2001 : WHAT NOW?

[ print ]

Classical Scholar, University Professor, Georgetown University; Author, The Ruin of the Roman Empire; Pagans; Webmaster, St. Augustine's Website
Provost of Georgetown University

Victor Klemperer's harrowing diaries of life as a Jew in Nazi Dresden have been my intermittent bedside reading for many months. In the end, Klemperer and his wife escaped deportation and death because the firestorm bombing of Dresden set them free, but only after a dozen years of living with the terror. This week I find it hard to pick him up again because I suddenly feel a small piece of what he felt — a quite impersonal fear that the world I have come to live in is more threatening than I had surmised.

Most Americans now alive have gone their whole lives believing they had something approaching a free pass to escape the miseries of war, terror, and want. Now a fragment of terror easily recognizable to those who survived the Nazis has suddenly torn a strip off that free pass. What now?

Threat and reaction are the commonplace headlines, and measured, decisive response to threats at every level is obviously the order of the day. But we should look for opportunity as well. Some will look for opportunity picking up bargains at the stock market, but there are larger opportunities as well, and two are of great importance:

1. One unexpected effect of World War II was to leave behind a world that found the way to build a far more global and integrated society than had ever existed before. The "Cold War" distracted attention from this effort and impeded it in parts of the world, but it is undeniable that peoples who once hated each other from near or from far (Germany/France, US/Japan) or merely had little to do with each other (Euroamerica/East Asia) now coexist, cooperate, and help build one another's prosperity and well being. We pay now the price for incomplete globalization, for leaving one whole swath of the world poor and angry. However the military history of the next five months or years proceeds, the deeper opportunity is to bring together cultures that still live on different planets and find the modus vivendi for them. That such reconciliation will happen is to me certain; anxiety is in order for the short term (the cost of reaching such reconciliation) not the long. Building that future can and should begin immediately, and many can participate.

2. The technologies of communication mediated by information technology give unprecedented opportunity to support the growth and development of collaborative community. At the same time, the frenzies of media reaction to public events remind us that building the public discourse is a positive task that we all share parts of. The culture of frivolity that has been possible in our heedlessness is, let it be admitted, a delightful thing, but we have now the opportunity to add to the discourse of frivolity a more sustained and sustaining measure of the discourse of responsibility and the long view. In global communication of that sort is the best antidote to the waves of irrational anxiety that many do and will experience.

Best website for this moment? The Long Now Foundation (www.longnow.org) takes the broadest and longest view of human possibility. If your work is not to make a direct contribution to the aversion of new misery (and for most of it is not), then the old, common work of building community and possibility for ourselves and others takes on new and rich meaning. In that spirit, I find myself at the tail end of the day this week reading Proust instead of Klemperer.