The Worlds I've Lived In
The last few weeks — the government shutdown and the president’s petulance — have been frustrating to say the least. But I’ve used the time to think and reflect on how the current state of affairs stacks up against the past.
I figure that I’ve lived in four ‘worlds’, eras when people thought the world’s basic rules would last until the end of time. I want to talk about those worlds, and by doing so, perhaps discover something true about this moment in history.
The Cold War
I was born in 1985. That year, the number of nuclear warheads reached its peak: 60,000. In Germany, people died trying to cross the Berlin Wall, while in the Soviet Union, the aging leadership further sent their country’s economy into a tailspin. Nelson Mandela believed he would die in prison, and wars raged across Central America and Africa.
Everyone believed that the world would end with missiles and mushroom clouds. People were so confident of this end that CNN had its ‘end of the world’ broadcast ready to go at a moment’s notice.
That’s the world I was born into.
The End of History
Well, that ‘world’ did end, but not the way anyone, especially the CIA, could have imagined. Although I was four, I don’t remember the Berlin Wall falling or any of the news over the next two years as the Eastern Bloc broke up. I have faint memories of the Exxon Valdez disaster and the Gulf War. My kindergarten class wrote letters to the troops. What began was 10 years known as the End of History, a term coined by that incorrect soothsayer Francis Fukuyama.
The End of History was a great time to be a kid in America. Ours was the richest and most powerful country that had ever existed. Blockbuster movies expounded America’s greatness. At least once a year we were treated to a cinema spectacular — starring Tom Hanks, Will Smith, or Bruce Willis — that made us feel like God’s chosen people. They still make those kind of movies today, but unlike now, we 90s viewers believed every bit of it.
At the time, we had no reason not to.
The Enemy Outside
It took two years for the Cold War to become the End of History. It took all of 90 minutes for the End of History to become the Enemy Outside. 9/11 brought suspicion on ‘the other,’ and like everyone else, I was afraid: afraid of terrorism, afraid of attack. And what did we do with all that fear? We walked blindfolded into two wars, both of which still rage on, although in forms different than when U.S. special forces first captured to Kabul airport in 2001 or when Abrams tanks first rolled through Baghdad’s streets in 2003.
As a young adult, this period felt endless, but like the End of History, the Enemy Outside lasted 10 years. For me, it ended the night I watched President Obama announce the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Personally, it felt like an unfulfilling closure to a decade of war. For our country, though, killing Bin Laden — our hatred’s object — possibly did more harm than good. Who were we without an external threat? We were about to find out.
The Enemy Within
Although a new world began for me in 2011, for many, it began in 2008 with the economic downturn. Neoliberalism, which had flourished in the years immediately proceeding the Cold War, finally showed its true face. It wasn’t just that people with money or political power pulled up the ladder from the masses below, many of whom were drowning. That’s been going on since the beginning of time. They pulled up the ladder and then burned it for warmth. In other words, they profited immensely and then destroyed the very system that allowed them to prosper.
Those who perpetrated this crime are the poster children for this current world: the Enemy Within.
And now we are in the middle of the longest government shutdown in history, and it feels that this world is, slowly but surely, coming apart at the seams. Federal workers aren’t getting paid, and many are lining up at food banks. At airports, TSA agents are calling in sick, and with each one who rightfully decides that going to work isn’t worth it, the nation unravels just a bit more. Overseas, the UK is about to tear itself to shreds over Brexit, and many countries embrace authoritarianism. And the German chancellor, of all people, is leading the free world.
The lizard part of my brain fears the worst, but if my parents were hopeful enough in the 1980s to have me, maybe I should have faith that although these are very ‘interesting’ times, they probably aren’t the end times. All I can say for sure is that if things keep going on like this for much longer, even just for a few more weeks, we’ll all be living in a new world.
I just hope it’s a better one.