This essay was originally published on TomDispatch.
“The smart thing is to prepare for the unexpected,” said my most recent fortune-cookie advisory. Many people presume that the future will look more or less like the present, though that’s the one thing we can assume isn’t true. If some Cassandra had come to us in 1985 and declared that the death squads and dictators of Latin America would be replaced with left-leaning elected regimes and populist insurgencies, if she had prophesied the vanishing of the Soviet Union and the arrival of AIDS retrovirals, same-sex marriage and the Red Sox World Series victory, if she had warned us of pandemic fundamentalism and more dramatic climate change sooner, who would have heeded her?
From the vantage point of 1985, 2005 has already been wilder than science fiction and less credible, rife with countless small but deep changes as well as many sweeping ones. Of course, who in 1965 would have imagined the real 1985, so like and yet unlike Orwell’s 1984, with spreading information technologies, shrinking public spheres and changed social mores? Even from near at hand, the future throws curveballs, for few if any in the gloom of post-election 2004 anticipated the wild surprises of 2005.
Despair is full of certainty, the certainty that you know what’s going to happen; and many seem to love certainty so much that they’ll take it with despondency as a package deal. Think of those who, waiting for someone long overdue, habitually talk themselves into believing in the fatal crash or the adulterous abandonment–atrocities they prefer to the uncertainty of a person shrouded in the mystery of absence. In the hangover after last November’s election, many anti-Bush Americans almost seemed to prefer their own prognostications of doom and an eternally triumphant Republican Party to preparing for the unexpected. Many were convinced that it was all over and George Bush would be riding high forever–a somewhat perplexingly unlikely ground for despair.
After all, even had Bush’s ratings continued to fly high, his reign will, without a coup, only last through 2008. There always has been a future beyond that, even though much can be ravaged irrevocably in four years. But as it turns out we didn’t have to wait those four years for the nightmarish moment of November 2004 to mutate into something unforeseen. The present may not be less dreadful for us, but it’s certainly more so for Bush, and many things have changed in unexpected ways.
Out of the Woods: The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker
Like so many goofily gorgeous North American species, the ivory-billed woodpecker seems to have been designed by a cartoonist. It’s bigger and showier than even the hefty pileated woodpecker, with a white bill, brilliant black-and-white markings and, on the males, a Mohawk-like red crest–and it had been presumed extinct for decades. The last confirmed US sighting was back when Roosevelt was President, Jim Crow was the de facto law of the south, Bing Crosby was big and Elvis was 9. In 1944, an Audubon Society artist had sketched what was believed to be the last surviving stateside bird as the trees around its Louisiana nesting site were cut down. The bird had already disappeared from most of its once-wide range, stretching from Cuba to Illinois and Oklahoma. (The last substantiated Cuban sighting was in 1988, when Reagan was President and Armageddon had only recently seemed a likelihood.)