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.