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Major Trends Shaping Our World

Between Two Ages: Introduction

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In the winter of 1962 I found myself in Palm Springs, California, discussing the future of America with President Eisenhower. Ike had not yet moved to his Gettysburg farm, so he was staying in one of Palm Springs’ more comfortable hotels. I had recently returned from working with a public information and education program in South America, and Eisenhower was particularly interested in knowing of developments in Brazil, Peru and Chile.

After a discussion of South America, the conversation turned to the United States.  Eisenhower was deeply troubled. Not by political events, but by what he felt was the weakening moral fiber of the country. America was, after all, being introduced to Playboy, Marilyn Monroe, and the erupting reality of Peyton Place, all of which, for many Americans, represented a whiff of decadence.

Finally, Ike stood up, strode across the spacious living room, waved his clenched fist through the air, and decried with all the force of an Old Testament prophet, “We are living through the final stages of the Roman Empire, we’re living through the final stages of the Roman Empire!”

Eisenhower’s remarks struck a resonate chord in me, for I had asked myself “Is America in decline?” six years before meeting Ike, when I was working in South Africa. I had been in South Africa as part of an international task force asked to help develop some basis of unity that could transcend not only the divisions between black and white, but also between the English and Afrikaans, as well as between the Africans and the Colored (mixed blood).

While in South Africa, I began reading de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Reading de Tocqueville, and seeing America from the perspective of Africa, gave me a fresh assessment of the country for which, only four years earlier, I had been wounded in Korea.

For the next 25 years, long after I had returned home and was working for the U.S. Department of Commerce, I chewed on that question, “Is America in decline?” Finally, I cannot remember exactly when, I came to a conclusion. I was asking the wrong question! A more relevant question was, What is happening to America and the world that is turning our life so upside down? The question “Is America in decline?” is a closed question; it forces one of two answers. The question “What is happening to America?” is an open question; it invites multiple insights and perceptions.

In a nutshell, my conclusion is this: America—and indeed, the world—has entered a zone of possibility and uncertainty that has no parallel in history. If one were forced to seek the closest historical similarity, it would have to be what happened when the ancient world was transformed into the early beginnings of modern Europe. That was a process that took place in a limited portion of the earth over centuries of time. What’s happening today is taking place worldwide, and it’s measured in decades, even years and months.

No one expressed America’s current circumstance more clearly than Adlai Stevenson, Eisenhower’s opponent for the presidency in 1952 and 1956. Stevenson shared Eisenhower’s perspective on the American condition, but he expressed it somewhat differently. “Are America’s problems,” asked Stevenson in 1954, “but surface symptoms of something even deeper, of a moral and human crisis in the Western world which might even be compared to the fourth, fifth, and sixth-century crisis where the Roman Empire was transformed into feudalism and primitive Christianity? Are Americans,” Stevenson queried, “passing though one of the great crises of history when man must make another mighty choice?”

The Most Decisive 30-year Period in the History of Mankind

Despite the stratospheric heights of the Dow in recent years, the allure of prosperity and the astounding possibilities opening up for human fulfillment, the next three decades may be the most decisive 30-year period in the history of mankind. Thus you and I are living in the midst of perhaps the most uncertain period America has ever known—more difficult than World War II, the Depression or even the Civil War. With these earlier crises, an immediately identifiable, focused emergency existed, an emergency people could see and mobilize to combat.

But the crisis today is of a different character and order. For America is at the vortex of a global cyclone of change so vast and deep that it is uprooting established institutions, altering centuries-old relationships, changing underlying mores and attitudes, and now, so the experts tell us, even threatening the continued existence of the human species. It is not simply change at the margins; it is change at the very core of life. Culture-smashing change. Identity-shattering change. Soul-crushing change.

In earlier periods of great change, people tried to understand its effects, adjust to its demands, and capitalize on its promise just as we do today. But there was one major difference. Prior generations faced change within a context of established institutions. Earlier generations had a more stable—if less comfortable—framework and clearly defined reference points. Our era doesn’t have such guides, for all of America’s institutions, from government to family, from business to religion, are in upheaval. The past century saw civilized life increasingly ripped from its moorings. The immutable certainties that anchored our ancestors no longer seem to hold in a world where the tectonic plates of life are clashing, where human antagonisms obliterate tens of thousands of people in Africa, Bosnia or Chechnya in a matter of a few days or weeks, where a stray bullet ends the life of an elderly lady quietly walking home from church in Washington, D.C. In so many ways, a life that has lost its essential meaning has cut giant swaths across humanity. What does all the confusion and carnage add up to? Is this the end? Or, in some unknown way, could it be the opening of an era of even greater awareness and possibility?

Standing at a Great Divide

In Peter Drucker’s view, “No one born after the turn of the [20th] century has ever known anything but a world uprooting its foundations, overturning its values and toppling its idols.” Clearly, we have been standing at a unique historical dividing line—the end of the modern era, as well as the Industrial Age, the end of the colonial period, the end of the Atlantic-based economic, political and military global hegemony, the end of America’s culture being drawn primarily from European sources, the end of the masculine patriarchal/hierarchical epoch, and, as Joseph Campbell suggests, the end of the Christian eon. Obviously, one era doesn’t stop and a new one start in a week. Years—even decades or generations—of overlap sometimes take place.

The sense of an age ending and something new emerging was evident during the earliest years of the 20th century. In 1913, George Santayana, one of the America’s leading philosophers, noted: “The civilization characteristic of Christendom has not yet disappeared, yet another civilization has begun to take its place.” By 1929, Walter Lippmann saw Americans “living in the midst of that vast dissolution of ancient habits which the emancipators believed would restore our birthright of happiness.” Five decades later, Lippmann’s concerns were echoed by The Wall Street Journal, noting “our century is a time of flux, an interstice between eras. Old beliefs have decayed and the new beliefs have not sprung forward to replace them.”

The truth is that all the vast changes we are bringing—instant global communication, control of plant, animal and human characteristics through genetic engineering, our ability to build new structures atom by atom, the doubling and even tripling of the human life span thus creating social pressures never before experienced—these and countless more developments point to one underlying reality: We are in the midst of redefining the human experiment with Life. We are asking ourselves questions no generation before has had to ask: “As technology takes over ever more of our work, what are humans for? What does it mean to be a human being in a world of total technical possibility? Are the warnings of technological extinction credible, and if so, what do we do about them? In an age when information overwhelms us and power is unlimited, what gives purpose and restraint to such power?”

A New Civilization or an “Interregnum”?

Certainly new human capacities, scientific insights, forms of wealth, modes of production and organization, and patterns of social relationship, as well as expressions of individual and collective belief, are taking the place of an earlier America. But just what kind of “civilization” is emerging is open to question.

The cultural concept of civilization has always been based on more than just progress beyond “primitive” ways and attitudes, more than just economic and technical betterment. Civilization implies stable institutions—above all, a cohesive family unit that trains the young for adult social responsibility. Civilization represents a people’s view of the meaning of their collective association. Civilization manifests those attitudes, beliefs, ethical standards and restraints a people hold in common. At the core of every great civilization has been some cohesive spiritual conviction. What was once known as “Christendom” was just such a spiritual impulse for America and the West.

But the Judeo-Christian impulse is no longer the inner dynamic of Western culture or social life, it no longer interprets our collective belief—especially among the “creative minority.” While Americans pay lip service to the convictions underlying the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the reality of our daily functional belief is more apt to be expressed in the secular faith of materialism as defined by science and technology, as well as in the civic religion of “freedom” as characterized by absence of restraint.

In sum, despite the mind-boggling technology developed over the past ten decades, despite the expansion of human awareness and capability, despite the thousand-fold increase of wealth, we have not yet achieved the central hallmark of a civilized society—a core conviction about the meaning of the human journey, a set of common purposes, convictions and meanings fused into one framework of value and perception—a framework with its own distinct character and worldview, with its unique spiritual underpinning.

Broadly speaking, we are in the midst of what could be termed a “crisis of meaning.” Even as I write these words, today’s Washington Post carries an article that begins, “Everywhere you look, people are searching for meaning in life.” Nor is this crisis limited to America. John Pomfret writes in the International Herald Tribune from China, “Across China people are struggling to redefine notions of success and failure, right and wrong. The quest for something to believe in is one of the unifying characteristics of China today.” The crisis of meaning is universal.

Until a new order of value and perception is achieved, we shall be between two expressions of social organization, cultural definition and spiritual experience—between two ages. We shall be in what I choose to term an “Interregnum,” which Webster defines as “an interval; a break in a series or in a continuity.” How long this Interregnum will last is anyone’s guess. But it is the exploration of the Interregnum, this “in between” period, as it has existed for the past one hundred years—and continues to shape our life today—that is the subject of this book.

Between Two Ages

These pages offer perspective on the meaning of our times. Even more, they offer a few core thoughts on how one can make sense out of the senseless, find stability in the midst of upheaval, and find direction in the midst of uncertainty.

In sketching the Interregnum, I should note that this book is not intended to be a history of our times; rather, it is an assessment of some of the highlights, trends and events that have been and are shaping the Interregnum. Nor is this book intended as a forecast of tomorrow. I have sought to find meaning in what has already happened, to understand how science, psychology, technology and culture are reshaping our daily activity, the content of our inner being, as well as the global context in which all nations live. I have sought to trace some of the events of the twentieth century in order to comprehend the origins of the twenty-first century crisis of meaning.

As this narrative encompasses a century of the Interregnum, much is omitted that I wish might have been included; many issues need a more complete treatment. For example, as I believe the two major forces shaping the last hundred years have been the development of technology and a spiritual/psychological reorientation as expressed in our culture, these trends are emphasized more than political events, which have been so thoroughly treated elsewhere.

While this book gives my views on the American future, I am interested in how you see today’s America, what you see as the promise and the danger of the coming decades. To that end, you are invited to send your thoughts to:

Van Wishard
WorldTrends Research

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