If the green movement hasn’t done much for the planet lately, it has given us some cool new expressions. One of the best is “global weirding,” the trendy new way of branding the apocalypse formerly known as global warming. It combines the virtue of ‘climate change’ (which is that anything from deep freezes and record blizzards to ferocious hot spells and droughts can be held up as evidence) with the catchiness of global warming. Not bad.
And unlike some green scare propaganda, the global weirding hype is actually true — although more about the human rather than about the natural world. Politics, economics, international relations, religion: everything in our world is getting weirder, and the weirding is happening faster all the time. These are the best of times and the worst of times in ways that would blow Charles Dickens’ mind.
This change is rapidly propelling us into a century that will be radically different from everything humanity has known before. Just as the twentieth century unleashed new horrors and terrors even as it revealed new accomplishments and new glories, Auschwitz and the Gulag standing beside medical miracles and technical wonders, so the twenty first century is going to dazzle and appall us. The highs of scientific discovery and technological advance will be exponentially higher than what went before; we will be lucky if the lows aren’t exponentially worse. We have all been given tickets on the wildest roller coaster ride in the history of Planet Earth and there are going to be spills as well as thrills before the ride is done.
Get ready for a wild ride (Wikimedia)
Our governing classes, our academics, our journalists and our professionals mostly hate this and, eyes firmly fixed in the rear view mirror, try to pretend that the world of the twentieth century can never, will never break up. Except for some entrepreneurs, mavericks and renegades, our technocratic elites are mostly a bunch of rule followers and incrementalists. They got where they are by scoring well on tests, manipulating the platitudes of conventional wisdom a little better than the next guy and by pleasing their supervisors.
This is almost exactly the wrong way to raise leaders for tumultuous times. We need Teddy Roosevelts, Winston Churchills, Harriet Stowes and Alexander Hamiltons. We are producing legions of promotion-hungry bureaucrats and narrow specialists with no knowledge of or interest in the tumult and chaos that inevitably rises up in times like ours. We then place them in large, bureaucratically run institutions and expect them to deal creatively with the unexpected, the revolutionary and the totally new.
The mismatch between the small ‘c’ conservative ideas of our leaders and chattering classes and the upheavals around us makes the times even more dangerous than they have to be. The crew is rearranging the deck chairs instead of preparing the life boats — not because they don’t want to help the passengers, but because their minds have no room for extreme events beyond the bingo, shuffleboard and dance contest that were scheduled for today.
These last few days that sense of the good ship Denial rushing headlong towards Niagara Falls seems particularly strong, and not just when one looks at the Washington debt limit discussions. Look, for example, at Europe. Not since the 1930s has the incompetence, incapacity and selfish shortsightedness of Europe’s governing class been so shockingly on display. For eighteen solid months Europeans have been trying and failing to come to grips with the economic crisis of the eurozone. And for eighteen months they have ignominiously failed. Solutions are still possible — but only if European policy makers wake up to the realities around them, and fast.
While their fecklessness endangers the global economy, the Europeans are simultaneously knocking down what little is left of their defense establishments — to the point where the Obama administration (sounding more like Dick Cheney every day) is telling the Europeans that their incompetent naïveté threatens the survival of NATO. None of this stops European leaders from erecting one fantasy on top of another in a bewildering series of cloud-palaces: global carbon treaties, anti-death penalty campaigns, regional associations across the Mediterranean. Every species of quackery and flapdoodle finds a home and a subsidy in Brussels.
With the possible exception of poor, shell shocked Japan, no other major world region is quite as feckless as our Atlantic allies, but a quick glance around the world is enough to show that the future storming toward us is wilder, bigger, scarier, more complicated, more horrid and more awesome than our establishment and intellectuals for the most part are able to imagine. The Arab Spring, which has shaken regimes the establishment once assumed were eternal and which took our intelligence analysts as much as our pundits by surprise, is the kind of event we are going to see more of. History is shifting into hyperdrive and things are going to get weird.
Not a Lamb but a Tiger
In China we see a society that is rapidly outgrowing its regime, and an economic model that is outliving its usefulness before its work is done. China today is in a pre-revolutionary state. The political system, try as the central authorities may (and many of them are extremely good at their jobs), simply cannot forever keep juggling the growing number of balls on its hands. As China industrializes and develops, the interests and aspirations of its people become more complex and conflicted. The pressure on China’s fragile environment grows exponentially. The balance between regional autonomy (often corrupt) and central power (often rigid and unaware of local realities) has been a source of trouble for thousands of years in China; today that balance is more urgently needed and more difficult to find than ever. The Chinese financial system, partly controlled by the center, partly controlled by wildly optimistic and often profoundly corrupt local governments, and partly private, becomes more complex, more unbalanced and more unsustainable with every passing day.
I wish the Chinese well with their juggling, and I hope that any revolutions will be peaceful and slow, but if history teaches us anything at all, big changes are headed China’s way. A billion people are undergoing wrenching and rapid transformations of everything they have known. Traditional Chinese religions and cultural patterns have yet to recover from the hideous crimes and monstrosities of Japanese occupation, civil war and communist rule. Marxism, the only modern ideology to conquer China, has been largely discarded. Islam and Christianity are fishing for converts but as of now the People’s Republic of China is the rapidly changing home of a billion people whose ideas of right and wrong, good and bad, have been shaken to the core. A growing population of billionaires shares the country with an army of the poor. Disruptive technologies and even more dangerous new ideas are sweeping through China like tornadoes over Kansas.
China is a tiger not a lamb; more blood will flow before this century is done, and the epic of Chinese history in the 21st century will be, one hopes, happier and less bloody than the tragedies of the 20th. But China and drama aren’t finished with each other yet and there will be many twists and turns in this story that as yet we can hardly imagine.
A print showing Chinese acrobatics (Flickr | xdanger)
India is if anything headed on an even wilder voyage into the unknown. “A million mutinies” is how VS Naipaul described it years ago; try a billion plus and growing. India is the world’s largest democracy and home, as former Team Mead associate now prize-winning author Ben Skinner has argued, to its largest number of slaves (pdf). It is America’s most natural strategic ally in the 21st century, but most of the people in the two countries have only the vaguest ideas about their prospective new partners. This vast and diverse country with its thicket of cultures and religions is in some ways more like a continent than a nation state. The inevitable stresses of accelerating economic development and the accompanying social change are going to test India and its neighbors as they have never been tested before. With a decaying, strategically addled but nuclear armed neighbor in Pakistan, and a dangerously explosive rivalry with China that is likely to escalate over time, India’s external environment is as challenging as its internal issues. On the other hand, geography and demography seem to be conspiring to make India a major force in East Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Nobody knows where this is going, but the emergence of India on the world stage could be even more challenging and transformative than the rise of China.
Economists Out of Their Depth
Here in the United States we are living through the progressive destruction of the blue social model, the dismantling of the learned guilds, and a fundamental challenge to the foundations of the progressive social thought that has been our guiding intellectual light for the last 100 years.
The global economy, frankly, is something no one understands. I’m reminded of what Peter Berger tells us was the first paragraph of Bernard Lewis’ still unfinished book on economics: “In the history of human thought science has often come out of superstition. Astronomy came out of astrology. Chemistry came out of alchemy. What will come out of economics?”
Economists love to be dogmatic and sneer endlessly at the failed predictions of their colleagues, but the reality is that the world economy is not an unchanging timeless essence that can be perceived with the tools of an unchanging and perfected theory. It is a complex system that responds to changes in human capabilities and human ideas. Right now both the real economy and the financial markets are changing so rapidly that nobody really understands how all the pieces fit together. Because of these changes, and because nobody really understands the new reality being created around us, we are guaranteed to have many more economic adventures and surprises. Some will be good; others will be challenging. But they will come, and they will test our capacity to respond creatively to disorienting change.
The Revolution Will Be Blogged
Via Meadia is first and foremost a blog of observation: I observe the various changes remaking the world and do my best to discern the outlines of our new world among the death throes of the old. After 22 months of blogging (and one month of internet time equals half a year in print) I’m convinced that blogging is the best way to carry out this task. Watching the audience grow for the long form essays at Via Meadia has convinced me that, contrary to popular report, the internet can be a comfortable home for the traditional personal essay. If Hamilton, Madison and Jay were writing the Federalist Papers today, they would put them out as a blog. Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Susan B. Anthony and Thomas Paine would have blogged. Teddy Roosevelt would have blogged — endlessly, and horrifyingly well.
I love the long form blog and the personal essay, and I plan to continue writing them. But 22 months as a blogger has taught me something else: the times are moving so fast, there is so much happening that deserves comment, and the public hunger for ideas about how to make some sense of the hurricane of events through which we are living is so intense, that I need to do more.
Via Meadia is adding a fast lane. In addition to the “traditional” long posts — which will continue to appear two to three times a week when I’m not teaching and, hopefully, twice a week when I am — I will be adding short posts to the mix. For the last couple of months I’ve been working with the tech staff at The American Interest to make the new system work and to make the transition as seamless as possible. Meanwhile I’ve been working with the redoubtable Peter Mellgard my research associate and our crack team of underpaid but talented interns to make sure that our short posts add value.
If the long form blog post on the internet recreates and re-energizes the classic personal essay, the short form blog follows Henry Luce. A short form blog, which generally consists of links to one or more websites accompanied by no more than a couple of paragraphs of commentary is really the contemporary version of the dominant magazine form of the twentieth century: the digest. Henry Luce’s Time started out as a digest: at a time when national and international news had not yet been standardized and when there were no broadcast news channels, Luce and his team looked over all the week’s newspapers and magazines to put together their version of the most important stories of the week. The dispatches they looked at were rewritten in Time‘s trademark “backward ran sentences until reeled the mind” style and people all over the country snapped the new magazine up because it allowed them to follow the news quickly and efficiently.
Time Magazine’s first cover, featuring Joseph G. Cannon (Wikimedia)
The Luce/Hadden format (Brit Hadden was Henry Luce’s brilliant youthful collaborator and the co-founder of Time who died tragically early) inspired a number of quite different magazines which essentially prospered by aggregating scattered information into a more usable format at a time when information sources were proliferating and the average person had a hard time keeping up. Think Reader’s Digest and TV Guide, two very different publications which flourished by repackaging gathered information.
But Time did something else that modern short blogs also do: it not only collated many news sources to condense and transmit news in a concentrated and efficient manner; it conveyed a world view, a sensibility. In what it covered, in what it ignored, in the language it used and in the strong point of view it often directly expressed, Time projected Henry Luce’s point of view to the world for two generations. The point of view (bias, to Luce’s many critics) was never hard to find.
Robert Parker, my redoubtable ninth grade writing teacher back at Pundit High, used to take two sentences from Time to teach his students how to use language to convey an opinion in prose. One was about Henry Truman, who Luce deeply disliked: “Truman slunk from the chamber to huddle with his cronies.” One was about Dwight Eisenhower, who Luce admired: “Ike strode from the chamber to confer with his advisers.” Same action, same facts. Totally different ideas. Extreme economy of expression.
I don’t aim to emulate Henry Luce’s style or his politics, but any good short form blog today wants to achieve what he did as a communicator. The classic personal essay is a painting; the aggregative blog is a mosaic. Each pebble is small, but over time the pebbles build pictures. In Luce’s day, you had to have a lot of money to make a mosaic. Time needed a large staff, a national distribution system and a printing press. Judging by Alan Brinkley’s recent biography, it was much harder work to get the money to produce the magazine than it was to produce the magazine itself.
Mosaic of Christ in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy (Wikimedia)
The internet has changed all that. Individual essayists stand in a line of, essentially, portrait and landscape painters going back through Montaigne and Francis Bacon to the epistolary essayists of antiquity (the letters of Cicero, for example). With the exception of the compilers of “commonplace books” and the makers of almanacs (Franklin’s “Poor Richard“ or John Partridge and his nemesis Isaac Bickerstaff) few individuals did much with the print and pre-print versions of the short form blog before web geniuses like Glenn Reynolds and Andrew Sullivan introduced an admiring world to the possibilities of the form.
Today, short form blogging is booming, and short form blogs attract millions of views every day. The form fits the times. The reasons that led Henry Luce to start Time are more urgent today: the internet and 24 hour cable news make the flood of information more overwhelming than ever, and while people need information and insight more than ever before, they have less time in which to hunt it down. The short form blog offers compelling advantages for both writers and readers, and in just ten years on the net the form has conquered the world.
One of the possible translations of the phrase “Via Meadia” is Mead Highway; adding a fast lane to the Mead Highway gives me the opportunity to draw readers’ attention to more of the important news of the day, follow the internet and print conversations more closely, place the news and the debate in some kind of larger perspective, and give my take on what it all means. With the help of my colleagues, I’ll be organizing the site to make it possible for the long and short posts to work together; readers whose interest is piqued by a short post will be able to easily find the longer essays where I’ve dealt with the issue more fully. Over time, we hope to add features that increase the usefulness of the two lanes to our readers and we will provide a guide to using the site on the home page.
We are living through amazing times; it’s my hope that the new fast lane on Via Meadia will entertain and divert readers even as it helps you prepare to think more clearly and act more effectively in a world that needs all the vision and leadership it can get.