Deprived of sleep and somewhat dulled by holiday festivities, I had no reaction except a mumbled "Damned if I know..."
I immediately set out to understand this question (which soon dominated My Every Waking Hour of my Holiday Vacation), and in order to get my mind around the question and all it implied, I would need to do some research beyond the most propitious mixture of rum and eggnog, and how to cook a turkey dinner for nine...
I basically asked almost everyone I met, making a (typically) cheerful nuisance of myself. The results were most interesting, and I quickly found that the results of my research, like many of the previous responses, was also conditioned by the world views that obtained given the career choices and life objectives of the people I asked.
Most of people I asked, deprived of sleep and dulled by the holiday festivities, shrugged and said "Damned if I know..." I found such informal results less than satisfactory. Over more "eggnog" I came to the conclusion I should ask people who might actually know. The next day, I talked to people in the news trade, figuring, if they publish the stories that do get reported, they would certainly know what doesn't get reported.
I contacted a number of people in this regard, among them; an editor of a major San Francisco weekly newspaper, a writer for a major San Francisco daily newspaper, a photo editor for another daily, and a writer for a weekly newspaper and the internet, located near Seattle. Four people from completely different backgrounds- and they all said (basically) the same thing- "How can it be that there is incredible poverty amidst incomparable wealth, so often resulting in homelessness? "
This threw me for a loop, because I didn't anticipate unanimity from such a diverse lot. What also struck me was how I felt they were wrong. While I do think poverty does deserve a greater examination, and is certainly an important issue, I don't feel like it is particularly "unreported" much less unknown. Anyone who lives in an urban center in America (and many other countries for that matter) knows about the reality that is poverty and homelessness.
I also felt I had to discount their answer, to a certain degree. For one thing, they spend much of their time reporting on the headline eating news- the acts, both dastardly and venal, of society's misfits, madmen, and squalid criminals, both elected and otherwise. These people are journalists, and journalists, especially American journalists, have a tradition- bordering on an archetype- of being the voice for the voiceless, the muckraker, the fourth estate, the ever critical conscience of a secular society. This would make their odd unanimity explainable, and, to a degree, underscore the value and gravity of their choice.
But — John didn't ask them, he asked me. And what do I know? Enough to make me a worthy opponent at most trivia games. Enough that I'm not homeless. Yet.
Are the growing ranks of the homeless and poor amidst our ever deepening sense of prosperity and wealth the answer to Brockman's question?
Or is it something broader and deeper? Ever since there have been small privileged classes of the rich and/or powerful, there have been the endless ranks of peasants and proles, microserfs and burgerflippers, all of them struggling to feed their children, and then there have been those who look up to peasants and proles, microserfs and burgerflippers: the misfits, the madmen, and the squalid criminals both elected and otherwise. Perhaps that's an important untold story- the grand parade of the society's faceless "losers", the peasants and refugees fleeing some obscene tyrant and his witless army of cannon fodder dupes and cruel henchmen, and why on earth do they all buy into this fiction we call "Civilisation"?
Or, is it less of a fiction as one might imagine, and simply the natural product of a status conscious primate whose every activity is amplified and processed by its symbolic language center? Does reason in human relations only extend as far as the highly codified and ritualistic systems of voting and criminal justice? Can the objectivity of scie nce ever be used to develop social and economic systems that will eliminate injustice and poverty? Or, I wondered, is such a quest based in an outmoded socio political messianistic teleology? Are we fated to forever step over the prone bodies of those less fortunate or healthy? If the answer to "When will the horror ever end?" is "Never", then the big unreported story of the year is the true loss of "Utopia" and the evisceration of the humanist's hope by the knives of history and a scientifically informed realism.
Should we then also apply the logical conclusions of the Copernican revolution to our own human existence? With a decentered earth, sun, galaxy, and now, if some theories are correct, a decentered Universe, it is now logical that we should apply the lens of decentering to ourselves, our civilisations and cultures, and to our actions both collective and personal Perhaps that's the most important unreported story of the year — we're really not "The Story" any more, and what we do is likely of little, if any, consequence. Are we, as persons and a species, merely bit players in a peculiar performance? Improvising before an empty house, and all of our preening culture and posturing civilised rhetoric but a vain and oddly comical conceit? On this tiny planet of water, trees, and concrete — are we small participants in a giant multiverse that is actually less moving material incidentals expressing an equation of variables and constants, and more of a growing, blooming, beautiful, if very slowly dying, flower?