Can the 2020s roar?

Middle Israel: How the two gloomy decades that opened the century can make way for a decade of hope.

AS THE WORLD enters a new decade, there’s pessimism concerning technology’s relationship with morality. (photo credit: RITZAU SCANPIX/MADS CLAUS RASMUSSEN VIA REUTERS)
AS THE WORLD enters a new decade, there’s pessimism concerning technology’s relationship with morality.
It was one of history’s most inspiring, memorable and vindicated statements of prophecy, consolation and hope.
With millions traumatized by the Great War, then-senator Warren Harding said in 1920 Americans needed “not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration.”
Running for the presidency with the consequent election slogan, “Return to Normalcy,” Harding not only swept to a decisive, 20% victory (over fellow Ohioan James Cox and his running mate Franklin D. Roosevelt), but also signaled what soon unfolded as a new era of prosperity, creativity, and liberation.
Harding died of a heart attack while in office, and his presidency was later tarnished by revelations of his marital infidelity and his lieutenants’ corruption. However, the era he introduced is still recalled fondly as the Roaring Twenties.
It was an era in which the global economy boomed, stock markets soared, and jazz connected rich and poor; a time when millions bought their first cars, owned radios, flocked to glitzy cinemas and packed titanic stadiums; an epoch when women got jobs, voted, smoked, and raised their dresses from ankle to knee; a decade when Art Deco fashion, furniture and architecture combined Egyptian, Chinese, and Mayan exoticisms with modernity’s plastic, steel, and chrome, reflecting contemporary belief that technology is part of a progression toward better times not only materially, but also morally.
As the current century enters its own twenties, it’s the other way around, for its technological breakthroughs carried little moral gospel, and instead served despotism and crime.
OUR ERA’S equivalent of the Roaring Twenties was the 1990s.
With communism dead, the USSR vanished, and the former East Bloc embracing democracy with awe and capitalism with relish, Westerners had reason to believe history was headed their way, and mankind was happily following their civilization’s lead.
The 1990s’ technological advents, from the Internet, Amazon, and Google to the laptop, the digital camera, and cellphone texting underpinned the optimistic era’s belief that magic can happen, the way tyranny collapsed, and the way it was delivered by the era’s literary hit Harry Potter.
Our century has crushed that magic.
Politically, the assault on the West and its ideas that the September 11 attacks announced meant that a new menace to mankind, Islamism, was ready and eager to pick up from where the previous menace, communism, had left off.
Economically, capitalism’s status since the 1990s as a globally shared faith was shattered overnight by the 2008 financial meltdown, when Wall Street did to our post-1989 triumphalism what it did in 1929 to the Roaring Twenties.
And commercially, new giants like Apple, Facebook, and Amazon made people who previously celebrated their inventiveness turn to fear their intrusiveness, omnipresence, and domineering.
All three phenomena spawned pessimism concerning technology’s relationship with morality.
Politically, this pessimism unfolded on two plains: first, Islamism mocked Western technology when it rammed one of its major engines – the airplane – into its greatest monument – the skyscraper. Then the social network, originally hailed as both a product and emblem of democracy, was used to defile democracy, first by tyranny’s agents, then by Westerners, led by the American president himself.
Economically, technology was a key player in Wall Street’s corruption of capitalism, producing the computerized financial instruments that bankrupted millions, and replacing human contact with the online transacting that resulted in major-league manipulation, hoodwinking, and theft.
Finally, on the commercial level, the 2010’s mass migration to online retailing spearheaded by Amazon, and Facebook’s incredible announcement that it had more than 1 billion users, were soon marred by revelations of unfair play toward competitors and violation of users’ privacy.
While all this happened in the thick of Western civilization, events elsewhere only intensified the pessimism that defined the 2010s.
THE DECADE’S most depressing events happened in the Middle East.
What began with genuine democratic revolt in Tunisia, Cairo, and Damascus, and what was naively celebrated as a victory for Western freedom and social media was quickly hijacked by Islamism, tribalism, and tyranny.
The decade’s multiple civil wars, and the mass bloodshed, displacement, and migrations they caused, first dashed hopes that Western civilization will cure the Middle East, and then sparked anxiety – not to say hysteria – that the Middle East is invading Western civilization’s European shore.
Meanwhile, the social network, the Western invention that failed to democratize the Arab world was used effectively by the destroyer of Turkish democracy, when an appearance he made on FaceTime sent his supporters to confront his opponents’ coup.
Technology’s service of tyranny became altogether alarming when Iran used it impressively to attack Saudi oil installations with impunity.
Events in the Middle East were part of authoritarianism’s global resurgence, spearheaded by a newly defiant Russia’s provocations of the West and invasion of Ukraine, and an increasingly assertive China’s crowning of its leader as president for life.
Russia’s and China’s containment of the ideological confidence and technological superiority with which the West emerged from its victory in the Cold War, were multiplied by events within the West.
Populism’s conquest of the White House, and this amorphous movement’s gains elsewhere, might not have happened without the West’s own inventions, especially social media and the smartphone, turning on Western institutions and ideas.
What the 2020s have in store for the many sets of strongmen, fraudsters, charlatans and fanatics that have so far shaped this century is impossible to predict, except for one set: Iran’s.
Sometime in the decade that will start Wednesday the Ayatollahs’ time will be up, as relatives, friends and neighbors of more than a thousand protesters the Mullahs just killed, now vow.
And when that day arrives all will understand that the 2010’s gloom was not predestined, because what is predestined is a slave’s thirst for freedom, a bamboozled man’s quest for justice, and people’s ultimate impatience with their abuse.
The writer is the author of the bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), a revisionist reading of the Jewish people’s political history.