Friday, January 3, 2014

Interesting Times (Part III)

The following is the third segment of my 2013 Heyburn Lecture, delivered last month at Milton Academy in Milton, Massachusetts. Previous segment below (after the Christmas post); a final post will follow.

Here in the twenty-first century, it’s more apparent than ever before that the frontiers secured by the Second World War are under pressure. In some places – places that are not obvious from the vantage point of this beautiful campus, they’re actually collapsing. If you read political journalism, this is something you’re told all the time. There’s talk of debt, decaying roads and bridges, and foreign competition, whether commercial or military. Closer to home, it’s something you hear in terms of how challenging it is to get into a good college, how hard it is to afford any college, and how difficult getting a job with health insurance is (government-provided health care was a possible fork in the road the nation did not take after the Second World War). Your country used to be the world’s leader with technology; now it seems that that the airports or web connections are better abroad. You still think of your popular culture as a global trendsetter, and yet there are movies and shows with huge global audiences of which you know nothing.
One of the most obvious signs of this fraying – a sign that often becomes apparent overstretched empires begin to contract – is inequality. As those with privilege and power lose faith in their governing institutions (or, alternately, manage to wriggle free of its reach and create exceptions for themselves, which is another side of the same coin), the gap between haves and have-nots grows wider. Taxes are for suckers; it becomes more realistic to fend for yourself, which may mean buying your security privately rather than relying on communal resources. Governance becomes more difficult, and the appeal of leaders promising to slice through the ambiguities becomes ever more seductive. The seeds of dictatorship are sown in the soil of gridlock.
All this has been happening for a long time: people were saying such things back when your parents were children. Economists have been telling tell us for decades that the value of paychecks have been retreating and the price of things like fuel – and the cost of its consumption on our environment – have been rising. And yet in many respects, concerns about decline were premature then, and, at least for the moment, they seem premature now, because whatever the tremors you may be feeling or seeing, there doesn’t seem to be any large-scale changes you can easily see. And for the moment, at least, you’ve got a college degree in front of you. Your immediate horizon is what will happen in the next four or five years. And since there’s no obvious sign the world will implode before then, the smartest thing is to do is act as if things will pretty much go on as they have before.
Of course you know nothing lasts forever. But in your heart you can’t quite believe that things will be fundamentally different in the foreseeable future. The rhythms of everyday life – of work and school, of getting and spending, of trying to figure out what you want so you can go chase after it, because as an American the legitimacy of chasing after dreams is your birthright, even if you happen to have been born someplace else – have not changed fundamentally in generations. Yes, of course, there are collective setbacks: bad economic times, natural disasters, moments of political uncertainty like a government shutdown or a looming debt ceiling. But the expectation, and, to a great extent, the reality, is that things return to normal, however boring, unfair or reassuring normal may be.
But, in the hope it may be of some value to you, I’m going to make the educated guess that times will be getting more interesting. Not immediately, and not in ways I or anyone else can easily foresee. But it defies every notion of history that its elusive but nevertheless real rhythms can be entirely defied. Nothing is permanent, least of all stability.
This is not meant to be a prescription for doom. For all you or I know, you will be in a position to prosper from instability (or, to use a word much-beloved by some businesspeople, “disruption”). You’ll have a skill – a language, a trade, a personal trait – you can exploit to good effect. Or you’ll find a literal or figurative haven in which to ride out any storm. Or maybe you’ll just enjoy the excitement; there are always people (typically young men) who do. In any case, storms don’t arrive or move with uniformity. They’re hard to predict, and historians have never been noted for their power to forecast the future.
Given all this, you may well wonder just how it is I can be of any use to you. I make some maddeningly vague assertion that times will change, and an equally vague assertion that you may or may not prosper amid that change. What makes my suggestion all the more implausible is that I’m telling you that history – of all things! – will be useful to you. Not some technical skill. Or some techniques for dealing with people more effectively. But knowledge about things that have already happened: that will be valuable.
Next: What history can do