If historians from the 30th century, the far future, look back on our time, what will they see? What will they know and understand about our period?
First, let’s assume that they have full access to our writings and recordings, but they are not personally subject to our current states of thinking and feeling. That is, future historians might be like a modern audience seeing Romeo and Juliet with the original Shakespearean dialogue. They might hear the words as actors of the late 16th century spoke them, and they might have some sense of their meaning. But a modern audience might not fully understand what social forces drive two powerful families like the Montagues and Capulets to gather their extended kin into rival armies and fight in the streets of medieval Verona. And if they did understand those forces, they still might not feel the hatred in their own breasts. For us moderns, the rage of Tybalt and the wit of Mercutio remain distant curiosities.1
However, even an Elizabethan audience might not have been able to say what exact qualities of mind or habit made the Montagues so loathsome to the Capulets and vice versa. The evidence supporting the feud between these “two households, both alike in dignity” does not exist in the play. Instead, it’s an “ancient grudge”—which is Shakespeare’s version of the MacGuffin that sets his plot in motion.
In similar fashion, what would far-future historians know about the passions that seem to be tearing the United States apart and ravaging many of the other Western democracies as well?
On one side, they might see a radical strain of progressivism or passionate futurism. This is expressed in a number of different popular movements—inspired by the writings of various political philosophers like Marx, Lenin, and Mao—but with the same aim of overturning the adherents’ existing society and its political, economic, and social structures. The radical’s goal is to create a new state, a new basis for economic transactions, a new morality, and a new set of relationships between men and women, between parents and children, and between citizens and the state. This new order is always projected from rational, egalitarian, humanitarian, compassionate, and collectivist principles. It is based on theories about human nature and visions of a future that has never before been experienced on a countywide scale.2 And the fact that every country which has attempted to enact these theories and visions thereby sank itself into chaos, political repression, and self-inflicted poverty is dismissed as a failure, not of the theories and visions themselves, but of the imperfect people making the attempt.
On the other side, the future historians would see a passive strain of conservativism or traditionalism.3 This side of the argument has no popular movements and only weak political associations. This side has no coherent philosophy based on novel thinking but is reflected in writers like Edmund Burke, David Hume, and Adam Smith, who—rather than creating a vision of a new social and economic order—were trying to understand and express how people actually go about their political and economic business in developed societies. The adherents’ goal is not so much to build anything new as to preserve and defend those structures and relationships that have grown up in their own society over the decades and centuries. They don’t mind certain people obtaining and wielding political power and economic advantage, but they haven’t subscribed to the new theories and visions. They don’t mind their society evolving, moving slowly toward different values and accepting different relationships through a kind of unspoken plebiscite. But they resist the notion that a cohesive and doctrinaire group, fired with strong ideas and emotions, should push their society into configurations that are either untested or have been found in the past to be disastrous.
The historians might trace out the sequential steps—the published positions, the party platforms, and the pivotal elections—in this growing social disruption. They might assign causes to the society’s failure to adhere to its former constitutional structures and its market principles, as well as its failure to provide adequate rewards for effort and risk taking. They might read about demands for personal compassion and complete equality among all members of society. They might hear the siren call of an enlightened utopia … but they will not be able to feel its pull. They will remain deaf to the dimension of imagination that drives the collectivist movement. And without an exercise of imagination and empathy, they will not know the depth of revulsion among those others who can accept social evolution but not political revolution.
What the historians will see in our times is a social madness based on masochism and fear. They will see people in the most advanced societies the world has ever known struggling with a loss of existential faith. People on one side insist their lives are impoverished among an outpouring of goods and services. People on the other insist their lives are threatened simply by words and ideas. People on both sides are convinced the other has no understanding of—or respect for—them and their cause. Modern Montagues and Capulets bite their thumbs and spit on each other’s shadows without a clear remembrance of the ancient grudge that separates them.
Modern Americans look back on the political and social tensions of the 19th century that led to the first Civil War, and they grope for an explanation. “It’s all about slavery.” “It’s all about our way of life.” “It’s all about human rights.” “It’s all about my rights.” We look for simple, easy explanations of a complicated past that ended in five years of bitter war and the loss of more than American 600,000 lives.
If the divisions tearing at our society right now result in a second Civil War, what will future historians say? Granted, that first conflict was regional, based on two societies, North and South, which had grown apart—or had never actually been much alike—with their differing social values and economic systems, although with a single constitutional basis.4 The next conflict will be intellectual and visceral, with enclaves of sentiment and purpose concentrated along the country’s two coasts and among its urban elites, but otherwise with neighbor opposing neighbor across the width of a backyard fence. The next war is going to look more like a street fight or a riot—Montague and Capulet style—than any conflict between settled countries.
Will anyone in the far future understand it better than anyone alive today?
1. For a different sense of this family antagonism, here is Prokofiev’s “Montagues and Capulets” from the Romeo and Juliet ballet. It’s one of my favorite pieces.
2. But see When Socialism Works from October 10, 2010.
3. The word of the moment is “populism.” Supposedly, this reflects an aversion by the average person and the populace as a whole from the theories and visions espoused by a radical elite of political, academic, and cultural thinkers and leaders. A decade and more ago, it was the “people,” the populace itself, who were supposed to align with these theories and visions against the repressive forces found in traditional society. See how the language changes?
4. In fact, the Constitution of the Confederate States of America was practically a word-for-word duplicate of the U.S. Constitution, with some significant differences particular to the Confederate cause. Clearly, the foundation and structure of the government were not in serious contention.