November 26, 2016
IT IS ONE of the pleasanter delusions fostered by times of general stability and prosperity, that the world as we know it—the world of peace and liberty, for example, in which we of the West have come of age and are by now thoroughly accustomed to existing—is imperishable. Such delusion takes the form of a popular, unsophisticated version of the doctrine that Fukuyama laid forth (and later himself emended) in The End of History and the Last Man.
This is all much less a question of philosophy than it is of attitude, of course, but it is an attitude which governs much of our actions nonetheless. It might be summed up as a kind of gut confidence that we really are living in the “end of history,” in the social order which has consummated all historical development, and which, one may presume, will last indefinitely. We have, it is generally felt (one should not dare to use the word thought in such a case), overcome at last those disturbances, wars, and revolutions which once wracked our Western countries with periodic regularity, and we need no longer dread those catastrophes of illness, weather, and nature, for we have instated the just social order and have harnessed the powers of nature sufficiently to stand against all but incidental difficulties. The Age of Plenty, we feel, shall protract itself across the face of the future.
I am aware, of course, of the periodic anxiety which seems now and then inexplicably to seize the heart of our public, in which the “end of the world” is said to be drawing nigh. There have been already two such episodes in our present young century alone—first, at its very birth, with the “Millennium Bug,” and again in 2012, with the ominous end of the Mayan Calendar. It may be we are even on the cusp of a third such wave of distress, with the election of Donald Trump to the office of presidency. We are already not distant from such proclamations.
Yet I wonder if these shrill fears of imminent cataclysm, genuine though they indubitably are, really run so deep as they sometimes seem. It appears rather to me that they are tempered finally by the more fundamental optimism of our well-fed, self-contented, pacific people. For truly, how many of those who claimed they were afraid of these disasters, actually did something in preparation of them? I mean to say—how many of them stockpiled food, medicine, or arms? How many of them cultivated survival tactics, or learned to live off the land, or prepared their houses for defense? Many, no doubt, awoke the morning of the presumably fatal day with flutterings of anticipation in their stomachs—but how many really lost sleep for it?
More yet: I spoke with a number of those who really did believe that at least 2012 would result in a world-historical upheaval. I met some who had stored food up against the disaster, and had readied their vegetable patches for all extremes. But what most struck me about such people was this: most of them were looking forward to what was coming. They believed, genuinely believed, that some undefined event—perhaps a volcano, a meteor, a devastating reversal of the gulf stream, an alien invasion, or the coming of the Antichrist—would uproot the very foundations of our corrupt and fatigued societies, hurling humanity into a chaos from which only disease, famine, and war general could result for many long decades, not to speak of the demise of the larger part of our race—and they were eager for it.
No surer sign could be given, I think, of the utterly naïve optimism in which most Westerners live their lives. And though there is something no doubt charming about such an attitude, and though it is disagreeable trying to wake people from such pleasant dreams, just as it is onerous to shatter a child’s illusions—yet atimes this ingenuity becomes really dangerous, to the point perhaps of preparing the very catastrophe whose possibility it so innocently and comfortably ignores.
For about a century now the Americans—and with them, all the Occident—have lived precisely in such a balmy adolescent dream. It shows in everything they do: their irresponsible consumption of all that is consumable; their personal economies, which can best be described with the term generally employed to absolve their government of similar irresponsibility, namely, deficit spending; their general support for international military practices which favor their lifestyles to the detriment and destruction of foreign lives; and the curious complacency with which they consider the newest technologies to be theirs by right.
None of this should surprise: we live in a world in which the most startling array of luxuries can simply be taken for granted, in which the larger part of diseases have their cure, in which the idea of war arriving at our shores—to say nothing of our front doors—is frankly absurd, the stuff of fiction or fairytale. We might be forgiven indeed for regarding the world in such an ingenuous light as we are prone to do—save that such a complacency makes us precarious, and threatens the very privileges we have learned so well to expect from and for our society.
But the world is turning, against all our inchoate notions of an “end of history,” and events of a most disagreeable countenance are indeed come to our threshold. Whether they shall pass over is another question: but the hour is well on us that we must ask ourselves—what, is it not time at last to grow up?