Home National Politics Our Inherent Uncertainty About the Future

Our Inherent Uncertainty About the Future


Introduction: This piece will be appearing in the newspapers in my very red congressional District, VA-06. These pieces are always written with the conservatives in mind.

I’ve been pounding them recently with pieces exposing the utter wrongness of what they are doing with their political power. With this piece, I wanted to give them a break of sorts, and speak in a different kind of voice.

It might well be futile, but I try to get those conservatives to see me as a real human being, maybe even one worth hearing out a bit. And so, in this piece, I am discussing something relating to our common human condition, having to live and deal with both hope and fear.

But ultimately, by the end of the piece, I do end up saying a few challenging things to them– implying clearly, if only implicitly, that what we most have to fear now is from political forces they are supporting.

Here’s the piece:


Our Inherent Uncertainty About the Future

I observed something strange and interesting about myself the other night as I was watching “A Night to Remember” – a 1958 British film about the voyage and sinking of the Titanic. And my guess is that what I observed in myself is true about us humans generally.

What I noticed is that — even though I know well what happened to the Titanic — at some level I could not stop hoping that this time it would turn out differently: this time the messages about iceberg sightings would be attended to, this time the other ships would arrive in time to rescue the people on the sinking ocean-liner.

Of course, when something has already happened, there is no rational basis for hoping that it will turn out differently than it did. Yet there I was, hoping. Knowing the story, but reacting to events as if the future were yet to be determined.

It occurred to me that my reaction was a window into how eons of experience shaped how our consciousness relates to the future. In our real lives, the future is always uncertain. We can imagine how events might go badly, and we feel fear. We can imagine how events might go well, and we feel hope.

The actual future in our lives has never happened yet, and so the inherent uncertainty of the future means that we are never without some reasons to fear and we are never without some reasons to hope.

I am conjecturing that our minds are structured so that we cannot help but experience an element of uncertainty whenever we look out from our present toward the future. And so deeply ingrained is that sense of uncertainty, I’m suggesting, that we can’t help experiencing a story – where the “future” has already been written – at least partly the same way.

Wherever we are in the story feels like a “now,” and – at least in part — we look out from that now into its “future” as we look out from the nows in our own lives: possible things to fear, possible things to hope for. Even if we “know” what’s going to happen, as with me watching the movie about the Titanic, when we’re placed into some “present” in some story, we cannot help but inject our customary uncertainty into our picture of what the story’s “future” might hold.

(Will Romeo get the friar’s letter in time, so that this time the two young lovers can live happily ever after?)

The whole issue of knowing or not knowing “the future” has interested me before in some other ways.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been exposed to the history of World War II. I was born in 1946, so of course as soon as I knew anything about World War II I knew that we had won the war. It wasn’t until fairly recently – when I was studying about the lives of those great wartime leaders, FDR in America and Churchill in Britain – that I began to think more deeply about how it was for the people of my parents’ generation who lived through it.

For the first half of 1942, the war news was quite grim—and they didn’t know that VE Day and VJ Day lay ahead. The news gave them lots of reason for fear. While watching a World War II movie – will that huge gamble of a landing on the beaches of Normandy succeed? – I can still worry, but I can also tell myself, as those living through it could not, that it is the hopes rather than the fears that would be fulfilled.

Regarding a dramatic case where the uncertainty resolved in the other direction, people in retrospect think that the Jews of the 1930s in Germany, and Europe more broadly, should have seen what was coming sooner than they did. But they did not have the advantage of hindsight. They may have been afraid, but who in their position wouldn’t also hold onto the hope that the unthinkable couldn’t happen?

Nowadays, living in this particular “now” in America, I often wonder just which position we are in.

So many worrisome possibilities on the horizon:

  • Will we get into some horrific war with North Korea, or Iran, or even Russia, with whom things are clearly getting more tense? Or will all these tensions get resolved peacefully?
  • Will our constitutional order suffer severe damage from the crisis that now besets us? Or will the rule of law prevail?
  • Will the disruption of our planet’s climate system bring on an era of hardship, strife, and massive dislocation? Or will we find ways to navigate through this challenge without striking the climatic equivalent of an iceberg?

Are we like Americans and British in the dark days of the world war—facing frightening possibilities, but destined to come out pretty all right? Or are we like passengers on the Titanic – the ship declared to be “unsinkable – cruising along expecting the best, about to be plunged into the killingly frigid waters of the North Atlantic.

This story truly remains to be written. And as we are human, and as the future is inherently unknowable, we must necessarily deal with the interplay of hope and fear in our hearts.


Afterword:  It occurs to me that what I am doing here — with speaking in a different voice to the conservatives — repeats a pattern I had with the conservatives back in the 1990s, when I did many hours of talk radio conversation with them on the main AM station in Harrisonburg.

I did every other show on some matter that touched on our common humanity, so that when we spoke about controversial matters there would be some human connection.

Our differences would be the focus with shows on the likes of “God said It, I believe it, and that Settles it,” or the question of the right social relationship with homosexuality.

But then we’d get into our common humanity with shows on questions like “What stories are handed down in your family?” or “Have you ever had an important experience of beauty?” 

I wanted to make human-to-human connection, so that we might talk constructively about the things that divide us. And so we did, increasingly over the course of a decade.

But then came Karl Rove, and now Donald Trump, and we are so much more divided. And the nearly unbridgeable divide — along with how broken is the role they play in their political lives — has made building any constructive relationship far more difficult.

I do miss the actual relationship of constructive dialogue we had back in the 1990s. But I have not dropped the relationship– venturing out messages to them intended to have an impact on that brings them back to better contact with reality and back toward the better angels of their nature.

It is impossible to judge how much impact, if any, I’m having on that audience of conservatives I’m trying to reach. Impossible to judge because such is their political subculture that if they were listening to me they’d keep it to themselves.

So ruled is that world (Republican/Trump) by nonsense that the nonsense must be enforced by an intolerance of diversity. It is not safe to convey deviation from the dogma.

So there’s no way for me to know whether I’ve gotten under the skin, or whether the right-wing bubble-shell has made them impervious to any attempts like mine to get their attention.

But I try, as an act of faith, because I think there’s a good chance I’m having enough of an impact to make it worthwhile to try. (And even if it isn’t, the liberals around here tell me it fortifies them to see these messages being delivered from the breakfast tables of their Trump-supporting neighbors.)

And then there’s the sense of the stakes. It was the Republican base — not the Party — that gave us President Trump.

In 2016, it gives us Trump as President. What might that much craziness do to the nation in the future?

We will never be safe as long as there’s this much political craziness among us.


  • Jim B

    I suppose Trump has never studied what brought on the great depression. With his trade war getting started who knows how it will turn out.

  • James McCarthy

    Yah, sometimes it’s a lonely planet when you confront the radical right and become frustrated with the blindness caused by their ideology. But, that’s the weakness of ideology – it becomes an echo chamber that loses its vitality over longer distances. Stay strong and persist.

    • Andy Schmookler

      Thank you, James.

      What makes me persist is two things. The one that I most want to convey to others is my sincere belief, based on years of thinking about the transformation I’ve witnessed among these people, that addressing this Republican base in an impactful way should be one important component in the overall battle plan against the destructive force that has won these people over.

      But there’s another, personal thing that plays a role: I once had with SOME of these people — the ones I imagine as I write — a rich relationship that I valued very highly. I’m not good about becoming indifferent to people, once I’ve cared about them.

      I don’t believe this personal desire to make a better connection possible — even if that’s just “less at war” — has biased my judgment about how much the problem of America is centered in this 37%, and what has been done to their political consciousness. (It is because of the Republican base that we have a President Trump. It wasn’t the Party that wanted him.)

      They are like the engine that drives the power of this destructive force that’s been systematically dismantling what’s best about America for many years.

      Like destroying their energy supplies, so that the Panzer tanks run out of gas and the battle is won.

      • James McCarthy

        My impression after many decades on this coil is that these ideas and sentiments have been there forever and I recall them and other incidents as a youth in NYC. The difference today, it seems to me, is that these deeply held emotional beliefs have been brought into the popular culture and given both an ideological spine and a voice.

        My short history on this planet instructs me that we are a better place now than then. One crucial difference is that there are those who insist that things should not change and are willing to exert their 2nd Amendment right to insure change does not occur.

        When the US was experiencing an expanding and continuously promising economy, the current culture and ideological wars were not relevant. Sometime in the 1960’s when the John Birch Society flowered along with the Koch brothers and GMU’s centrifugal authority in academia, the arc of progress in democratic ideas and policies began to stumble.

        Cuddle your optimism and do not forsake old friends but be sure to appreciate them.

        • Andy Schmookler

          It’s true that some aspects of this brokenness have been there forever. But I am convinced that important for understanding our times is to see how the proportions have changed, as this force has worked to emphasize the broken and exclude the whole from these people’s political role in our power system.

          A false picture has been sold in conjunction with the fanning of hatreds and fears. By these means, this destructive force has altered the balance of power between good and evil in America.

          That’s why the matter of proportion is so important. History shows that America can make real progress with the level of brokenness we had in the era from FDR through even up to Clinton. But we cannot make progress with this magnification of those things that have been there forever, but less dominant.

          Nothing new about racism in America, nor anti-Semitism, nor nativism. But one sees in the rising numbers of various kinds of incidence that it is the broken stuff that has gained in power.

          • James McCarthy

            Andy – I am not so pessimistic nor threatened by a virulence that has persisted for eons. It’s a disease that is no longer in the dark forest. I do not see the proportion as any greater than in the past. It’s louder, more apparent, and is proselytizing. Progress may be slowed which can strengthen the resolve of those who support progress. It’s wearying, I agree, but not fatal unless we go to sleep. Breakout incidents, in my mind, only verify their are losing.

            Keep writing, keep broadcasting, keep the faith.

          • Andy Schmookler

            Wondering, James, about your not seeing any change in the proportions.

            Do you see that with Limbaugh, Fox News, Rove, and Trump, et al., there’s a mighty propaganda effort focused on the Republican base unlike what conservatives were hearing from their media a generation ago or all the way back to the Eisenhower era?

            And if there’s a lot of energy and creativity that’s being directed to falsifying their picture of the world and to working them up into an ugly state, how would that NOT result in a change of proportion.

            It would seem that if the proportions were unchanged, then all that right-wing propaganda that’s been loosed on the nation for getting nigh onto 30 years was just a lot of wasted energy.

            There’s that old Native American story about the two wolves– basically the good and the evil. And the boy asks the wise man which will win their battle. And the old wise man says something like, “Which ever one you feed.”

          • James McCarthy

            Yes, they be more organized, more effective, more visible, more vociferous, more driven—-but also more and more outrageous threatening the entire society. At the same time, IMO their numbers are shrinking as well as their advocacy and effectiveness resulting in louder and more outrageous rhetoric and conduct. In our youth, progress toward a better society was by leaps; now we progress by inches due to resistance by the radical right. OnceI thought to become a radical right Conservative until it dawned on me that what was to be conserved was largely white privilege and denial of exceptionalism to all others. In large part today the struggle is riven with libertarian falsehoods as paths to freedom and prosperity. The Kochs have been a fifth column for this evil for many decades. There’s the rub, the massage that beguiled is for far too long. We’ll likely never convince them to surrender their ideology; so let’s plan to wait them out—inch by inch.