Take away the bomb threat and what are we? Ordinary beads on a never-ending string. Our time is a routine twist of an improbable yarn…There must be something heroic about our time, something that lifts it above all those other times. Plague? Funny weather? Dire things are happening…
Why are we watching the news, reading the news, keeping up with the news? Only to enforce our fancy - probably a necessary lie - that these are crucial times, and we are in on them. Newly revealed, and we are in the know: crazy people, bunches of them. New diseases, shifts in power, floods! Can the news from dynastic Egypt have been any different?
—Annie Dillard from “For the Time Being” (written in 2000)
quote via dreamingthedeepsouth
I contemplate portents of calamity often. I’m a worrier: I read apocalyptic conspiracy theories furtively in the dead of night after too much caffeine, nervously. I rehearse impending doom. A colleague (our Department Chair of History) and I got into a “discourse” recently regarding the claim by an anthology I ordered that the 20th century was one of the most violent and turbulent centuries. He argued that, as a planet, we’ve become much more peaceable. I had a hard time reconciling that. What about World Wars? Vietnam? The assassinations of good people? 9/11? The elusive specters of terrorism? Spencer Pratt? But maybe Dillard is right, maybe history and time are cyclical in a way that renders us all the same as our ancestors in terms of how “crucial” things feel, really, during any given epoch. We just sort of grope blindly, looking for signs. And one can always find signs.
I came of age in the 90s, and all I seem to remember outside of my angst-filled teenage head was Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on the White House lawn, living in proximity to Silicon Valley, my parents selling their suburban house built on landfill for twice the amount they bought it for. “Boxers or briefs?” is the most poignant political question I can recall paying attention to. But perhaps that has to do with age: I’m older now, more aware of the world at large. I was shocked, actually, to hear an interview recently with one of Clinton’s former staff members recalling what an “utterly dark and lost time” it was at the White House after the Republicans took control of Congress. That Clinton seemed wholly incapable to navigate. It was sort of like finding out your parents thought about getting divorced when you were younger. No way! Everyone seemed so happy! But now I’m on the other side of the fence: I teach teenagers for a living. And I pick their teenaged brains about what it’s like to grow up in the shadow of 9/11, to come of age during what has been dubbed “The Worst Decade Ever”. And even when I point out their diminished right to privacy, the portal of economic doom they will enter into after they graduate, it turns out they feel the same way I felt about the 90’s: things are pretty decent. Of course they are! Obama is a smoker, the new iphone is coming out, etc.
Daniel T. Rogers recently wrote an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education called “Economics in an Age of Fracture” in which he posits:
If crises change the way we see the world, the Great Recession of 2008-10 has to be reckoned, so far, as an anomaly. It has upended lives, set loose a storm of fears and anxieties, fueled a conservative insurrection in American politics, and shaken economic institutions on a scale not seen since the Great Depression. But in comparison with earlier economic crackups, this crisis has packed an emotional wallop but only an intellectual whimper.
It’s interesting to consider that we are so eager to whip out these measuring sticks, yet somewhat amnesiac about the perfect storms that have accumulated at certain moments in history. Doesn’t every generation believe it is living in a “crucial” time? Of course: it is the time we are living in, and its answers are rarely immediate. Everything is a portent, a cause for uneasiness. Is the world really less safe, more fractured? When I teach a poem like “The Second Coming” or “The Waste Land,” I always think, how apt! How resonant! How “of our time!” And am always jolted when I realize they were written for another era, another experience. Ordinary beads on a never-ending string, indeed.
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