More broadly, youth across Western Europe expressed a combination of ennui, nihilism, and Marxism arising from the unprecedented standards of living produced by the three-decade-long post-WWII economic recovery/miracle (known by its French name: “les trentes glorieuses”). On the continent, domestic politics were marked by a bizarre combination of split allegiances and partisan churn. Political analysts coined the term “ungovernability” to describe this state of affairs, wondering whether democratic processes could sufficiently stabilize and operate “normally” to produce policies to meet the changing demands of the times. The outlook was bleak and aimless.
By the 1990s, the shape of politics was only marginally better, but the collapse of Soviet empire reinvigorated attitudes and perspectives in Europe and a fair amount of the weariness and fear seemed to melt away. The Cold War was over and President Bush (41) talked about a “New World Order.” Well, other things came up and history took a few surprising turns.
I draw this historical picture not to compare it with the present-day US (after all, there are no such simple “lessons of history”), but merely to point out that we are likely no better at predicting the future and the shape of our future than they were.
Contemporary America bears witness to the erosion of democratic and communitarian norms, a wave of over-hyped rumblings about an upcoming “civil war,” an inability to address the existential climate disaster, and a struggle to come to terms with embedded racism/sexism. Our politics are turbid, melodramatic, and sterile. It seems we are having our own crisis of ungovernability; and the situation in many countries around the world is worse.
What is the way out? I wish I knew.
But it is something to know that we don’t know—one way or the other.
Not that we should assume that all will be well; far from it. But just as some cyclical revival is hard to envision; so, too, is further (and terminal) decline far from inevitable. We don’t know what angle of work will prove to do the trick, so we’d best try them all: community, climate, democracy, caring.
I would bet that in 2005, in the aftermath of the re-election of Bush 43, hardly any of the relatively literate and engaged readers of this blog had more than a vague awareness of the junior Senator from Illinois. Yet, three years later, a half-Black, Arab-named man was President and many things suddenly seemed possible.
It is striking that we live in a time when both “left” and “right” (whatever those terms mean anymore) think that the country is going to hell in a handbasket. One, both, or neither may be right. All we can agree on is that the future is murky.
Nor are the scare tactics (again, of both “left” and “right”), prominently trotted out in a spectrum of media outlets indicative of not much more than McLuhan’s famous comment about the media being “the message.” The knee-jerk/axon-twitching/stream of semi-consciousness sound bites that populate both the “social” media and traditional outlets tell us little of substance; certainly compared to their hunger for ad/click dollars to be extracted by activating various hormones and revving up our brain chemistry.
In an earlier (1867) version of all this, the English romantic poet Matthew Arnold wrote “Dover Beach.” The closing lines of the poem (which I had to memorize in 9th grade) are:
Ah, love, let us be true to one another,
For the world which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new;
Has neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help from pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain,
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Ah, the very essence of dark, rich, romantic emotion. Not much to psych yourself up for. Yet, England and Europe went on to decades of (what seemed to them) incredible progress, hope, and glory. Falling into the abyss of WWI was unseen; almost half a century ahead.
So, is the world ungovernable? Can any society get “on track” or are each of us doomed to find problems over which to angst? More fundamentally, can each of us figure out how to govern ourself? Buying into the hype de jour is certainly a recipe for despair. But it is not enough to ground ourselves in our own lives. Rather, let us try to repair the world as best we can—for our own sakes—even while being confident in our utter ignorance of what-the-hell is likely to happen a week or a decade from now.