I am growing ever-more convinced that we were all wrong about the psychological impact of the turn of the century and millennium. Surface features have blinded us to the undercurrents. We should have noticed earlier that modernity and confident modernism were in way-deep trouble.
But who knew? Back in 2000, it looked as if we had dodged the “Y2K” bullet and shrugged off almost any trace of “millennial madness”. There were no cults seen burning their homes and chanting on hilltops, awaiting the Rapture. In fact, people seemed almost jaded toward the whole thing. True, Al Gore’s fizzy arch-uber-modernism had failed to win him the presidency. Still, he did win the non-fluke electoral majority, despite a cosmic boredom and geek quotient. There did not seem to be a crisis of confidence.
Even when the future struck us like a hammer, nine months into the newborn Millennium, your average citizen took the events of September 11, 2001 with far more aplomb than almost any pundit seemed willing to credit. Far from “panicking,” they displayed remarkable agility and resiliency - or, at least, that is what we saw from the New Yorkers and Bostonians who were mostly affected, that day.
In any event, that is how I chose to interpret events. Given my penchant for finding a contrarian viewpoint (if one seems legitimately tenable), it seemed obvious to take an optimistic perspective, at a time when only officials and members of the “chattering classes” were the ones verging on panic. Just call me Mr. Sunshine.
It took some time - years, in fact - for me to come around to a much more pessimistic interpretation of the mood in our country and our civilization. A mood that appears to have swung away from the main theme of the post-WWII era. Even during the Cold War, and under Nixon and Reagan, modernism and apolitically pragmatic problem solving were often at the fore.
In contrast today, even as the spectacular success of modernist society is evident everywhere -- e.g. while the Cassini Spacecraft is transmitting home bona fide miracles, on a par with almost anything in the bible -- our confidence and pride in our accomplishments appear to have plunged to an all time low. (Do you even hear or see Cassini mentioned in mainstream news media?)
spirit of George Marshall and Vannevar Bush and Martin Luther King? One that is for something, beyond simply opposing what is monstrous?
At least Bill Clinton believed in all these things (especially being entertaining). Moreover, he made us believe that he believed. (How ironic that he and Hillary completely blew their one ambitious, can-do endeavor - National Health Care - and never seemed to offer any others. You can blame the Gingrich Congress, I suppose... or else perhaps re-examine that word “seemed.” For, what other word than “ambition” can explain the weird shift in Bill’s attention, transforming his goal from trying to achieve something from the standard liberal shopping list to solving the one problem nobody expected him to take on... the budget deficit? An accomplishment of staggering scale. Yes, I agree with Michael Mandel that any surplus should have gone to scientific research. Still Is anybody else willing to see it for what it was?)
Well, Clinton was a 20th Century man, and those days are slipping away. However you put it, the national mood is weird, and weirdly downer. It is as if the very appearance of the "2" at the head of every date has driven huge numbers of otherwise bright people into a mental condition that festers and stews just below a surface of normality. A mood that manifests in frantic romanticism, oversimplification and devotion to downright insipid political dogmas.
Next time, back to problem solving.