Interesting Times

The purported Chinese curse goes: “May you live in interesting times.” These are, indeed, interesting times, even though the curse is actually not Chinese. The origin is likely to be much nearer to home—in the UK, where a statement made by Joseph Chamberlain in 1898 was falsely attributed to the Chinese by his grandson, Sir Austen Chamberlain, in 1936. No matter what the actual origin is, the curse is very real and is reflected in much that I read in the news these days.


We have traveled to England to escape the heat in Girona, and we are here just before the Brits vote on Thursday whether they will leave the European Union. The fate of the EU may hang on this British vote. Without the economic powerhouse that the UK represents, the EU zone may well decline. We hear a lot about the UK being forced to take in refugee immigrants from Syria if they remain in the EU. Others say that the British Empire would rise again if they get out from under the yoke of the German-run EU and that Britain will again be in control of its own democracy.

That Europe has enjoyed the longest period of peace during the time of the European Union is never mentioned. The EU was originally established to make war among the European countries “not only unthinkable but materially impossible.” The breakup of the EU might ultimately bring this era of European peace to a close. We have come to assume that Europe is a peaceful, unified region, and few people alive now can remember the horrors of two European world wars in the 20th century alone.

That the unified Europe works very well for its citizens in spite of much inept decision-making in Brussels, is clear to me. The freedom of travel from country to country has made tourism a major industry in Europe. The free export of goods from country to country has replaced the restrictive tariffs that kept countries isolated from each other. The flow of workers serves to provide positive employment opportunities. Health and environmental protections are higher and more uniform.

It is now popular to want to throw all this away, but people here just don’t have clear memories of how it used to be. I can remember the first times I traveled to Europe, where every border meant passport control and a change of currency, and every border was rife with all sorts of crime that borders seem to generate. What a pain!

Political uncertainty seems to be rampant in most countries we have contact with. Spain currently has no central government because each of the four political parties that garnered the most votes in the recent general election has non-negotiable demands and won’t pact with any of the others, which means that they can’t install a prime minister. Another general election is scheduled for June 26 and the results are likely to be no different. I have been joking that Spain seems to be getting along OK without a government, so perhaps we should all try it for awhile. I think it is an amusing joke, but the actual impact of anarchy is not pleasant to contemplate.

Things are no better in the United States, where the level of political discourse has descended beneath name-calling to outright lies and slander. Racism, which has long been the downfall of civil society in the US, is now openly espoused by one of the presidential candidates. He makes the most outrageous statements, and when called on them he simply denies having said them. I shudder to imagine this man in negotiation with the heads of states of other countries in the world.

We live in a time when things don’t appear to be working well for many people below the millionaire or billionaire class. People are fed up with the steady decrease in their standard of living, and they tend to blame their governments for not representing them. In actuality, their governments have been bought and paid for by large international corporations and most politicians exist to make these corporations, and the people who run them, richer. These corporations are seldom mentioned as the villains they are, and people rarely blame the corporations for their discontent.

A good example is the epidemic of gun violence in the US. Close to 90% of the population of the US is in favor of keeping weapons out of the hands of terrorists and mentally ill people, but the NRA-funded congress just killed another bill that would have put minimum standards for gun ownership in place. President Obama recently complained that people who are on the “no fly” list because they are known terrorist sympathizers can still walk in to any gun shop in the US and purchase an AK-47. Who funds the NRA? The arms industry, that’s who.

These are the interesting times we are cursed with. Just don’t blame the Chinese for this. It’s a lot closer to home than that, and we don’t elect the villains who are running the show.

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