he perceived of as the outrageous treatment accorded Muslim women. He urged that our nation take bold action to somehow change this. I was initially inclined to support him, for he has done much good in his life. Before doing so, I decided to briefly examine our own nation's history regarding women and minorities.

It was not until 1948 that the liberal California Supreme Court ruled that Asians and other minorities had the right to marry Caucasians. Three dissenting judges, however, in an emotional eleven-thousand-word opinion, defended such a prohibition. They stated that those who seek intermarriage "come from the dregs of society" and that all nonwhites are "by nature physically and mentally inferior to Caucasians."

Less than one generation ago, blacks were denied the right to vote in eleven southern states. At the same time, virtually every American law firm, including the so-called "pillars of our society," prohibited women from becoming partners. Most also excluded Jews, and all excluded gays.

At the time Kennedy was President, some states made it a crime to sell contraceptives. Almost all states made it a felony to have an abortion, even if the pregnancy was the result of incest. And even the poorest American male was granted the "unalienable" right to rape any woman he had been married to--even if the two were legally separated.

Obviously, the problem is that most of our opinions about other cultures are based on our own local and often peculiar values that have no absolute or permanent reality. It is such opinions, often held with absolute righteousness, that have made it so easy for nations to go to war with each other. We may feel today that we are right about how women should be treated. But the chances are that our own grandchildren will someday consider our present "acceptable" behavior outrageous and unjust in this matter, and probably many others.

Two Generations Ago

Consider what made sense to our grandparents sixty years ago, during the mid-twenties:

¥ Women, after 130 years of exclusion, had just been given the right to vote.

¥ The U.S. Constitution made the sale of alcohol illegal; the penalty was prison.

¥ Oral sex between consenting adults was punishable by a lengthy prison term.

¥ Asians were denied the right to own property.

¥ Any public library could ban books for religious, political, or sexual reasons, and they did.

¥ There were no social security or unemployment insurance benefits.

¥ There were no home mortgages that lasted more than five years, and savings deposits were not insured.

¥ An employer who disagreed with his employees organizing a union could generally use brute force to block the union.


One Generation Ago

Even the values of thirty years ago seem out of place today:

¥ A doctor could go to jail for many years for performing an abortion or even for referring a woman to a doctor who would perform one.

¥ Women were not permitted to serve as police officers. And it was rare that women were permitted to participate in professional athletic programs such as soccer and basketball.

¥ Blacks were legally restricted from buying property in much of the United States. Deeds to property openly stated "Not to be sold to Negroes or people of color"; even in California, the law permitting this kind of restriction remained on the books until 1965.

¥ In the 1950s, blacks traveling by auto, even within cannonshot range of the Lincoln Monument in Washington, D.C., often had to drive out of their way to find a "colored toilet," were generally forced to stand outside while whites purchased their restaurant meals for them, and could rarely find motel accommodations. (I experienced this in 1961 while traveling by car with a black sergeant and his family from Ft. Eustace Virginia, to D.C. and back).

Some people, of course--particularly men over forty--are nostalgic for the old days, when a man could safely smoke a big cigar in a crowded restaurant while sitting for an expensive meal without anyone daring to question, much less criticize him.

Two Generations from Now

Do we have the right to judge other cultures? Consider what might be regarded as outrageous to children of the future about what we presently consider normal behavior. Will we hear questions such as:

¥ "Grandpa, is it true that children's television advertising was filled with lies, innuendoes, and deceptions?"

¥ "Is it true that there was not even one black or Latino United States senator?"

¥ "Did dogs really defecate on public sidewalks?"

¥ "Were there really tens of thousands of people living on the streets, and were single mothers actually treated like pariahs when they couldn't find jobs?"

And what if they ask us if the United States Supreme Court actually ruled that two violently psychopathic criminals could be compelled to share, for twenty or more years, a prison cell smaller than many bedroom closets?

During this century we entered two world wars and two major police actions on the basis of protecting a way of life that allowed what today we see as questionable practices. The First World War was fought to "make the world safe for democracy," while at the same time we denied women and blacks the right to vote. And we entered the Second World War for similar reasons at a time when most blacks were still denied the right to vote and were always required to serve in segregated military units.

Reformers Take Heed

To those of who seek to reform other cultures, I suggest a simple rule: Those who live in glass houses should not cast stones--particularly if they might be subject to questioning by their grandchildren.

Michael Phillips, 1979 (revised 2000)


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