Advance warning: I won’t be arriving at any earth-shattering conclusions in this series of posts. Mostly I’m posing questions, to which I do not yet have the answer. I’ve been thinking about the following for some time, but ruminations kicked into gear over the past few days, in part because of a question I was asked recently, but also because of an essay by Peggy Noonan that ran a few days ago in the Wall Street Journal.
I’m not sure how coherent this rumination will be, but I want to go on record about the subject of whether we’re living at the dawn of a truly “new age” — or not. We won’t know, of course, for, oh, another 40 or 50 years — because no one living in the present can understand its historical significance until the present has become the past. It’s unlikely I’ll still be around in 50 years (although . . . who knows?) so I may never know the answer to my question. But that doesn’t stop me from asking it.
I’m a historian. I spend my time thinking about people and events from the past. I do history partly because, frankly, it’s fun. I love my work. But I also practice history because it suits my optimistic nature and my reverence for hope: If the past is different from the present, then we have the ability — the power — to make the future different from the present. (Think about it for a moment.)
As I’ve noted here many times before, historians take the Long View of the Big Picture. We’re less interested in what happened five weeks or five months ago, than what happened five decades ago.
This is a point that, for example, I keep making about alcohol sales: Sure, there’s lots of blather lately about beer sales declining. But I’ve been trying to put that trend in a larger perspective, to show how people’s drinking habits can be shaped by events that unfold over decades rather than months.
It’s a point I wish I could hammer into the heads of the “analysts” who jabber on a daily basis about stock market returns and what those returns say about “confidence” in our new president: Assessing BHO or the market from a weekly, monthly, or quarterly perspective is an exercise in futility. Think “long haul.” Think “long term.”
But this series of blog entries won’t be about the current economic crisis or beer. Rather, I was to consider a question that I’ve been pondering for the past few years:
Are we indeed standing at the beginning a of new age? Are we experiencing a shift in human affairs that is tectonic rather than superficial? Or is there really nothing new under the sun and what seems like a “new age” is just more of the same? More next time. (As always, I’m breaking long thoughts into manageable chunks because I know that at any given moment, most of us have 75 other things to do, read, or respond to.) (If this is a “new age,” brevity is its cornerstone.)