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21st Century

When I was 16, circa 1990, I loved watching the news.

Every morning seemed to bring tidings of hope for the world. In Berlin, in Warsaw, in Prague, crowds gathered, singing and chanting, and the soldiers did not fire. The odds of nuclear exchange, so high when I was small, diminished day by day. In South Africa Nelson Mandela was released; apartheid was cracking. Yes, AIDS was skyrocketing and there was a hole in the ozone layers, but even in those cases people were taking to the streets, demanding action. The idea that things could change for the better seemed real. Freedom was on the move.

That was a historical moment, the moment in which the world as we know began. In August, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, we saw that this new world was going to have problems of its own.

Thirty years later, the problems of the post-Cold War era are on the United States and the world, in earnest. The pandemic has not caused them, only exacerbated them. The Trump administration has not caused them, only exacerbated them.

So what are the problems in this knot? I can’t be sure. They will be apparent only in retrospect. But to give it a shot:

-The increasing intertangledness of the world. The sloshing back and forth of people, money, resouces, and ideas.

-The interrelationship of identities in society.

-A growing, yet stagnating, world population.

-The environment—particularly, but not limited to, climate change.

and, as before and always

-Who gets the money. The basic questions of wealth, power and class.

At the knot of confusion, authoritarianism appears. Erdogan, Orban, Xi, Putin—each an individual incarnation of a global trend. Authoritarianism seems to make things simpler, but that is an illusion. Freedom is actually a better, more adaptable approach to the confusions of the Unprecedented Era, as demonstrated by the fates of the authoritarian regimes of the 20th century.

In the interwar years of the 20th century, it seemed natural to many that the world faced an inescapable choice between fascism or communism. The Enlightenment package of democracy, capitalism and science was doomed, a broken reed. As it turned out, that freedom package was far more relisient than it looked. It persevered. It won—not by promises, but by lived results.

That’s the good news. The bad news is the process of unknotting the confusion resulted in the deaths of hundreds of millions of people between 1914 and 1948. We do not want to endure such a process again.

In the end, there are three things we can be sure of: 1)we can’t know what will happen until it happens, 2)when it happens, it will happen in a way no one quite expected and 3) Reality Rises Like the Mist—i.e. What happens is the interaction of an untold number of independently operating entities. These are important to keep in mind.

I’d say “We’re at the crossroads,” except, in the Unprecedented Era, we’re always at the crossroads. There has never been a moment in the past 225 years when we have not been at the crossroads. Our time is a gigantic, Escheresque, mass of crossroads. Whatever end our current situation comes to, there will be another moment beyond it.

One of the central questions of human civilization is: once a man has a weapon, how do you keep him to the norms of society? How do you divert him from the train of thought: “Hey, I have a weapon! You don’t have a weapon. Why should I do what you say? Why shouldn’t you do what I say?”

Over the centuries, various methods have been tried. Military hierarchy, codes of chivalry, geographic separation, the rule of law. They don’t always work. Often, the men the weapons end up with political control. To give an example: Heian-era Japan was one of the least militarized societies in history. Poetry, Buddhism, and incense guessing were the keys to power. But in the end the ruling class, centered in the city of Kyoto, began to utilize certain of their country cousins, cousins with swords, for security. Eventually those country cousins brought their swords to the capital and ended the Heian peace, pushing the emperors to the background and establishing a millennium of military rule.

Here in the United States, we have established, laboriously, the principle of civilian control of both the military and the police. Those who hold the weapons are supposed to take orders from those who do not hold weapons. This is thought to be one of the pillars of modernity. As with many such pillars, many Americans tend to take it for granted. We don’t realize how unusual our freedom is.

The civilian population of the United States is having a discussion about the nature of police power in our society. About what role the police should play and how they should do so. If we are free, the police cannot determine the outcome of that discussion. And if they do determine the outcome, then we are not free.

Are they doing what we say? Or are we doing what they say?

-I’m fasting from alcohol this Lent, so I can literally say “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking.”

-Because it has been this week that the fear has seriously hit. Up until Monday, the epidemic looked like it might join SARS and the 1976 Swine Flu as Not As Big A Deal As Advertised. It now seems to be something different.

-How different is still up in the air. We could yet, by Christmas, have to be reminded that Coronavirus happened in the calendar year. The uncertainty is part of the tension. But with the international outbreaks, a new level has been reached.

-I tend to cough a lot anyway. I don’t typically notice. Now I do.

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In three weeks, the decade of the Teens shall end. Then comes the Twenties! Bring on the flappers, hot jazz, and bathtub gin!

Now of course, that’s the 1920s, not the 2020s. But you all knew exactly what I meant when I said that. Those images invoke the identity of “The 20s.”

The 1920s were the first decade to have so strong an identity. The mythologizing started almost immediately after the decade’s close, with such books as Fredrick Lewis Allen’s “Only Yesterday.” It helped that the shift from Gatsbyean partying to Depression sorrow was so abrupt and so cleanly associated with the calendar year.

So the decades continued, each with their own unique tone. The 30s, the 40s,

(The 40s were actually something of two decades: First the War and then “the Crucial Decade,” as Eric Goldman put it, that period of uncertain rebuilding and constant crisis that lasted through the end of the Korean War. The 50s, as we think of them, with rock ‘n roll and sock hops, were really just the second half of the decade)

the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, the 80s–

And then something changed. 1990, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, marked a crux point. In the 90s were settled the current parameters of American life: quiet, constant, social change, an economy centered around tech investment and the stock market, and constant wrestling between the Left and the Right. Not that the decades that made up the last 30 years didn’t have their own distinct identities, but those identities were not as distinct as the seven decades that went before them.

Which is why, as we approach the end of the 2010s,

(There are those who insist that decades, like centuries, start with the “1” year, inasmuch as there was no year 0. The problem with this idea is that the concept of the decade is so recent that it need have no connection that happened two millennia ago. It is worth noting, though, that the “0” year of any decade is often a cusp year, an odd mix of the preceding and incoming decades. The identity is not there yet, but the seeds are.)

we have not seen much nostalgia over the past ten years or anticipation of the next ten. It just doesn’t seem like a big deal. We feel like we are in the midst of a historical flow, not at either end.

If I was going to point out any specific attribute of the 2010s, it would be the dramatic widening of the Overton Window on both Left and Right. Many ideas that were confined to fringes circa 2009 or so are common parlance now.

Which brings us to the prospects for the New 20s. Since that 1990 crux point, it seems that American politics have been in a more-or-less constant state of gridlock. One side takes a temporary lead; the other gets it back in the next election. As the contest becomes closer, it becomes more heated.

Where is this going? Will there be a victory for one side or the other, a true breakthrough of national direction, or will it continue in friction lock?

This is even more of a concern for me than it might be because my children are going to come to adulthood in the next ten years. Where you enter society’s stream contributes a great deal to the arc of your life, to your economic and spiritual fate. When I think of the direction of history we’re living, I think of them.

So now the Twenties are returned, the first decade to repeat since decades became decades. How will the 2020s compare to the 1920s? I suspect they will have very little in common indeed.

There’s only four months and a week left in the 2010s. Does this seem like a big deal? Not really.

To my eye, the distinctness of decades has lessened in the last thirty years. Now this is coincident with my adulthood, and that may be why. But if it is a real, objective phenomenon, it might indicate the Unprecedented Era is hitting a lull. Coming to an end? That will only be apparent in retrospect.

One of the hardest things to express of the beauty of the Unprecedented Era is its ephemerality. Every phase can happen because conditions are Just So, and those conditions will never be that way again. The Seventies, just to use one example, are a combination of economic (the end of the great wave of mid-20th century economic growth), cultural/demographic (the afterglow of the Sixties, the autumn of those who remembered World War II, the maturity-but-still-youngness of the postwar generation), technological (the introduction of personal computers) political (the fading, but not faded, of Mass Man) elements. A certain permutation, made in the instant, year by year, month by month, hour by hour, never to be seen again.

And the same can be said for every decade since the 18th century. They are all birds: you see one for a moment, try to pin a name on it, but it flutters and is gone. You can only reconstruct it from memory, but whatever memory will never equal that empirical instant.

In recent weeks, the people of Hong Kong have been leading protests against the threat of Chinese oppression. Today in India, the government announced they intend to revoke the statue that allows the state of Kashmir self-determination and will split it into two union territories, ruled directly from New Delhi.

These are two instances of the same phenomena. In both cases, the vicissitudes of history have made these territories extraordinary. Nationalism cannot stand that. They must be reduced, brought into the fold, broken and remolded and melted into the whole.

In both cases, there is a larger picture. If the Chinese government cannot keep Hong Kong placid, what hope do they have of ever enticing Taiwan to rejoin the motherland? If, after more than 70 years, Kashmir still chafes at Indian rule, what hope is there for the unification of Akhand Bharat?
Yet, to the nationalist mindset, it would be intolerable to let them go. Thought form is destiny. If the people of these territories will not see reason, they will see force. They will be made to see the glory of New China/Bharat Mata.

There’s a basic problem in that the Enlightment idea of human rights was developed in the Western sphere (despite the fact that those of the Western sphere have often ignored it). Therefore in the other major spheres–the Islamic sphere, the Sinosphere, and the Indosphere–there will always be some measure of resentment of the idea. It will always, to some degree, be considered an alien intrusion. In these days of rising nationalism, that degree is increasing.

The ironic thing is that the idea of the nation state was also developed in the Western sphere, but hardcore factions of all spheres seem to take to it like a duck to bread.

But whatever intellectual chuckling I get to have at the nationalists of other spheres ignoring the foreign origins of their actions is bullshit compared to what’s at stake. Kashmir has been an oozing sore for decades. The Chinese government, judging from Xinjiang, seems enthusiastic about crackdown.

Power to the people. To the people of Hong Kong. To the people of Kashmir. It’s hard to see how all this will turn out well. But there’s still hope.

Every so often I remember this post and think I should do an update.

At this point, it is obvious that the Roomful of Dust is less explosive than I feared it was. In the past six months, Pakistan and India, then Iran and everybody, have stood on the brink of war, yet no war has appeared. This is a potent reminder that war is not only not healthy for children and other living things, it’s also not healthy for existing power structures. All the players have their own cold-steel goals, but they all have a lot to lose as well. The lack of line warfare in recent decades, combined with jumps of weapons technology, means that it’s impossible to know what could happen once the reins are off.

In fact, it’s possible war might bring nothing good even for the winners. Saudi Arabia and Israel want regime change in Iran—but if the collapse of the Islamic Republic led to a massive failed-state zone, they might end up longing for the ayatollah’s time. China’s neighbors would like the PRC to cool it with the efforts to become hegemon of East & Southeast Asia—but they might like mass chaos in interior even less. Everyone’s aware just how economic stability, let alone growth, would pop like a soap bubble under wartime conditions. Any war in the Persian Gulf would immediately chop world oil supplies by more than half, instantly creating a global depression.

So I’m not as nervous as was. And yet.

The problem is that most of the time, war is always the stupid move. Peace is the result of geopolitical equilibrium; geopolitical equilibrium is the product not of universal satisfaction with the state of affairs, but with universal acquiescence that there’s nothing that can be done about it. Generally speaking, peace is always the smart move. Wars occur when someone, out of arrogance or desperation or both, decides to forget what the smart move is. Austria forgot in 1914. Japan forgot in 1941. Israel forgot in 1967. Sometimes it works out. Usually it doesn’t.

So the question is: will someone in the Room choose to forget? They haven’t. There’s been ample opportunity, yet they haven’t. May they continue to not forget.

I am suddenly overwhelmed by the urge to express our modern era as a movie pitch.

“See, it’s like Our Heroes came from dirt poverty but then they figured out the Secrets of the Universe and used it like wizards to completely restructure the world and make it a palace of wonders. Except here’s the twist: the stuff they were doing to make that palace of wonders? Turns out it was actually undermining the world while they were doing it! And if they don’t find a way to undo that, it’s going to wreck everything they built. So now they’re filled with self-doubt and they’re arguing with each other and no knows what to do when faced with this greatest challenge of all! Can they overcome their differences and come together to find a new way and save the world?”

“Sounds fantastic! How does it end?”

“Uh—I don’t have an ending yet.”

I’m proud to say that in 2017, I did:

  • The Alligator
  • The Pony
  • The Tighten Up
  • Mickey’s Monkey
  • The Humpty Dance

and of course

  • The Twist

Feel free to nominate me for any awards you can think of.  None will ever be more of an honor than “Employee of the Month, Dead Bird, Iowa A&W Stand, September 1970.”