A new take on a Cockburn classic
by Geoff Olson
• If kvetching was an Olympic category, I’d be up there on the podium wearing a furrowed brow and bronze medal. I can think of at least two friends who would be next to me with the silver and gold. When a group of us get together for lunch to discuss current events, it’s game on. Not only is the glass half-empty, the water quality is suspect and the drinking vessel looks dodgy, too. We can decode any cloud’s silver lining as the glint of Damocles’ sword.
As we unpack the bad craziness of the daily disaster-feed, I can always count on one of my companions to get a weary, far-away look before reciting, for the umpteenth time, a lyric from a 1983 song by Canadian folk singer Bruce Cockburn: “The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.”
Standards are always slipping; what was once unthinkable or unacceptable is redefined as the new normal. As Cockburn put it:
Strikes across the frontier and strikes for higher wage
Planet lurches to the right as ideologies engage
Suddenly it’s repression, moratorium on rights
What did they think the politics of panic would invite?
Person in the street shrugs – “Security comes first”
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse.
The Trouble With Normal, from a synth-driven 1983 album of the same name, rings as true today as it did a quarter-century back. But does normal always get worse, as my friend insists? I may lose my pessimist’s punch card for saying this, but I don’t think it does. Not if we step back and take in a wider horizon of space and time.
To take one obvious example, for millennia, it was ‘normal’ for human beings to own other human beings as livestock. The end of officially sanctioned slavery across the globe – at least in the slave ship if not the sweatshop sense – was a case of things getting better for a great many people, in a hardcore, historical manner. Similarly, the abolition of hanging in Britain and the elimination of the death penalty in other industrialized democracies (other than the USA), introduced another new ‘normal.’
Another good example: homosexuality wasn’t removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders until 1973 and since then gay marriage has become normalized in many jurisdictions, in spite of the continuing efforts of religious fundamentalists to push back the clock. Civil rights are now commonly extended to transgendered people as well.
It also used to be acceptable for North American and European parents to strike children like gongs. Over the past half-century, “corporal punishment” has become far less acceptable. Ditto for child sexual abuse, which was swept under the rug for centuries. Today doctors, psychologists and health care workers acknowledge the reality of pedophilism. The criminal justice system often prosecutes the perps when they are exposed, addressing at least a fraction of a widespread phenomenon that was once dismissed or disbelieved. Again, normal didn’t get worse, it got better in terms of enlightened behaviour and the reduction of human suffering. The same goes for the status of women with the rise of feminism.
It’s as if ripples of compassion have grown across the world and continue to expand, encompassing beings other than older, white, straight males. There are now efforts to extend rights to nonhuman life, including mountain gorillas and cetaceans. Perhaps one day, animal rights will be as obvious to us as our own – assuming large species continue to exist in places other than zoos and picture books.
As for our understanding of space and time, it was once normal to believe the world is flat. In scripture, Joshua commanded the Sun to stand still, which was all the proof anyone needed that the whole shebang revolved around “man” – paradoxically both God’s greatest creation and His biggest disappointment. For centuries, planets were seen as embedded in heavenly crystalline gears and stars were pinpricks in the cosmic firmament. Today, it’s not considered abnormal to believe the universe extends to unimaginable scales of space and time, and that stars are vast balls of gas that cook up all the higher elements essential for the formation of Earth-like planets. Our Milky Way galaxy alone may harbour more extraterrestrial species than a Star Wars bar scene on St. Patrick’s Day. This viewpoint could be read as either an improvement over the old, anthropocentric ‘normal’ or proof of Satan’s talent at trickery.
The same applies to the present understanding of infectious diseases. We know they are caused by bacteria and viruses, not pestilent vapours, witchcraft or the “evil eye.” The average life expectancy has steadily risen across much of the world over the past hundred years, primarily through the introduction of sanitary water networks. Smallpox has been eradicated globally. Cholera and other scourges have been all but erased in the industrialized democracies.
Callous men in business costume speak computerese
Play pinball with the Third World trying to keep it on its knees
Their single crop starvation plans put sugar in your tea
And the local Third World’s kept on reservations you don’t see
“It’ll all go back to normal if we put our nation first”
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse.
Yes, it’s undeniable that economic hit men and their jackals have kept the global south in misery for decades through crippling debt and “structural adjustment,” following up on the colonial legacy of guns, jerks and steel. And yes, there is an imperial struggle for global control tarted up as a war on terror, which is being used to narrow or eliminate domestic freedoms.
After a half-century postwar boom, the overproduction chickens are coming home to roost while the banksters laugh all the way to their gated McCastles. Decades of outsourcing North American labour in a globalized race to the bottom are “bringing the Third World home,” as MIT media critic Noam Chomsky long warned us. Cronyism, corruption and disaster capitalism are going gangbusters, as income disparities grow to levels not seen in North America since the last Gilded Age. Electoral democracy has been reduced to spectacle: a tightly scripted reality TV series sponsored by the same fat cats who select the stars and game the outcome.
I can imagine a future paramilitary state that’s two parts Orwell and one part Huxley, with mood-altering drugs dispensed to the 99 percent to keep them from killing the remaining fraction in their sleep. These are all mad, bad trends on what writer William Burroughs called our “radioactive, run-down, cop-ridden planet.”
But let’s not forget that, in just a little over two decades, the Internet has gone from an obscure plaything for university geeks to a planetary information exchange for billions. Cyberspace is not all just online poker, sexting and cat videos, and here is the important part: this emergent novelty was completely unpredictable at the time Cockburn penned his song.
Emergent novelty is the wild card. Billions of years ago, life on our oxygen-free planet was limited to anaerobic bacteria and blue-green algae. If normal always got worse, these tiny Darwinian windup toys would have disintegrated back into the prebiotic soup they came from. Instead, a fraction of them joined up in multicellular Rotary Clubs because of the mutual benefits for all. If the only direction for normal was south, there would be predation and parasitism, but no symbiosis. Cutthroat competition would have trumped cooperation.
“In general, life is better than it has even been,” the writer P. J. O’Rourke insisted back in the nineties. “Even the bad things are better than they used to be. Consider this: How would you like to visit King Arthur’s dentist?” In a time when surgeons and barbers were one and the same, there was no anaesthetic or antiseptic to speak of. Need your gangrened foot to come off? “Here, drink this and bite on that while we saw it off. Off you go, then; when the stump stops bleeding, we’ll stick leeches on it and sacrifice a goat. Have a nice day.”
That was the old, bad normal. And no one knows for certain if there ever was a better normal in prior ages. In the summer of 1996, two teenagers were walking along the shores of the Columbia River in Washington state when one of them came across what he thought was a large, smooth, round rock. Deciding to spook his friend, he yelled out that he had just found a human head in the shallow water. When he picked up the “stone,” he discovered it had teeth.
The 9,300-year-old Kennewick Man didn’t have an easy life, according to archaeologists. In addition to a spear point in his hip, he had a chipped shoulder socket, six fractured ribs and a healed radial head fracture. When researchers reconstructed his facial features by applying clay musculature to a cast of the skull, they discovered that several muscles were overdeveloped, associated with a grimacing expression. It appeared the ancient Caucasian was often in acute discomfort. As one of the researchers remarked, “This guy cried a lot.”
Archaeological remains from Europe shows evidence of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers who looked elderly in their twenties, weakened by battle injuries and/or a range of opportunistic infections. At the very least, we know normal didn’t get worse across the board for all our ancestors because we’re alive to speculate about them. Neither internecine conflict nor the last Ice Age was capable of snuffing out their species-specific candle. (Disaster has a way of making humans think. The explosive evolutionary growth of the human cortex has been connected to the range of time when the western hemisphere was buried under glaciers hundreds of feet thick.)
This brings me to the touchy topic of climate science. Former NASA scientist James Hansen insists the Alberta Tar Sands “carbon bomb” means “game over for the planet.” Yet Andrew Weaver, University of Victoria climatologist and a lead author with the International Panel on Climate Change, disagrees. He insists carbon emissions from the Tar Sands will be negligible on the global climate. NASA scientist James Lovelock, another major thinker on the global warming front, has recently recanted his previous views on anthropogenic (man-made) global warming, saying his previous claims of planetary heat death were “too alarmist.”
Who’s right? Three of the biggest silverbacks in climate science cannot come to agreement on major predictions within their own field. I don’t disbelieve in global warming, but I choose to worry more about the Tar Sands for its toxic tailing ponds and moonscape legacy than its carbon emissions. I’m concerned more with overfishing and species decline than the IPCC’s changing estimates of sea level rising, just as I worry more about the literal fallout from the crippled Fukushima reactors and other aging reactors around the world (to say nothing of launch-ready nuclear weapons) than the emissions from motor vehicles in India and China.
Perhaps we’re cooked, either literally or metaphorically. Yet if civilization can survive the next 20 years, the exponential growth of solar power technology makes it very likely that renewable energy based on the ultimate free lunch – the Sun – will overtake King CONG (coal, oil, nuclear and gas), with huge reductions in global carbon emissions.
Ah, civilization: on one side, it’s cluster bombs, nuclear weapons and predator drones. Bad normal. On the other, its antibiotics, sanitation and solar power. Good normal. And all the ambiguous new normals in between, like plastics and hi-definition television. The terrible irony is that technology has always been the handmaiden of war. Like it or not, we owe some of our ‘advances’ in domestic living to the spin-offs of the nation-state sport of defence/offense. To give just two examples, the Internet was birthed in a Pentagon nursery for nuke-proof communications tech, and solar panels were first employed on US spy satellites.
Yet sometimes I muse that the merging of social networking, facial recognition software, CCTV cameras, GPS pinpointing, data mining and artificial intelligence signals the beginning of our surrender to the machines. (Skynet, anyone?) And occasionally I ponder the precise opposite possibility. “We stand on the verge of one of the bleakest periods in human history, when the bright lights of civilization blink out, and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity,” said New York Times journalist Chris Hedges in a recent interview with PBS magus Bill Moyers. He sees harbingers in what he calls “capitalism’s sacrifice zones,” spread throughout the US like open wounds. Credit-strapped towns like Camden, New Jersey and Stockton, California, have been left to face bankruptcy and terminal decline after the cross-country fallout from Wall Street’s vulture capitalism.
Fashionable fascism dominates the scene
When ends don’t meet it’s easier to justify the means
Tenants get the dregs and landlords get the cream
As the grinding devolution of the democratic dream
Brings us men in gas masks dancing while the shells burst
The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.
At the risk of sounding glib, let’s say for a moment you or I had a time machine, an impacted molar and a choice. The first choice is to remain in the present, where you live in a 300-square-foot apartment in a city festooned with surveillance cameras. In choice number two, you live in a thatched hut on a feudal state in Medieval England at Christmas time. I know how I’d choose, though I might take a few microseconds longer if the first option was a corrugated steel shack in present-day Mumbai or Lagos. And that’s the terrible divide in a nutshell. A world of such great technical sophistication as ours, with billions still living in abject poverty, is an obscenity. And to qualify my earlier comments about slavery, an estimated 26 million men, women, and children around the world remain enslaved through prostitution, manual labour or enforced military service. “Normal” remains overwhelmingly bleak for these people.
Considering civilization survived the wars of the twentieth century, it would be defeatist to say normal always gets worse. But considering 160 million people did not survive the wars of the twentieth century, it would be delusional to say normal always gets better. Personally, I try not to allow every single negative trend to negate my fragile appreciation for the positive trends, which are often recognized only in retrospect. Emergent novelty is usually only seen in the rear view mirror.
I have no desire to be a Cassandra, yelling ‘were heading for the cliff with the brake-lines cut.’ But I don’t want to come across like a Pollyanna saying, ‘relax, we’ve got Sirius Radio and bucket seats.’ The biggest problem with the “trouble with normal is it always gets worse,” as a principle, rather than a song, is that it sounds like a counsel of despair and inaction. It’s a way to respond with a shrug and a sigh to corruption, contamination and collapse. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “It is an act of evil to accept the state of evil as either inevitable or final.”
In conclusion, I would amend my friend’s Cockburn-derived dictum. Normal doesn’t always get worse and it doesn’t always get better. More often than not, normal gets weirder. That’s not a principle I prefer to live by, although it’s an idea I think I can live with. It certainly doesn’t mean we live “in the best of all possible worlds,” as Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss insisted. And it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make some efforts to make our community, and our world, a better place, because… well, just look around. This place could use some serious work. Cockburn himself agrees. Once asked about the lyrics to The Trouble With Normal, the singer-songwriter replied, “If you don’t tackle the problems, they’re gonna get worse.”
I remain an optimistic pessimist; hence this unconvincing, print-based contortionist act. I will continue to rant along with my lunch companions, but I still count my blessings, brief and culture-bound as they may be.