The So-Called Dawn of History
by Mark Sayers
Every epoch of history has been marked by struggle, chaos, and wars. Yet part of the reason we feel as if we’re living in strange days, like culture is decaying and the world is moving into greater conflict, is because of a fundamental and implicit assumption. The assumption is that we have reached a new era of human history, a post-conflict world in which we’ll gently slide toward a future both diverse and tolerant, a tomorrow in which cooperation, technology, and globalization will lead the world into a new and wonderful present.
Globalization appeared to be a reduction of the world into a blank canvas on which the individual could paint their dreams. Hubris, the sin of overconfidence and skyrocketing pride, once reserved as a moniker for flawed heroes in Greek mythology and decadent Roman emperors, began to shape the expectations and self-understanding of an entire generation—“millennials,” we’ve called them. Beneath the surface, however, cracks were forming.
If narcissism, entitlement, and hubris defined the mid2000s, it also defined the global financial crisis. The Greeks taught that nemesis always follows hubris. The downfall of the global financial system began a series of shocks, each denting the individualized Western bubbles filled with expectation.
The initial shock of the financial crisis and the ongoing slog of the war on terror seemed for a moment to be outshone, as Barack Obama, draped in his slogan of “Hope,” appeared before crowds in Millennium Park, Chicago. As tears of optimism fell, the atmosphere seemed to many like the beginning of a new epoch, a post-racial era, an age of civilized democracy.
As those on the left lauded, and those on the right fumed, both made the error of assuming that the most powerful office in the world could control the forces at play in the world. What was occurring was not a diminishment of American hard or soft power, but the emergence of the swirling force of a hyperconnected and chaotic world—globalization. The shocks kept coming.
The effects of the global financial crisis took hold, and dictatorships of the Middle East turned into dystopias. Al-Qaeda, which shocked the world on 9/11, would soon be disgusted by the barbarism of their offspring, ISIS, against whom they would declare war. Flashpoints would emerge across the globe, as between 2008–2016 the individualized bubbles of entitlement and expectation would stretch to breaking point.
The reason we feel as anxious as we do is that we don’t see what we expected. We came running into the new world with arms raised in triumph, like a boxer waiting for flowers to flood the ring. But as the darkness swirls around us, our posture shifts. Our arms slouch in confusion, as if to ask, “What is this?” Expect utopia, and dystopia is jarring.
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