780 km of exercise walks since August have brought me much into contact with people on the sidewalks and pathways of Toronto. Particularly in the last couple of months, I have had the sense that people in general are stressed, frayed, and emotionally on-edge. I see this in their egocentrism: their determination to do as they wish and let hang any who question or obstruct them in doing whatever they feel entitled to, from walking dogs off-leash which then come charging up to me, to driving as though taking out a few pedestrians is a fair exchange for getting where they want faster, to raging out and screaming at people when asked to follow some basic legal requirement or expectation of civil conduct. Toronto strikes me less and less as a place where a desirable sense of community exists, and more as the anarchic arena in which millions of selfish desires overlap and clash.
It has now been a year — since the last March 8th — since I have been in voluntary COVID isolation, going beyond whatever confusing and contradictory public orders are in force to simply do what I can to minimize human contact and the risk of virus transmission. I’m certainly worn down myself, from lack of life-sustaining activities like voluntary associations with in-person meetings, from the stress of Toronto’s horrible housing market and the abuses it perpetuates, from the drawn-out uncertainty of never knowing when my dissertation will be done because there are always more comments and changes, and from the lack of any exercise but walking (and that increasingly done in fear of the people who I will encounter).
This micro-level frustration and alienation from others arises in part from and parallels the macro-level ways in which the world has gone wrong. Rather than snapping sharply back from the aberrant direction of the Trump administration, the U.S. seems to have bent irretrievably into a new shape, further calling into question its long term stability and even coherence as a single polity. As Canadians peering across the border, that is surely an ominous development, not least because whatever political storms arise from America coming to terms with its own diminishment will not stop shrieking and toppling trees when they cross north into us. Nor can we look to much of the rest of the world for encouragement. Europe is weak and divided, with a political elite happy to sell out to the Russians for oil money, and the political institutions and legitimacy of the EU under constant strain. China is an authoritarian, crassly nationalistic and militaristic threat to its own citizens and the global order. India is increasingly governed on the basis of religious nationalism. At the political level, decision makers everywhere are responding to stresses in the global situation counterproductively, by reinforcing the selfish tendency to reject multilateral cooperation for noisy nationalistic confrontation, contributing toward the tendency of nuclear arms to proliferate, and valuing short-term fossil fuel profits over the perpetual safeguarding of a living prosperous Earth.
Quite possibly it is wrong to see most of this as new. Even in the ancient world plenty of people were happy to stomp others for their own advancement. Maybe part of what makes it piquant — or which helps to explain the intensity of our current alienation from one another — is that people have stopped believing archetypal stories about power generally being benevolent and about a universe, society, or diety with a comprehensible notion of ethics and the willingness to apply those rules with greater consistency and determination than people do. Instead, we see the universe as an accident in which there is no automatic tendency for goodness to be repaid with goodness or vice versa, and in which people who hold authority do so as the victors of the egocentric struggle, talking about the public good for public relations purposes but truly only interested in an idea like justice as a means for further advancing their own power and interests.