Sunday, March 06, 2011

Is this a turning point?

Any moment in history, at least in modern history, is full of momentous things. Can you name a year that didn't have something hugely important happen in it, in the last two decades? And I suspect the same would be true if you went back through the last few centuries; but when we look back on the 20th or the 19th century in hindsight, there are the things that people felt were important (and that were important) in each year, but there were also years when a bunch of those things came together into something even bigger, a perfect storm that that changed the world.

The most obvious examples are the world wars. Doesn't virtually every history book start a new chapter somewhere around 1912 or 1913, with its first few pages talking about a series of events that, at the time they were happening, some people recognized as a turning point in history, but others might well have thought were just more of the same kind of stuff that always happens? To put it another way, the people who read in the news about the Sherman Anti-Trust Act might well have realized it would be in history books, but in the months before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, did people reading the news realize that not only would the things happening there be in the history books, but also be on the first page of a new chapter in the history books?

As I look at the news now, I get the feeling that maybe we're in one of those, but it's too soon to be sure. All the revolutions going on in Africa and other places certainly seem like a trend; doesn't it remind you of the chapter in your history book about the late 18th century, the age of revolutions in long-established powers? The culture war in the United States between the rich and poor certainly feels like it's hitting a boiling point, with the forces of the rich suddenly being smug about doing things that seem inconceivable, unabashedly, and publicly (though there are also signs of progress on other fronts). The struggles between oppressor and oppressed characterize a dozen different stories every day. No one wants to use the tired phrase "energy crisis" since we wore that one out in the 1970s, but what's happening to oil prices and how that is poised to cripple economic recovery worldwide in all sectors certainly seems to be setting the stage for a major shift in power.

But I have to caution myself. Had I asked this question in September of 2001, wouldn't we all have concluded that a new chapter was beginning? Certainly what happened then caused many other things, which caused many other things. Wasn't 9/11 a step on the way to the ascendancy of the oppressor in the United States, a turning point in international relations, and sowing the seeds of the economic collapse, amongst other things? And of course, if you go back a bit, many things, like Russia's invasion of Afghanistan, the Reagan administration's actions in the Middle East, and a dozen other things, were setting the stage for 9/11. It's like a continuous tapestry of events influencing one another -- it's like the middle of a chapter. With not even a decade between, we can already see that 9/11 wasn't so much a turning point, just one moment in a string of events before and after. In the history books written a century from now, it won't be the first page of a chapter; it'll be in the middle of a chapter, an important moment in that chapter, but nevertheless, in the middle. Yes, the world changed, and maybe a lot more than on an average Tuesday, but I don't think it turns out it was one of the top 20 most world-changing moments in the last millennium.

If the present is the beginning of a new chapter, I don't think I'm going to like being in the chapter that's about to begin. When I think about the future, most of the time, I end up hoping that the stuff that seems likely to come will just hold off long enough for me to finish out my life. Selfish, I know, and the kind of selfishness that is not available to people with kids, but it's a survival mechanism. I'm doing my part, but when you watch things like what's going on in Wisconsin, or in Libya, or some of the so ridiculous you have to double-check if you're watching real news or parody news stories out there, it's impossible not to conclude that "my part" isn't going to cut it.

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