Terra incognita: A century without dreams or ideas

Part of the malaise is the feeling that every great thing has been explored. No more space to go to, no more atoms to split.

International space station 370 (photo credit: NASA)
International space station 370
(photo credit: NASA)
Don Mclean’s masterpiece American Pie was written in 1971, but it refers to the entire generation of the 1950s as having been “lost in space.” The line is considered to be a reference to the moon landing of 1969 and to David Bowie’s song Space Oddity (1969), which itself is a reference to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. And all of it is an allegory for being on drugs; after all this was the era of Timothy Leary (fired from his job at Harvard for his drug experiments in 1963), Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971).
When we look back at the dystopian views of that period we see a crisis of confidence. But recall that this was the same era that produced the student revolutions of 1968.
Fast forward to last week, when Faisal J. Abbas, the editor in chief of Al-Arabiya, wrote a column claiming Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki “is a new Saddam.” Dexter Filkins at The New Yorker had also profiled Iraq’s irascible leader in an April article called “what we left behind in Iraq.”
Not only is Maliki not a new Saddam, he doesn’t measure up in the least bit to the previous Iraqi dictator.
Saddam Hussein is a good place to begin an analysis of what the 20th century produced versus what the 21st century is producing.
Saddam was born in 1937; in the 1960s as part of a socialist movement he was involved in an assassination attempt on an Iraqi leader and fled to Syria where he met Michael Aflaq, the Sorbonne-educated Christian Arab and Ba’athist socialist thinker. It is long forgotten now, but before Saddam became president of Iraq, when he was still just a party strongman, he oversaw massive campaigns to eradicate illiteracy and import modern health care, to build roads and drain swamps. He was interested in building up Iraq’s military, signing deals with the Soviets and arms dealers and attempting to build chemical and nuclear weapons. A mass murderer to be sure, but what is fascinating is that he inspired millions, and it is here that the comparison to Maliki fails.
This is similar to any member of the Arab nationalist generation, such as Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s leader from 1956 to 1970. Compare Nasser’s reforms, such as massive land reform and the building of the Aswan Dam, to what Egypt’s current leader has in mind for Egypt, namely nothing.
In many ways the lack of ideas, even bad ones, among Middle East leaders, even the successful regimes like Iran and Saudi Arabia, is a mirror of the “lost in space” generation of America. The 20th century saw the world conquered by great ideas, some of which were fiendish, like Communism and Fascism, and led to mass murder, but many of which sought to improve the lives of people. Mass literacy was an innovation, as was democratization. From Ataturkism to Julius Nyerere’s ‘Ujamaa’, the 20th century was an era of “isms” which promised mass reform.
To some extent the failure of much of this left a wasteland that the 21st century cannot escape from. It also left positive results, such as the integration of Europe and the fostering of free trade, which despite the complaints of anti-globalization activists has been generally better than the protectionist economies that kept people in poverty and enslaved them to sub-standard, uncompetitive local products.
But there is a collective sigh today. Splitting the atom, damming the rivers, mass projects, building sprees, all are seen as relics of the past. Today’s leaders are tinkerers. From Germany’s Angela Merkel to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the Chinese Communist party, South Africa’s Jacob Zuma or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, there’s little to no inspiration to be found.
These leaders foster loyalty, it’s true, but usually due mainly to being perceived as the lesser of two evils. If you travel the halls of universities from Baghdad to Brussels, Taiping to Toronto, you don’t find people debating big ideas. It isn’t just that there are no more “isms” – there aren’t even inspirational figures. Professors are said to be an “inspiration” if they encourage students to study history, rather than to make it. Most countries, when they look to politicians, look to second-tier individuals; jaded and cynical, voters are not so much inspired as chagrined into voting to supporting one or the other.
Is it a surprise that people still wear Che Guevara T-shirts? He died in 1967. Malcolm X? He was killed in 1965. Some would say it is good this generation won’t produce another Che; after all he was not really a moral person and the Castro revolution has become a nepotistic disaster. But what a shame that no one has found anyone else to inspire them for so long.
Part of the malaise is the feeling that every great thing has been explored. No more space to go to, no more atoms to split. Great innovations in energy? A few wind turbines off the coast of Denmark. World’s tallest building? Who cares? Fastest train? Governments have scaled back mega-projects. Harnessing the environment was found to be an environmental disaster.
But what about education? Mass education has made it more accessible in some countries, but has turned inspiration into balkanization and specialization; big ideas into massive open online courses (MOOS). The university is tailored to tinkerers, not to anyone who might want to do something extraordinary.
Benjamin Barber’s classic 1992 article (1995 book) about the forces of globalization and tribalism/religion should be restated in 2014; it isn’t Jihad vs. McWorld, it is jihad vs. Mcboredom. We are all bored. Our Facebook and Twitter streams are filled with beheadings by ISIS in Iraq. Shrug the shoulders, move on. The closest anyone gets to “inspired” is watching a TED talk. But even that is uninspiring in the long run; after all there are thousands of speakers, “inspiration” is fleeting. On to the next Youtube video. It would be like if Karl Marx had had to compete with 50,000 other Karl Marxes, or Plato having had to lecture at the same time as another hundred Massive Open Online Courses.
That’s a shame. Those like Faisal Abbas want to raise up the Malikis to be Saddams, secretly knowing that this century will likely not produce anyone nearing the stature, good or bad, of leaders from Castro to Gandhi or Mandela.
It is like the Nobel Peace Prize being given to President Barack Obama as he took office; everyone secretly knew it is better to give it to him first, since anyway he wouldn’t be able to live up to the values represented by the prize.
It is like the end of the 1961 classic El Cid, where the Spanish warlord is placed upon his horse, dead, to lead the army into battle. But you can only prop up the false El Cid so long. Eventually the army disintegrates, groups like ISIS fill the vacuum, and then you have to find another Youtube video.
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