Hey, how’s it going? How’s the planet? Still habitable? (Don’t answer that.)
But I’m not here to talk about the environment. Well, not specifically at least.
I’m here to try to convince you that 2121 is not as far away from 2021 as you think. I mean, I’m sure it feels far away. We drove cars while you all drive individual space capsules. We watched things on screens while you have images directly beamed into your cerebral cortexes. We attend Zoom meetings while you converse via holograms.
But here’s the thing I’ve learned. Humankind makes advancements but human nature is fixed. I wish that weren’t true. I wanted to believe that it could evolve. But I know better now.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room: Donald Trump.
I used to think dictators only rose to power under two circumstances: When the people were powerless or when they were misinformed.
I would see images of Mussolini—such a ridiculous dude, waddling around the dais, screaming at people, getting red-faced and apoplectic with patriotic fervor—or Adolf Hilter, that sweaty man, with that greasy hair of his stuck to his forehead, that smudge of a mustache, that utter lack of charm—and think: The people just didn’t know better. There was no CNN, no cable news, no way to really see what pathetic losers these guys truly were. If they actually had full access to these men, they’d reject them.
But then along comes Trump with his frizzy combover, his ludicrous orange-painted skin, his bloated physique (rivaled only by his bloated self-regard)—in some ways, the most ridiculous of them all. Donald Trump is, quite plainly, a buffoon. If you’re reading this from the future and you think those of us in the 21st century didn’t know he was a buffoon, you’re mistaken. Many of us did. And yet many others—people with televisions, people who saw him every day, people who were informed still voted for him. Yes, yes, they were misinformed, too. Led astray by FoxNews (really hoping you’ll need to look up what FoxNews was in 2121) and websites like OAN and Breitbart and Newsmax that told them Trump was a great man, a winner, a leader, a patriot. But they had eyes, right? They saw him, too, right? And yet, they still idolized him. Part of what they liked, mind you, was how angry he made the libs. I wrote a bit about that here.
Okay, let’s talk about pandemics. I remember reading about the flu pandemic of 1918 and thinking, “Oh those poor bastards.” They didn’t have the most modern medicine. They didn’t have a flu vaccine. They didn’t have access to the kind of public health information we all enjoy today. Something like that could never happen again, right? Right?
But as COVID cases rose, so did the conspiracy theories: It was a hoax. It was overblown. It was a way for the government to control us. Wearing a mask—a simple and only mildly inconvenient safety measure—was seen as a massive infringement of one’s individual freedom and rights.
When vaccines finally came, I thought that would be the end of it: a free, widely available, and effective way to put this tragic and debilitating crisis behind us. But somehow, vaccines got mixed up in the divisive politics of our day. Somehow, even as the unvaccinated were dying—people who derided vaccines as dangerous and unnecessary and later begged for the vaccine on their deathbeds—it didn’t change people’s minds. And to make matters worse, people who were in charge of the serving public trust, people who knew better—politicians, cable news hosts—were actively encouraging their followers to defy public health guidelines. Because to do otherwise would be to lose viewers and/or votes.
I always knew that politicians would do almost anything to keep power, but I thought they would draw the line at actively killing their constituents. How naïve I was. (I could do 1,200 more words on how, between climate change skepticism, gun love, and COVID denial the Republicans have essentially turned into a death cult, but that’s an essay for another time.) So here we are as I write: Still losing thousands of people a day to a senseless virus that could be greatly minimized, if not gone completely.
My biggest takeaway from all of this is that tribalism, being part of Team Anti-Vax or Team Freedom or Team Trump, is more powerful than the will to live. I will say that again: The will to be part of a tribe is more powerful than the will to live.
Never forget that.
Finally, I want to talk about social progress. By 2021, we’ve made a fair amount of progress. Gay marriage is legal. Equity and anti-racism have become part of the lexicon, slowly but surely. There’s a revolution underway in terms of how we talk about gender and identity. But here’s another thing I’ve learned. Progress does not always move in one direction.
A few weeks ago, a draconian anti-abortion bill was passed in Texas, and upheld by our extremely right-wing Supreme Court (fodder for another 1,200 word essay). The overturning of Roe v Wade seems all but inevitable.
What’s more, the social progress we’ve achieved has sparked a backlash, one that Trump and his allies have seized upon. FoxNews host Tucker Carlson (picture the most punchable face imaginable, then put a bowtie on it) openly talks about replacement theory. Congressman Steve King says things that would not be out of place at a KKK rally. (Speaking of nonwhite people, he said, “I would ask you to go back through history and figure out where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people you are talking about. Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization [than whites]?”) Trump referred to the tiki-torch-carrying white supremacists who marched in defense of a Robert E Lee monument in Charlottesville shouting “Jews will not replace us!” as “very fine people.” Later, his followers stormed the Capitol wielding confederate flags. (“Go home. We love you. You’re very special,” Trump told his seditious supporters while the riot was happening.)
At the border, children were ripped out of their parents’ hands and put in cages, kidnapped and tortured basically— and this was acceptable because they had brown skin, because they were “murderers and rapists” (according to Trump), because they were here to replace us (according to FoxNews).
A panic over “Critical Race Theory” bubbled up—and it became an all-purpose boogeyman to decry any interrogation of racism in our nation. Lots of white people had a sad over it—“I teach my children to be colorblind and all you want to do is talk about race!”—while actually having no interest in exploring inequality or systemic racism (and having no idea what Critical Race Theory actually is).
The point of this letter is this. You’re no doubt technologically advanced in 2121. You’re sophisticated compared to us 2021 rubes. You’re progressive in your values. You’ve read your history. But never get comfortable. People are people. They are easily manipulated, fearful of the “other.” They resist change and cleave to the status quo. They crave leadership, even if that leadership is morally vacant. They deny obvious scientific truths out of convenience or tribalism or greed. They can’t resist when someone gives them permission to succumb to their worst instincts. The same people who had slaves, who attended lynchings, who enforced Jim Crow laws, who voted for Trump, who denied climate change, who allowed people to buy semi-automatic guns without a permit, who refused vaccines and masks, who stormed the Capitol—they are us. They are you. They are Americans.
Thanks for listening.
P.S. Did they ever get to the bottom of that whole Julianna Margulies/Archie Panjabi feud on The Good Wife? If so, time travel back to 2021 and spill the tea, bestie.