William Manchester, an incomparable biographer and historian, once tried to explain the seemingly dull incomprehension of the leaders of the late Middle Ages as their world was washed away by the magic of the European Renaissance. He believed their confusion was an understandable and inevitable outcome of the same basic limitations faced by all of humanity when the startlingly new overwhelms the stagnant old: “Even the wisest of them were at a hopeless disadvantage, for their only guide in sorting it all out—the only guide anyone ever has—was the past, and precedents are worse than useless when facing something entirely new.”
I sometimes wonder if we find ourselves in similar circumstances today as early 21st century America—and the world we occupy—struggles to emerge from the dry shell of the past.
We, of course, know that science and technology has thrust us—with disorienting speed—into a future that science fiction could at one time only dream about. Whether we are discussing manufacturing, medicine, business, communications, sales, education, law enforcement, transportation, housing, entertainment, infrastructure, energy, food, national defense, information management, or any other facet of our lives, the revolution is here, it is ongoing, and we can only vaguely guess where it might end.
We are on the cusp of being able to use genetic engineering to literally alter our very species—and pass these changes to our descendants. Our traditional sources of news and opinion are self-destructing as we speak, and we are as yet still unsure where we will be able to find unbiased, reliable information in an increasingly partisan atmosphere. Predictive algorithms might be able to stop crime before it occurs, but they may also turbocharge racial profiling with the power of a computer chip and force us into a dystopian world of 24/7 surveillance. Robots and software do more and more of the work previously handled by carbon-based life forms—and make decisions without our consent or knowledge. Our daily confusion and anxiety is profound. We neither fully comprehend what is happening today, nor do we have the least clue how to control it tomorrow—which should cause all of us a few sleepless nights
In addition, our understanding of—and expectations for—privacy are mutating like a runaway cancer that is consuming us whole. Our daily lives are now monitored and recorded by both private and public entities for reasons that run the gamut from the relatively innocuous to the just plain scary. Our movements, our work, our speech, our writing, our personal interests, our body language, our interactions, our health, our finances, our random behaviors, and even our “alone” time at home are observed by a whole host of technologies that efficiently vacuum up the most granular aspects of our existence—and store it with equal efficiency for anyone who cares to take a peek at our secrets.
However, the true oddity of our age is that so many of us now seem heedless of any distinction between our private and public selves. We live in the golden age of confession and exhibition. The most intimate details of lives are now willingly—even gladly—shared online in order to seek group attention, affirmation, and absolution.
The consequent monetizing of all forms of exhibitionism has turned nude selfies, personal dramas and traumas, and all types of relationship advice and life recommendations that are blithely doled out to total strangers into careers for a surprising number of people who are willing to share themselves—and their supposed expertise—in ways that previous generations would have deemed either absurd or insane. Dysfunction and distress are now worn like a badge of honor by many, and the new—and deeply troubling—embrace of deficient coping mechanisms and terrible life choices by so many Americans hungering for personal connection is providing the worst imaginable role models for the credulous, the damaged, and the lonely among us.
The inevitable outcome of all these revolutionary changes, which perhaps partially accounts for why so many today seek out personal guidance and connection in the babble (or is it Babel?) of cyberspace, is this: The “truths” that have guided us in the past have become ever more unreliable—and incredibly suspect.
As the ground shifts beneath our feet, legacy actors and institutions desperately attempt to assert their continued legitimacy or importance but often find—to their dismay and surprise—they have been tossed on the trash heap by a society that no longer needs or respects their wisdom. Although some will find it possible to adapt themselves to new or diminished roles, others will be swept aside by economic, social, or cultural forces than they comprehend only when it is too late.
The danger here is, of course, that revolutions do not always throw up the best leaders. Brutish moments in our history have tended to produce the most brutish leaders, and it would be foolhardy to assume we can escape that which bedeviled our world in the past. For every sage and compassionate Franklin D. Roosevelt, there typically has also been a demonic Adolf Hitler popping up like some horrible reflection of the worst humanity has to offer.
It is also worth remembering that even the “good” leaders during times of turmoil will almost inevitably be compelled to resort to subterfuge and rough justice to attain their goals. Abraham Lincoln preserved America and Winston Churchill rallied England, but both of these fine and able men also spilled an ocean of human blood in the process. Salvation is typically accompanied by a monstrous human cost that we neither expect nor welcome.
So whom do you trust when the world around you begins to shatter, and can you fully trust anyone?
We flawed humans will make our typically flawed human judgments regarding our leadership; whether our choices were right or wrong will only be apparent many years later. The perspective provided by history’s rear view mirror provides us with the comforting illusion that the devils and angels among us inevitably make themselves known in ways that leaves no room for doubt regarding whom we should follow—but this is simply not true. If only this were the case, thousands of years of human misery would not be etched into our souls.
The reality is that deciding who to trust is a process fraught with error because few who seek to lead us are entirely honest about their intentions and transparent in their methods. Successful politicians learn to say what they followers want to hear, so it is always best to take their solemn promises with a grain of salt.
Moreover, a silver tongued orator might be all talk and no action; an individual with less polish and charm might be far better at the unpleasant bullying and unseemly deal making that leads to results. Therefore, the choice between a leader who coos comfortingly and one who has a far nastier edge might not be as obvious as we might imagine, which only further confounds our best intentions when we step into a voting booth. It may well be the case that, during a transformative period in a nation’s history, the safe choice might be the stupid one.
As illogical and counterintuitive as it might seem, I sometimes wonder if the best voting decisions during a time of crisis or change are made more with the heart than the head. We can make “thoughtful” decisions about whom we want to lead our community, state, or nation, but we also need to remember that the best leaders need to be able to adjust at lightning speed to circumstances that no one could have predicted, so all that lovely campaign rhetoric is likely heading straight for the garbage can when an entirely new plan of action is suddenly necessary.
To choose the best leaders for our nation in 2020 when the past can be of only limited assistance and the problems lying ahead are completely unknown will constitute an incredible challenge. In addition, we are likely to be faced with choices—and methods of implementing those choices—that will make us squirm in discomfort. This might very well become our permanent reality because the rapid and astonishing changes in our nation and throughout the world are not going to slow down or stop presenting us with unexpected dilemmas that will have no easy or painless solutions.
Buckle up, America. We’ve got a very bumpy and contentious road ahead as we head for the voting booth this year.