Happy endings

Open World

I read a twitter thread last week from a journalist from the Capital Gazette. You know, one of the people chosen as Time’s persons of the year. His colleagues were shot in a mass shooting this past summer.

Much as I’d like to see the silver lining there, Trump is still calling the press a public enemy. The Saudi prince who had another person of the year strangled and sawed into pieces has received only frowns at the G20 top, and Brazil elected a potential dictator.

All this got me thinking about the dangers of our belief in happy endings.

Our belief in happy endings

We like happy endings. Most movies and books feature an arc that ends in a high note. The good guys ride into the sunset, the villain is defeated, roll credits.

In the real world things are fare more messy. We don’t always know who the good guys and the bad guys are, for one. Or we don’t agree who is who. Most of the world is horrified by President Trump, but he still has an approval rating of around 42% in the US itself. That’s around 137 million of the 326 million citizens of the US. Those 137 million believe he’s the good guy, most of the rest that’s he’s a bad guy.

A lot of people are quite certain he won’t win the next election, but given these numbers, I wouldn’t call it a done deal. Worse: who will replace him and how will that person approach the rest of the world?

We believe things will be alright, because that’s how it works, isn’t it? Chickens will come home to roost, justice will be served, etcetera, etcetera. We look at everything this way; at climate change, at racism, at gun control. You name a problem, we seek a light at the end of the tunnel. Justice will come, the good will ride into the sunset and the bad will be punished.

Guess what? It doesn’t work that way.

Bad guys can win

Have you ever heard of Josef Mengele? He worked as a ‘doctor’ at Auschwitz and did experiments on twins and other Jews and Gypsies. After the war, he managed to escape to Argentine. There he worked as a salesman. When he was discovered, he moved to Paraguay, and he eventually drowned when he had a stroke while swimming. That was in 1979, at age 67.

Kim Jong-Il was supreme leader of North Korea for 17 years. The North Korean regime is one of the most ruthless and authoritarian in existence. The country is cut off from the rest of the world, made to worship their supreme leader, and generally oppressed. How did Kim end up? He died of a heart attack in 2012, at age 70, and is still worshiped to this day.

We like to pretend that justice will eventually catch up to the bad guys. It doesn’t always.

An even worse fallacy fueled by this belief, is that what these people do or propose, won’t work.

America First

“Trump is being held back by the checks and balances in US society.”

“Trump can’t win these trade wars.”

“He can’t make a America great again if he starts oppressing minorities.”

Sound familiar? It’s what I read or hear daily. So, let’s look at this a little closer. We know bad guys can win, and Trump will probably die peacefully in his bed in a decade or so, surrounded by money and his loved ones. Aside from that, can he actually pull off what he promises?

Much of what Trump is doing internationally is driven by two things:

  • Direct financial benefits for the US by leveraging US power
  • Breaking down anything that can counter or lessen US power

For example, he pulled out of the Paris accords because it would cost both money and might constrain the US’s ability to do whatever it wants. He’s angry at NATO for letting the US foot the bills, he’s fighting a trade war with China to make more money for the US, and he’s actively rooting for a hard Brexit so he can stick it to the EU, the only power beside China that can challenge him.

And you know what? It might work. The environment is going down the tubes, international trade will suffer, there might be wars everywhere, and the death toll gruesome, but the US could very well come out on top. Trump is making the US the playground bully, and we can all hate him for it, but that doesn’t mean he won’t end up holding all the lunch packets.

Alt-right ideas can work

If we apply this reasoning on a larger scale, it becomes clear that authoritarian regimes and right-wing groups might be despicable, but their ideas might still lead to their own personal happy endings.

White male supremacy is very bad for non-white people and women, but not for white men. It’s a mistake to think that everybody in a country like Russia, Brasil or North Korea suffers from their authoritarian regimes. There are a lot of people there who do benefit.

The catch — of course — being that even though one group benefits, another is made to suffer. When the bully in the playground takes all the lunches, those close to the bully will eat plenty, while the rest is relegated to scraps.

Another downside is that authoritarian regimes always need fresh enemies, and one can quickly go from bully to being bullied. See the turnover in the White House as an example.

Miserable yet?

Well, great, I’ve just held a long rant about how everything is even more shit than you thought it was.

My point is, once you accept what I said, you can move on to actual arguments against it. A lot of us are currently stuck at ‘Trump-is-wrong’, ‘Brexit-will-hurt-Britain’, and ‘the-US-will-save-the-environment-when-it-hurts-them’ spiels. And that is dangerous.

We need to go to a ‘what you’re saying will work but do you really want to hurt and kill all these people for it’ argument. Because America First could work, but it might kill millions. Yeah, white supremacy will work, but do you really want to live comfortable off of the suffering of black people? A small percentage of people will still not care, but a lot of others might actually start to listen.

Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands