The twentieth-century brought an immense number of marvelous advances to the world – scientific, intellectual, cultural. Yet it was a century of appalling violence, the most destructive in human history. An estimated 167 million to 188 million people died at the hands of their brothers.
The century that produced communism, fascism, and nationalism also saw the invention of highly efficient weaponry and a willingness to direct it against civilian populations on a massive scale.
Do we understand that terrible things could happen on American soil – tragedies far worse than anything we have experienced since the Civil War? At this historic turning point we can least afford a repetition of the world’s destructive past. And how easily that could happen!
Only a strong America, just and wise and levelheaded, can lead a disrupted world back to stability and peace.
In his 2006 book, “The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West”, the historian Niall Ferguson, who I have introduced to you previously, wrote that “the hundred years after 1900 were without question the bloodiest century in modern history, far more violent in relative as well as absolute terms than any previous era…. There was not a single year before, between or after the world wars that did not see large-scale violence in one part of the world or another.”
I consider Niall Ferguson’s analysis to be of value because he departs from the typical explanations that blame weaponry and fascist governments, as significant as these were, and instead identifies ethnic conflict, economic volatility, and declining empires as the true causes.
In short, he reminds us of our human vulnerability to fear, emotional insecurity, and tribalism.
The convergence of multiple crises I am writing about here involves elements of all these things, but also a range of newly emerging concerns that most of us have not seen coming.
These include a fragile and globally interdependent banking system, depleted natural resources, environmental degradation, and runaway technologies that are rapidly outpacing the maturity of human moral competence.
In every case, regardless of the particular nature of approaching crises, the challenges we face as individuals and families come into focus in the form of immediate local threats.
And, as Dr. Ferguson points out, it is the overreaction of people under pressure that leads to the most terrible violence.
Long-time readers know my views. In the extremes of social and economic crises, it is my belief that local communities are the only place where we have the capability and reasonable hope of organizing our lives in a civilized manner.
The difference between a violent past and a civilized future will depend entirely on the manner in which we address problems with our neighbors and manage our local affairs. To be plainspoken, the distinction between past and future will be determined by personal attitudes and dependable relationships.
Local communities are the only context in which we have the capacity to respond constructively to the social and economic degradation taking place around us.
Community provides us with the means to build trust with friends and neighbors, and to take responsibility for meeting needs.
Here it is that the real needs of real lives can be identified and addressed.
And, it is in the process of problem-solving and working shoulder-to-shoulder that we can begin to know, understand, and influence one another. The lessons of civility and cooperation to be learned here will be critical to our future as a nation.
We must be realistic. Many people are still dominated by their own crippling prejudices. This is unlikely to change until we are forced to address the essential needs we all face together under crisis conditions.
Patience and determination will make many things possible, and necessity will sharpen the mind.
Distrust and alienation are diminished as we identify common concerns and work together in service to a common purpose.
And what is that common purpose?
Ultimately, in my view, it is the survival of a constitutional republic and the Constitution of the United States, which together have allowed gradual progress toward unity and inclusive fairness for more than 200 years
Watch for the next post on or about December 1.
A note to new readers: A project description, an introduction to my forthcoming book, and several working drafts of early chapters are posted on this page (see above). Please see especially, “American Crucible”.