Historians of the future – provided their trade still exists – will find our era fascinating. Free of the burden of having to live through it, they will examine carefully what happened during the Great Economic Recession and the Great Cultural Depression and pronounce precisely how these events either insured America’s collapse or preceded yet another Great Revival.
But today, whether you’re just trying to keep things together, are out of work or being sent for the fourth time to fight in a war that no one can explain, it is, instead, a time without answers.
I’ve seen it before, coming of age in the 1950s. Caught between the far more assertive, self-assured and self-important World War II and Boomer eras, most of my generation, which couldn’t even produce a president, didn’t fight the past or the present. But, at least among beats and other cultural dissenters, some just turned their backs on it. When I think of the time, I sometimes recall Miles Davis playing a whole number facing the stage curtain rather than the audience.
But there was something else. Although many forget it, the civil rights movement began in the 1950s. And the most important book I read at Harvard wasn’t, and wouldn’t have been, assigned by any course: Stride Towards Freedom by Martin Luther King Jr.
In such odd, inconsistent and sometimes crude ways, we served as a sleeper cell for the 1960s.
Many years later I would be interviewed by a writer doing a history of Harvard Square. I asked him which periods he had found most interesting and he included ours. Then he quoted George Christoph Lichtenberg who had once said, “The most interesting creatures reside on the borders of things.”
Which is where we are again.
To be sure, this time it’s not just about the boring prospect of having to become another man in a gray flannel suit but a critical and seemingly almost fatal economic and cultural decline. We have learned, as we did in the fifties, that much of what we were taught, told, and preached about the future just wasn’t true, that we were victims of endemic misrepresentations ranging from the merely misguided to the premeditated malicious.
If you are, for example, a recent high school high school graduate, the myth that opportunity, status and profit are the predictable results of effort, ambition and study has already failed. And if you are headed for college, you already know that you probably face a life of servitude to some loan office without any assurance that it will be balanced by decent or consistent employment.
Add to that the failure of civil liberties, democracy and American “exceptionalism” (aka narcissism) and it gives discouragement, depression and anger righteous standing.
Except that they don’t help much.
For example, they obscure the fact that the American establishment has seldom been in so much trouble as it is now. Or that the print media – with its concentrated ownership and closed shop mentality – is being deeply challenged by the Internet. Or that we haven’t had a successful war in decades. Or that multi-storied centers of power are being deeply threatened by those simply in tents.
One way to think of it is that the future has become unclaimed territory for which the decent, the daring and the democratic can still fight and still have a chance to win.
It’s not clear at all. There are those – the Green Party is an example – who have thought about this for a long while and even transcribed in platforms or books what a new America might become. But few could be bothered with such speculation when compared to that purportedly found in the housing market or hedge funds, or in the inherent privileges of having an MBA.
And there are those, like the Occupiers, who have launched the first highly visible charge against the failed past. They have caught our attention but some argue have failed to convert their response into a clear vision Yet that is like accusing a fire department of not bringing along materials to rebuild the home they just saved from burning to the ground. Yes, it is only a first step, but so was the first sit in. What mattered then was not what the participants did next but that they would inspire others to follow suit in 25 cities in just six months. They rang the alarm and it was answered.
And already things are happening. Look at the number of ideas even liberals have thought odd or radical that are suddenly on the table. Things like state banks, reforming the Fed, cooperatives, credit unions – matters that the media, politicians and academia didn’t have time to mention because they were too busy pontificating on the virtues of a “free market” that didn’t even exist. Like the frogs in Emily Dickinson’s poem, they croaked capitalism’s name “the livelong day to an admiring bog.”
It is important to recognize that these frauds, miscreants and misguided conventionalists are now as confused and scared as anyone. And that they have neither the integrity nor the intelligence to know what to do about it.
So the Republicans imitate segregationists attempting to block civil rights legislation and try futilely to rebuild a wrongful world that will never return. The evangelical right blasphemes Jesus and the Bible on behalf of a culture they can’t even practice themselves. And a couple of GOP presidential candidates split their time between blatantly false economics and proving that their opponent is a bigger liar.
Meanwhile, the most conservative Democratic president of modern times pretends promise is a product and that life is just a game of Scrabble in which the best are those who find the right word.
The voters, meanwhile, think they are being asked to choose between leaders. In fact they are selecting their battlefield.
And deciding which choice will do us the least damage.
And so the folks in the tents may be far stronger than even they imagine. Choice remains only in open spaces. Opportunity sits around half filled cups of coffee in café corners. Power resides in churches that rediscover the power of witness as well as faith. Dreams flow through microphones in front of drum sets. Action blossoms with the rediscovery of community.
The future has become an amateur sport.
What time is it?
Ours, if we choose to take it.