The Future Is Not Ours, and Neither Is the Past
First Paragraphs on Turning 70 in the American Century That Was
Seventy-three years ago, on February 17, 1941, as a second devastating global war approached, Henry Luce, the publisher of Time and Life magazines, called on his countrymen to “create the first great American Century.” Luce died in 1967 at age 69. Life, the pictorial magazine no home would have been without in my 1950s childhood, ceased to exist as a weekly in 1972 and as a monthly in 2000; Time, which launched his career as a media mogul, is still wobbling on, a shadow of its former self. No one today could claim that this is Time’s century, or the American Century, or perhaps anyone else’s. Even the greatest empires now seem to have shortened lifespans. The Soviet Century, after all, barely lasted seven decades. Of course, only the rarest among us live to be 100, which means that at 70, like Time, I’m undoubtedly beginning to wobble, too.
The other day I sat down with an old friend, a law professor who started telling me about his students. What he said aged me instantly. They’re so young, he pointed out, that their parents didn’t even come of age during the Vietnam War. For them, he added, that war is what World War I was to us. He might as well have mentioned the Mongol conquests or the War of the Roses. We’re talking about the white-haired guys riding in the open cars in Veteran’s Day parades when I was a boy. And now, it seems, I’m them.
In March 1976, accompanied by two friends, my wife and I got married at City Hall in San Francisco, and then adjourned to a Chinese restaurant for a dim sum lunch. If, while I was settling our bill of perhaps $30, you had told me that, almost half a century in the future, marriage would be an annual $40 billion dollar business, that official couplings would be preceded by elaborate bachelor and bachelorette parties, and that there would be such a thing as destination weddings, I would have assumed you were clueless about the future. On that score at least, the nature of the world to come was self-evident and elaborate weddings of any sort weren’t going to be part of it.
From the time I was 20 until I was 65, I was always 40 years old. Now, I feel my age. Still, my life at 70 is a luxury. Across the planet, from Afghanistan to Central America, and in the poverty zones of this country, young people regularly stare death in the face at an age when, so many decades ago, I was wondering whether my life would ever begin. That’s a crime against humanity. So consider me lucky (and privileged) to be seven decades in and only now thinking about my death.
Recently, I had the urge to tell my son something about my mother, who died before he was born. From my closet, I retrieved an attaché case of my father’s in which I keep various family mementos. Rummaging around in one of its pockets, I stumbled upon two letters my mother wrote him while he was at war. (We’re talking about World War II, that ancient conflict of the history books.) Almost four decades after her death, all I had to do was see my mother’s handwriting on the envelope—“Major C. L. Engelhardt, 1st Air Commando Force, A.P.O. 433, Postmaster, New York 17, N.Y.”—to experience such an upwelling of emotion I could barely contain my tears. So many years later, her handwriting and my father’s remain etched into my consciousness. I don’t doubt I could recognize them amid any other set of scribblings on Earth. What fingerprints were to law enforcement then, handwriting was to family memories. And that started me wondering: years from now, in an electronic world in which no one is likely to think about picking up a pen to write anyone else, what will those “fingerprints” be?
There are so many futures and so few of them happen. On the night of October 22, 1962, a college freshman, I listened to John F. Kennedy address the American people and tell us that the Russians were building “a series of offensive missile sites” on the island of Cuba and that “the purposes of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.” In other words, the president of the United States was telling us that we might be at the edge of the sort of world-ending, monster-mutating nuclear war that, from Godzilla to Them, had run riot in the popular culture (and the nightmares) of my childhood. At that moment, I looked directly into the future—and there was none. We were, I believed, toast. My family, my friends, all of us, from Hudson Bay, Canada, to Lima, Peru, as the president put it. Yet here I am fifty-two years later. As with so many futures we imagine, somehow it didn’t happen and so many years after I’m still wondering when I’ll be toast.
If, on that same night, you had returned from the future to tell me (or other Americans) that, nearly half a century hence, the Soviet Union would barely be a memory, that there would be no other great power challenging the United States for supremacy, and that its only serious enemies would be scattered bands of Islamic extremists, largely in countries no American of that era had even heard of, my sense of wonder would have been indescribable. And I don’t doubt that the godlier among us would have fallen to their knees and given thanks for our deliverance. It would have gone without saying that, in such a future, the US stood triumphant, the American Century guaranteed to stretch into endless centuries to come.
If, on September 10, 2001, I had peered into the future (as I undoubtedly did not), whatever world I might have imagined would surely not have included: the 9/11 attacks; or those towers collapsing apocalyptically; or that “generational” struggle launched almost instantly by the Bush administration that some neocons wanted to call "World War IV" (the Cold War being World War III), aka the Global War on Terror; or a “kill list” and drone assassination campaign run proudly out of the White House that would kill thousands in the tribal backlands of the planet; or the pouring of funds into the national security state at levels that would put the Cold War to shame; or the promotion of torture as a necessary part of the American way of life; or the creation of an offshore prison system where anything went; or the launching of a global kidnapping campaign; or our second Afghan War, this time lasting at least 13 years; or a full-scale invasion, garrisoning, and occupation of Iraq lasting eight years; or the utterly improbable possibility that, from all of this, Washington would win nothing whatsoever. Nor, on that September day, still an editor in book publishing, barely online, and reading almost everything on the page, could I have imagined that, at age 70, I would be running a website called TomDispatch, 24/7, driven by the terrible news that would, before that day, have amazed me.
Once upon a time, if you saw someone talking to himself or herself while walking down the street, you knew you were in the presence of mental illness. Now, you know that you're catching a snippet of a mobile or smartphone conversation by someone connected eternally to everyone he or she knows and everything happening online every minute of the day. Not so long ago, this was material for some far-fetched sci-fi novel, not for life.
If, on September 10, 2001, you had told me that the very way we are connected to each other electronically would encourage the evolution of an American surveillance state of breathtaking proportions and a corporate surveillance sphere of similar proportions, that both would have dreams of collecting, storing, and using the electronic communications of everybody on the planet, and that, in such a brief space of time, both would come remarkably close to succeeding, I wouldn’t have believed you. Nor would I have been able to absorb the fact that, in doing so, the US national security state would outpace the “bad guys” of the totalitarian regimes of the previous century in the ambitiousness of its surveillance dreams. I would have thought such a development conceptually inconceivable for this country. And in that, touchingly, I would still be reflecting something of the America I grew up believing in.
In my youth, I lived in the future. Riveted by the space operas of Isaac Asimov, among others, I grew up as a space nerd, dreaming of American glory and the colonization of distant planetary systems. At the same time, without any sense of contradiction, I inhabited future American worlds of wholesale destruction dotted with survivalist colonies in post-apocalyptic landscapes littered with mutants of every sort.
I‘m no neuroscientist, but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that we, as a species, are hardwired for prediction. Preparing eternally for whatever danger might be just around the corner seems like such a useful trait, the sort of thing that keeps a species on its toes (once it has them). As far as I can tell, the brain just can’t help itself. The only problem is that we’re terrible at it. The famed fog of war is nothing compared to the fog of the future or, as I’ve often said, I’d be regularly riding my jetpack in traffic through the spired city of New York, as I was promised in my childhood. Our urge to predict the future is unsurpassed. Our ability to see it as it will be: next to nil.
Middle Paragraphs for a Missing American Century
It’s been almost 13 years since the 9/11 attacks and there’s still no learning curve in Washington. Just about every step of the way in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s only gotten worse. Yet from that history, from repeated military interventions, surges, and Hail Marys in each of those countries, Washington has learned...? Yep, you guessed it: that, in a crisis, it’s up to us to plunge in again, as in Iraq today where the Obama administration is sending back troops,drones, and helicopters, plotting to support certain government figures, deep-six others, and somehow fragment various Sunni insurgent and extremist groups. And don’t forget the endless advice administration officials have on offer, the bureaucratic assessments of the situation they continue to generate, and the weaponry they are eager to dispatch to a thoroughly destabilized land—even as they rush to “broker” a destabilizing Afghan election, a situation in which the long-term results once again aren’t likely to be positive for Washington. Consider this curious conundrum: the future is largely a mystery, except when it comes to Washington’s actions and their predictably dismal outcomes.
Doesn’t it amaze you how little Washington gets it? Fierce as the internal disagreements in that capital city may be, seldom has a ruling group collectively been quite so incapable of putting itself in the shoes of anyone else or so tone deaf when it comes to the effects of its own acts. Take Germany where, starting with Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations, the public response to reports of massive American surveillance of the communications of ordinary Germans and their leaders wasn’t exactly greeted with enthusiasm. Now it turns out that the NSA wasn’t the only US “intelligence” agency at work in that country. The CIA and possibly other agencies were recruiting spies inside German intelligence and its defense ministry. Polls show that public opinion there has been turning against the US in striking ways, but Washington just can’t take it in. A little noted truth of this level of spying and surveillance is: it’s addictive. Washington can’t imagine not doing it, no matter the damage. If you keep an eye on this situation, you’ll see how the US national security system has become a self-inflicted-wound machine.
Here’s a question for our American moment: Why, in its foreign policy, can’t the Obama administration get a break? You’d think that, just by pure, dumb luck, there would be a few small victories somewhere for the greatest power on the planet, but no such thing. So for the post-American Century news jockeys among you, here’s a tip: to follow the waning fortunes of that century in real time, just keep an eye on Secretary of State John Kerry’s endless travels. He’s the Jonah of the Obama administration. Wherever he goes, disaster, large or small, trails behind him, even when, as in Afghanistan recently, his intervention is initially billed as some sort of modest triumph. Consider him the waning American Century personified.
Think of the drone as a barometer of the American Century in decline. It’s the latest “perfect weapon” to arrive on the global scene with five-star reviews and promises of victory. Like the A-bomb before it, by the time its claims proved false advertising, it was already lodged deeply in our world and replicating. The drone is the John Kerry of advanced weaponry. Everywhere it goes, it brings a kind of robotic precision to killing, the problem being that its distant human trigger fingers rely on the usual improbable information about what’s actually on the ground to be killed. This means that the innocent are dying along with all those proclaimed “militants,” “high-value targets,” and al-Qaeda(-ish) leaders and “lieutenants.” Wherever the drone goes, it has been the equivalent of a recruiting poster for Islamic militants and terror groups. It brings instability and disaster in its wake. It constantly kills bad guy—and constantly creates more of them. And even as the negative reports about it come in, an addicted Washington can’t stop using it.
Last Paragraphs on Turning 70 (a Requiem for the American Century)
The true legacy of the foreshortened American Century, those years when Washington as top dog actually organized much of the world, may prove apocalyptic. Nuclear weapons ushered that century in with the news that humanity could now annihilate itself. Global warming is ushering it out with the news that nature may instead be the weapon of choice. In 1990, when the Soviet system collapsed and disappeared, along with its sclerotic state-run economy, capitalism and liberal democracy were hailed in a triumphalist fashion and the moment proclaimed “the end of history.” In the 1990s, that seemed like a flattering description. Now, with 1 percent elections, an unmitigated drive for profits amid growing inequality, and constant global temperature records, the end of history might turn out to have a grimmer meaning.
Global warming (like nuclear war and nuclear winter) is history’s deal-breaker. Otherwise, the worst humanity can do, it’s done in some fashion before. Empires rise and fall. They always have. People are desperately oppressed. It’s an old story. Humans bravely protest the conditions of their lives. Rebellions and revolutions follow and the unexpected or disappointing is often the result. You know the tale. Hope and despair, the worst and the best—it’s us. But global warming, the potential destruction of the habitat that’s made everything possible for us, that’s something new under the sun. Yes, it’s happened before, thanks to natural causes ranging from vast volcanic eruptions to plummeting asteroids, but there’s something unique about us torpedoing our own environment. This, above all, looks to be the event the American Century has overseen and that the drive for fossil-fuel profits has made a reality. Don’t fool yourself, though; we’re not destroying the planet. Give it 10 million years and it’ll regenerate just fine. But us? Honestly, who knows what we can pull out of a hat on this score.
Let me put my cards on the table. I’m the guy who started two of his book titles with the phrases “the end of” and “the last days of,” so think of me as apocalyptic by nature. I don’t believe in God or gods, or for that matter an afterlife. In all these years, I’ve never discovered a spiritual bone in my body. Still, I do care in some way that I can't begin to understand what happens to us after I’m dead, what in particular happens to my children and my grandson, and his children and theirs, too. Go figure.
My father’s closest friend, the last person of his generation who knew him intimately, died recently at 99. To my regret, I was no longer in touch. It nonetheless felt like an archive closing. The fog of the past now envelops much of his life. There is nobody left to tell me what I don’t know about all those years before my birth. Not a soul. And yet I can at least recognize some of the people in his old photos and tell stories about them. My mother’s childhood album is another matter. Her brother aside, there’s no one I recognize, not a single soul, or a single story I can tell. It’s all fog. We don’t like to think of ourselves that way; we don’t like to imagine that we, in the present, will disappear into that fog with all our stories, all our experiences, all our memories.
Here’s a question that, in a globally warming world, comes to mind: Are we a failed experiment? I know I’m not the first to ask, and to answer I’d have to be capable of peering into a future that I can’t see. So all I can say on turning 70 is: Who wouldn’t want to stick around and find out?
Here’s the upbeat takeaway from this requiem for a foreshortened American Century: history is undoubtedly filled with seers, Cassandras, and gurus of every sort exactly because the future is such a mystery to us. Mystery, however, means surprise, which is an eternal part of every tomorrow. And surprise means, even under the worst conditions, a kind of hope. Who knows just what July 20, 2015, or 2025, or 2035 will usher on stage? And who knows when I won’t be there to find out. Not I.
By the way, I have the urge to offer you five predictions about the world of 2050, but what’s the point? I’d just have to advise you to ignore them all.
Read Next: Tom Engelhardt explains why America is an impotent superpower.