The micro saeculum
I was reminded of this this morning when a facebook friend posted this link. Some schools around the country, it seems, including this one in Missouri, are staging realistic drills designed to simulate a shooting attack within the school to train kids how to react to it. Being a child of the 1950s, I couldn't help but be reminded to the duck and cover drills we did in my Bethesda elementary school. But those were designed (rather laughably, it must be said) to deal with a mass threat, a Soviet nuclear attack. These new ones are designed (equally pathetically, really) to deal with the threat posed by deranged individuals. Half a century ago such individuals were far more likely to be institutionalized than they are now. In addition, citizens could not easily acquire weapons, and they could not acquire semi-automatic rifles at all. Despite widespread dissent, society as a whole, insofar as the political process reflects its views, is willing to allow virtually anyone to get their hands on these weapons and accept the consequences of a periodic mass attack. Such attacks are, of course, trivial in comparison to what a nuclear war would have meant--but nuclear war never took place, thanks to a barely sufficient measure of statesmanship on both sides during the key crises of the Cold War.
I got another perspective on this last summer traveling in Europe, when I met a social worker who works with families including Down's syndrome children. In the early twentieth century one of the more unfortunate offshoots of the Enlightenment was the eugenics movement, designed to improve the human race by weeding out poorer specimens. This led to sterilization laws for "imbeciles" in many American states, and to the worst excesses of the Nazi regime, which of course defined undesirables in many ways. I cannot think of any government that is implementing such policies today, but the social worker I met told me that Down's syndrome is being rapidly wiped off the face of the earth by the combination of amniocentesis and abortion. States have renounced the power to influence the gene pool, but parents have acquired it, and are using it.
The same thing has happened in the international sphere. Twenty years ago there was a great stir about the idea of "democratic peace," which held that democratic nations never went to war against one another. That idea seems to have faded in recent years, perhaps because the world's leading democracy, the United States, unleashed an unnecessary war (albeit against a dictatorship) in Iraq, and partly because democracy, which seemed to be sweeping all before it in the 1990s, is now in retreat in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East. But it is fair to say that modern states in general have lost their appetite for war with each other. Instead, any individual, anywhere in the world, can suddenly decide to make war on western civilization on behalf of Islamic fundamentalism, and a number of states are threatened with fragmentation. And states, led by the United States, define their international enemies not as other nations or even political parties, but as individuals. That is why drones are becoming our weapon of choice.
Academia has not been immune to this trend--indeed, it has led it. Specialization within disciplines was already a problem half a century ago, but it has become much worse. In the humanities new, narrow fields of inquiry emerge every few years, while hardly anyone attempts anything broad and synthetic. When I took first-year economics in 1965-6, nearly all the excitement in the discipline related to macroeconomics, the problem of keeping national economies strong and growing. Microeconomics--the decisions of individual consumers and traders--seems now to have been in the ascendant for quite a while.
The micro trend has also affected entertainment. Anyone can post their own video on youtube--or spend their time watching other peoples' videos there. Music has become almost an entirely private matter. News outlets are proliferating. All the forms that depended on mass audiences, including network televsion and the movies, seem to be in retreat.
I have no idea where this all will end. Eventually I feel sure that the trend will be reversed, as it has been repeatedly in human history, but the odds seem to be against my living to see that happen. The age of large and powerful institutions and mass solutions to problems had, of course, its own huge problems. It gave us world wars that did extraordinary damage, although the Second World War ultimately created a relatively stable and prosperous world for. . .the better part of a saeculum. In any case, this is the world we live in, and the world with which younger people will have to cope. It will not be easy, but the great political achievements of human history were often born out of crisis.