Recently, I began to read Thomas Friedman’s new book, “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.” At the outset he refers to “the world’s big gears and pulleys,” or what he refers to as “the Machine.” There are two things that immediately captured my imagination about his introductory remarks: first, he capitalized “Machine”; second, his descriptive characterization of this Machine as “being driven by simultaneous accelerations in technology, globalization, and climate change, all interacting with one another.”
I gladly refer my readers to Mr. Friedman’s guide book to this new age of acceleration. He is far wiser and more competent than I to elaborate on his theme. But I also call your attention to what I recognized as both universal and contemporary in his opening remarks. Friedman’s Machine is reminiscent of how Plato explained a world of flux and change. The world, he thought, was an infinitely varied reflection of “eternal verities,” like the patchy images caught in shards of glass (my metaphor, not Plato’s). The “Machine” also recalls Aquinas’ representation of how we choose to interact with “all other Force.” He stated, “We deal with Multiplicity and call it God.” Of course, it is doubtful that Mr. Friedman is looking for God in his Machine. He has, nonetheless, touched upon that interminable synergy that explains the push and pull of forces between homo sapiens and natura.
It was not much more than a hundred years ago that Henry Adams developed his own “law of acceleration.” His thesis was that after the fall of Rome not much human progress was made until the 15th and 16th centuries. Since then, Adams estimated that the force of change was increasing “in the direct ratio of its squares.” Friedman, in similar fashion, refers to “Moore’s Law,” the theory that computational power would initially double every year and subsequently every other year. Both of these historical witnesses recognized the chaos that comes with the acceleration of change. In Adams’ lifetime, he witnessed three horrendous Presidential assassinations, a mass Asian immigration, unrest in China, the threat of Russian imperialism in Europe, and societal changes brought about by the steam engine, the light bulb, the teletype, home plumbing, and by the seeds of that irrepressible flouring soon to become the women’s suffrage movement.
In our time, many billions of us experience the acceleration of change that Tom Friedman relates. And we do what humans have always done: we change the world to suit our needs of the moment. Since we change ourselves in the process, our civilization(s) will continue to evolve and, as history as shown, will create periods that oscillate between chaos and equilibrium. As Henry Adams brother, Charles Francis Adams Jr., stated near the completion of the transcontinental railroad, we “might with more grace accept the inevitable, and cease from useless attempts at making a wholly new world conform itself to the rules and theories of a bygone civilization.”
The question that haunts me is where do we find that grace to “accept the inevitable” without revisiting the road already taken? Regression is not a form of progress. Perhaps we need the grace of courage and the wisdom of a broader perspective. If we fail to adapt and innovate in a future we are creating, we will succumb to its pace of change and, perhaps inevitably, to its chaos. Is there nothing we can learn from our past adaptations that can help us avoid this fate? Or is the chaos that seems to loom over us at this point in our history an unavoidable destiny?
Yes, change is inevitable. It seems to be coded into our genes and springs forth as boundless curiosity. America has been at the heart of a changing world for over two hundred years. Just as the Pax Romana ended with the fall of Rome, the Pax Americana could suffer a like fate. Likewise, America could devolve from a people’s government into an illiberal democracy where elections are determined and governing power is relegated to the rich, to the corrupt and even to the influence of foreign adversaries. Many historians have concluded that Rome was crumbling from within long before the barbarian invasions. Are we now where Rome was before its fall? Ask yourself whether we are as united as a nation as we were during and after World War II. Do we currently show the diplomatic leadership to unite our allies and many financial coalitions against foreign competitors and adversaries? Are our current elected leaders modelling the international rules-based coexistence that has marked the last 72 years? What does it mean to us that European leaders are beginning to refer to Angela Merkel as the “leader of the free world?” Or how do you decipher Mikael Gorbachev’s statement that “the world appears to be preparing for war?” Neither statement implies any faith in the continuance of a Pax Americana.
Is it possible for America to recede into the “fortress America” of the late 18th and early 19th centuries? We were then militarily vulnerable and a relatively small participant in international commerce. Isolationism during that time seemed a prudent strategy to avoid being pulled into Europe’s cauldron of ever-boiling conflicts. But the world we now inhabit is interconnected in every conceivable way by communication, commerce, international treaties, ecological commitments, and human rights agreements. America actually leads the free world in each of these categories. Though much engaged, America leaves no imperial footprint. Instead, it “speaks softly” in measured diplomatic phrases without waving its “big stick.” As long as the latter infers our strength and assures our security rather than any malevolent threat, the former can hold sway in international negotiations. It is diplomacy that puts America at the head of the table. As our last President stated the case, his fellow world leaders expected him to chair every international meeting. America will become vulnerable only when it abandons its role as a world leader. In other words, our security depends as much on diplomacy as it does on military and economic power. The world we currently inhabit is a tinderbox of potential conflicts, from Eastern Europe and the Middle East to Southeast Asia and North Korea. This is not the time to diminish our diplomatic and intelligence efforts in the face of diverse and fast-moving international challenges.
How can it seem prudent to reawaken the xenophobia of Japanese prison camps and McCarthyism? We are not at war with any country and are not threatened by any ‘ism. Of course, there are Muslim terrorists, as there have been Christian terrorists. But there is no such thing as Islamic terrorism. Many vile things have been done in the name of religion. But they are simply not religious in nature and certainly not representative of the great religions that have formed our contemporary civilizations. Daesh is a large scale embodiment of our homegrown Symbionese Liberation Army from the 70’s. Like all terrorist groups, it will last as long as its rhetoric and ideology has an audience. We will never defeat Daesh/ISIS militarily if we feed their false narrative that the West is against Islam or, as our President has said, we are witnessing the “clash of civilizations.” America is not against Islam or a Muslim civilization. We are fighting crazed, radical terrorists who suborn a religion as justification for their heinous acts—just as radical groups in America have used Christianity to justify lynchings and bombings.
Is it possible that adapting to a changing world is harder today than ever before? Consider that we have prospered in spite of a Civil War, two World Wars, countless immigrations from every continent on earth, innumerable political upheavals including assassinations, impeachments, official corruption, and unnerving incompetence in our chosen representatives. Then why can we not deal with the job dislocations incurred by globalization and robotic technology? Why would we ever renege on our progress towards renewable energy sources in the face of global warming and of half our cities already breathing polluted air? How could we even consider rolling back measures that increase preventative healthcare and make it more affordable for millions when America is already ranked last in health care amongst the ten most advanced nations? Do we really want to revisit a past where people lined up in emergency wards, suffered double digit increases in healthcare costs every year, and risked financial disaster with every serious illness?
Many believe that the answer to all our concerns is simply to increase America’s wealth by reducing regulations and making the tax code less progressive. Would it therefore be wise for America to revive the period of the “robber barons?” Theodore Roosevelt would advise us otherwise. He recognized the dangers of severe income inequality to a democracy and attempted to thwart monopolies and the accumulation of enormous wealth in the coffers of a few. Is this the moment in history when we should unshackle American capitalism and cull regulations on banking and corporate America? We have done so in our past, but at great costs to our nation: the Great Depression and, more recently, the Great Recession. No one would dispute that capitalism has been the great wealth engine of America. Likewise, most would agree that excessive regulation stifles economic growth. But when wealth accumulates for the few, while many suffer from wage stagnation and the fear of losing their jobs, then the citizens of this democracy lose more than their financial security. They are doomed to witness the moneyed interest gaining control not only of an unequal share of labor productivity but also of the levers of power in Washington. Tax and regulation reforms are necessary. But their goals must be a deceleration of a system spiraling out of control where small businesses and low to middle income wage earners are left behind in favor of the rich and powerful. Our history clearly warns us of the necessity to reverse the trend towards increasing income inequality. Remember our nation was born from a revolution against economic injustice.
If climate change is a hoax, if we are better off without affordable healthcare, if Muslims or Islam truly endanger us, if crime has overwhelmed our urban streets, if free trade is the sole culprit behind job losses, then either I am living in an alternative universe or the world has gone bonkers. Scientists must be just a bunch of buffoons. The Congressional Budget Office must have lost its ability to crunch numbers. My friendly Muslim neighbors must be about to rise against us all in the name of Islam. The steady decrease in crime over the last several decades must surely be an illusion. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics cannot possibly know whether America is near full employment and riding a wave of year over year increases in jobs involved in our export trade. How foolish it must be of me to think robotics and technology are changing the job landscape and affecting job dislocation. The real culprit, we are told, are trade agreements.
Since free trade was a major topic in the recent presidential campaign, let’s drill down a bit into a few facts. It was stated that Import tariffs or, more recently, “border adjustments” will create great paying jobs for Americans. A contra-fact (not an “alternative” fact) is that currency adjustments would likely equalize the shift in trade balance created by the proposed border adjustments. To further elaborate, import tariffs raise the cost of goods and feed inflation. NAFTA eliminated tariffs between our near neighbors. Since its implementation, the North American economy has more than doubled in size and added nearly 40 million jobs. America owns roughly a third of this overall benefit. Canada and Mexico combined are now its largest trading market. Yes, there are aspects of NAFTA that can and should be renegotiated—as the last Administration did as part of the Trans Pacific Partnership. But the “free trade job loss” refrain is an exaggeration and misrepresents the main problem with job dislocation. While America’s manufacturing output is actually at an all-time high, job losses in manufacturing continue as result of globalization and technology. Cars, planes, mowers, air conditioners and many more products are built from parts made around the world and in many cases by automated robots. Coal miners have lost jobs not as much from EPA regulations as from the shift to cheaper natural gas. And, as J. D. Vance so frankly and eloquently explains, unemployment in the Appalachian region also has deeper sociological implications (reference “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis”).
Some blame immigrant workers for taking jobs away from Americans. But, in fact, immigrants often take low paying jobs that many Americans shun. If California were to deport its immigrant farm workers, for example, it could not hire enough workers to maintain its agricultural output. Currently the State provides America with 30% of the nation’s food supply. Moreover, California would lose billions of dollars in revenue and would possibly go bankrupt, crippling the richest tax-paying state in the Union. In other words, this, as well as the other illusions just enumerated, can develop into economic nightmares—but only if we naively believe them.
So why do we give credence to all these propositions to abandon American leadership in world affairs, to frame our anti-terrorism efforts as a fight against Muslims and Islam, to defund the EPA efforts to fight the alleged hoax of climate change, to repeal the Affordable Care Act, to deliver a less progressive tax policy, and to revise trade and immigration border policies (spec., the “wall”) as a way to curb job losses?
Maybe you feel like our government institutions are failing, that our representatives are too partisan to be trusted, that journalists spout fake news, that foreign terrorists present a clear and present danger to our daily lives, that undocumented immigrants are taking our jobs and raising the crime rate in our cities, and that foreign adversaries are about to unleash crippling cyber or even nuclear war on America? Well, if you share any of these feelings, you are listening to the news, social media, and/or politicians. And, understandably, you are also paranoiac.
Welcome to the new age of bafflement. Admit it: you no longer know what is true, who to believe, or whose ox is being gored. The press is slave to the news cycle. So-called “breaking news” changes day-to-day, and sometimes hour-by-hour. As news reports trip over each other, there is little time for in-depth analysis or fact checking. The newsmakers, for their part, spout their self-serving revisionist diatribe, while commentators labor to unpack their relevance or decipher anything of significance. And we all languish in an information paradox: we know more and less at the same time. Remember when President H. W. Bush was outed as an alien. Well, that story was a National Inquirer fantasy. The real alien is now in the White House. Politifact claims that 70% of his election statements were false. But his every proclamation or tweet is studied and rehashed by fellow politicians and commentators. He is defended–“what he meant was”—ridiculed, analyzed, re-interpreted, and, finally, excused as “a new kind of President,” as if he has magically recast the mold into an enigma we must accept. Let’s face the truth that deference to the office does not give license to a President. He is not above the law; AND he is not above the truth.
In fairness to President Trump, he did not author the age of bafflement. He is just its epitome. We have been sliding into this abyss of spin, fake news, alternative facts, and conspiracy theories for some time. Vladimir Putin was a good enough tactician to take advantage of the moment by hiring a thousand hackers to flood our broadcast and social media with bot-multiplied stories to increase our bafflement—literally, to stupefy us. The fact that Donald Trump also amplified the Russian messages—that Hillary Clinton was a crook, that NATO no longer served our interest or paid its fair share, that China was a still a currency manipulator, that President Putin was a strong and popular leader, that the Eurozone was breaking up and undeserving of American support, and so on—simply made him either an unwitting co-conspirator, a naïve opportunist, or something I dare not attest or choose to believe.
Donald Trump sold an image of America that included fake news, dishonest politicians, crime infested streets overridden with “illegal aliens,” sleeper cells of “Islamic terrorists,” and an abusive government, that used false science and liberal ideology to oppress the working class. His policy positions included repeal of Obamacare, better trade agreements, less international entanglements, tax and regulation reforms, increased border security, revival of the coal industry, more emphasis on maintaining law and order, and a military build-up to reestablish American dominance in the world and to annihilate ISIS. If you accept his dark image of America, then you might trust his prescriptions for change. But if you questioned his diagnosis, then you were attacked or discredited. When he bothered to support his positions, he used imagined scenarios, falsehoods, misapplied or out-of-context evidence, or manufactured conspiracies to distract us from the truth. The problem with his Presidency, besides its perceived incompetence, is the danger it presents to our democracy. Citizens in a democracy must have access to the truth. Otherwise, they cannot determine their interest or vote intelligently.
So how do we preserve our democracy in this new age of bafflement? First, we must work harder to find the truth. Of course, what we perceive will always be poured into the vessel of our limited experience. And we all have our share of ignorance. It is the admission of ignorance that is the beginning of knowledge. Only then are we ready to learn from others—not just our friends and relatives, but the best minds amongst our scientists, journalists, statesmen/women, and experts in their respective fields. As the President proceeds to thwart or dismantle the institutions of government, he is giving all of us the opportunity to understand their purpose and learn how they actually work. As he continues to run afoul of our federal courts and to make the Congress complicit in his Administration, he is actually offering us the opportunity to educate ourselves anew on the Constitution and the separation of powers.
Second, we have to rescue reality from Trump’s dark distortion. That task depends on each one of us doing our best to not only uncover the truth but to apply what we learned. If we fail to do so, then, as James Fallow warned in the January/February edition of the Atlantic, “this election will be a dire but survivable challenge to American institutions or (my emphasis) an irreversible step toward something else.” That “something else” does not imply a future any of us would choose for American democracy or for our posterity.
That “the truth shall make you free” is only valid if we are committed to making it so. Change cannot be controlled without a firm basis on reality and a clear focus on valid and reasonable ends. It serves no purpose to petition Congress, to join demonstrations, or vote for representatives if we cannot define the change we seek. Our founding fathers always knew that the basis for our democracy was an informed electorate. Now is the time for us to break free from the information and propaganda blitz that serves the powerful and sells the “news.” We can and must succeed in this new era of bafflement, else succumb to its promise of chaos and the ultimate destruction of our democracy. Of course, we will need the “grace” or courage to deal with the inevitability of change. But we absolutely must resist attempts to return “to the rules and theories of a bygone civilization.” America is still the New World, if we choose to make it so. That quest lives or dies with each generation.