So tonight, let us resolve to build that bridge to the 21st century, to meet our challenges and protect our values. Let us build a bridge to help our parents raise their children, to help young people and adults to get the education and training they need, to make our streets safer, to help Americans succeed at home and at work, to break the cycle of poverty and dependence, to protect our environment for generations to come, and to maintain our world leadership for peace and freedom. Let us resolve to build that bridge.
August 29, 1996. President Bill Clinton acceptance speech, Democratic National Convention, Chicago, Illinois
President Bill Clinton’s “Bridge to the 21st Century” speech twenty years ago was an inspiring call to action as he was poised to run for his second term. Whether or not the bridge was built is a question I’ll leave to professional historians.
I do know that a number of things have changed for the good so far in this century:
- greater acceptance of LGBT persons and same-sex marriage in the United States and other countries;
- an African-American President of the United States, a woman presumptive nominee for President of the United States (and, of course, a strong challenge for the nomination by a Jewish socialist!);
- wider acceptance of human-caused climate change as a reality (with notable holdouts);
- advances in implementation of alternative energy production methods;
- advances in and dissemination of information and computer technology;
- globalization (positive aspects);
- improved relations between the United States and Cuba.
We now have the cloud, the twittersphere, Facebook, Instagram and a legion of computer applications that do almost everything we can think of doing. In many ways, the world is smaller and more accessible for many millions of people.
But then there is the other list, the list of things that contribute to what I’m calling the Big Churn. In my view, we are living at a moment in human history in which great turmoil will result in a resorting of societies and a reordering of geopolitics. It isn’t pretty, it isn’t nice, and many people are frightened by the potential outcomes.
Here is the other list:
- disruptions related to climate change, and effects to weather patterns, destructive storm frequency, agricultural production, sea levels, water supplies, drought and wildfires, distribution and persistence of flora and fauna;
- the fallout from the Cheney/Bush Wars, and the resulting disruptions to the geopolitics of the greater Middle East;
- the refugee and migration crises in Europe and North America resulting from: a) political turmoil in the greater Middle East (set loose by the Cheney/Bush Wars), b) effects of climate change; c) political, economic and ethnic conflicts in numerous places;
- expansion of Islamic terrorism in the greater Middle East, and exports into the Western democracies and other parts of the world;
- nationalism and expansionism by the Putin government in Russia;
- nationalism, economic and political disruptions in China
- militaristic, imperialistic actions by the United States;
- increasing danger from rogue states, such as North Korea;
- long-term regional conflicts, such as India-Pakistan, Israel-Palestine, Shia-Sunni states;
- the Brexit vote, and the decline of the European Union;
- the rise of the Radical Right in the USA;
- the Trump ascendency;
- spreading populism, nationalism, xenophobia;
- crushing racism that is pervasive in American institutions and legal systems;
- increasing political and economic power by the super elites and their corporations;
- stagnation of wages, loss of jobs by the working and middle classes in Europe and USA;
- globalization (negative aspects);
- ethnic and religious violence world-wide;
- degradation of infrastructure, affecting health and safety (e.g. lead in drinking water, unsafe bridges, etc.);
- conflicts over hydrocarbon energy resource extraction, transportation and use;
- declines in major global economic sectors;
- industrialization of agriculture, with related increases in human health and environmental risks;
- nascent democracy movements that have mostly failed.
This is a long list, and I’m sure you could add more items to it. The question I ask myself is, “is this list unusual in the history of human societies; or is it always like this?” Again, I’m not a historian, but I do know that there have been many moments in history at which great turmoil has resulted in great upheaval and change. We study these moments in history class; books have been written about them. What will future history students and scholars think about the first quarter of the 21st century?
I know a lot of people who are deeply concerned about the rise of Donald Trump and other politicians like him around the world. The vote a couple of days ago by the people of the United Kingdom (dis-United Kingdom?) to leave the European Union has raised the level of concern and stress. Terrorism seems to be growing, America’s wars seem to have no end, the super rich seem to only get super-richer, discontent with government seems to be growing everywhere. Where will it all end?
The simple fact is that it will end where it ends. Everything I just wrote is already history; every day that passes is another day in history. Individuals can work to make change, or to keep things from happening a certain way; Americans will elect Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, for example. But whatever happens becomes history, and so we will move on.
This might sound callous and cavalier, but I’m simply trying to be a realist. Too often we humans dwell on the past, on history, when we should be focused on the future, on how we can try to influence the history of tomorrow. Many things have and will occur in my life that I have not and will not like; but I can’t change history. I happen to think that the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States would take the USA and the world in a bad direction, and I will do what I can to keep him from being elected. But if we do have a President Trump, it will be a historic fact that I will have to deal with. I think the British exit from the European Union is a regressive step, but it is now history, and I need to deal with it.
My attitude doesn’t necessarily make me feel better about what is happening in the world, and I know it is a coping mechanism. It is a way to force myself into objectivity instead of subjectivity, to look toward a better future and not dwell in the past. But it won’t keep me from ranting!