I was fortunate to be born into the world I inherited. The greatest war in human history had ended less than two years earlier, paving the way for the triumph of industrial and democratic civilization in most (but not all) of the world's temperate zones. Although my elementary school classes were large by today's standards--generally numbering about 30--and I spent one term in half-day sessions waiting for the construction of a new school, my teachers were caring, smart, encouraging, and often enthusiastic--even though they worked for next to nothing--and my fellow students were curious. Public education was virtually free, and even private education cost less than 1/3 of what it does today, adjusted for inflation. The older generation to which my parents belonged had been taught to value great works of art and literature, and new media like film and television still drew heavily on those older traditions. They also had been taught a belief in equality and human rights, one which helped the civil rights movement end legal segregation in my childhood
I can see, now, that this atmosphere was the climax, really of a process that had begun in the middle of the eighteenth century: the attempt to design a new world based upon reason and principles of equality. Indeed, that was the way our textbooks taught American history: as a long struggle for freedom, beginning with the Pilgrim's trek across the ocean to practice their religion freely and continuing through the revolution, the expansion of the nation, and the civil war, and culminating int he Second World War. None of this happened by accident, or as the result of blind historical forces: men made it happen, based upon their beliefs. And--critically--it was hard work.
Yes, civilization is hard work, politically, artistically, and in any other way. I was reminded of that yet again watching the remarkable documentary, Tim's Vermeer, in which Tim Jenison, a specialist in film and television lighting, spends many months testing his theory of how Vermeer used a lense and a mirror to reproduce reality so exactly. Jenison is like me, but with a broader skill set. If he has an idea he wants to pursue he doesn't care how long it takes and, crucially, he doesn't need immediate feedback--the work is its own reward. Surely every great historian and every great artist has had that quality. It is natural for many of us, but society has to encourage it to allow to thrive, and it is no longer a prized quality within academia or, for the most part, in the arts. We are much poorer as a result.
It also took time, energy, concentration, and event he sacrifice of life to create and preserve democracy against many threats. The Civil War was an unprecedented expenditure of energy and resources to prove, as Lincoln argued, that a democratic government could resist an internal threat. The New Deal was a huge effort to organize industrial society and regulate capitalism. The Second World War dwarfed any previous or subsequent feat of mobilization. And all this raises the question--what kinds of activities command such energy and dedication today?
The answers, I'm afraid, are not encouraging. Certainly the designers of new apps and video games have some of the same quality, but it is producing anything of lasting worth? (I ask--I'd be the last person to know.) Hedge fund managers and bank division heads, who have some of the brightest young minds in the world at their disposal, move heaven and earth to find the tiniest new edge, regardless of the broader consequences. Marketers strive to design movies just like the ones that succeeded last year. There are still a few people in the movie business, such as George Clooney and Brad Pitt, who are willing to use their star power to make something great happen, but they are the exceptions who fall outside the system. I wonder whether any twenty-something filmmaker would set out to do the kind of thing they do now.
And politically, all the energy in the nation seems dedicated to tearing down, not building up. For many months, as regular readers know, I have wondered if the latest Tea Party outrage or Congressional shutdown might mark the high tide of the radical attempt to undo the last hundred years of American government. Nothing, however, seems to daunt Republican enthusiasm for more--and worse, nothing seems to inspire Democrats to put forward a real alternative. I am waiting for Nate Silver to begin sharing his insights once again at espn.com, but so far it looks like the best the Democrats can hope for is to hold on to an even narrower Senate majority. Not only does Hillary Clinton seem to have no serious rivals for the Democratic nomination, but I can't imagine who the alternative candidates would be if she did not run. Democrats take women's issues and gay rights seriously, but they are no longer engaged in trying to remake our society along more just lines.
This is, alas, clearly a fundamental rhythm of human experience. When younger generations like my own start taking their parents' achievements entirely for granted, they are in danger. Thus Boomer foreign policy specialists have assumed for twenty years that the collapse of Communism meant the worldwide triumph of the American model. Vladimir Putin is giving them the first of what may be a series of rude shocks. Something similar seems to be happening even in Europe, where extreme right-wing parties attract more dedication, if not yet more voters, than mainstream ones. Communism as it once existed is waning in China, but the same sort of oligarchy that now rules Russia seems like the most likely alternative to it. Meanwhile, much of a new generation is repudiating their parents' pacifism in Japan.
Politically, I would argue, the Anglo-American world began traveling down a certain very inspiring path in 1688 or so. Three hundred years is a very long time in the history of any civilization. We still have,. of course, our democratic freedoms and institutions but they are a shadow of what they once were. Our ability to act on behalf of the common good is much reduced. Here, surely, is a threat to our civilization at least as serious as global warming, but one that we are only beginning to understand.