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The sense that we are living through a pivotal historical moment is overwhelming. As the country sat on tenterhooks while the Supreme Court heard arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization last week, Matt Continetti was marveling at the apocalyptic tone with which most coverage treated the case that could finally overturn Roe v. Wade. He dismissed the gravest concerns, but nevertheless went on to say:
Whatever happens, I find I cannot escape the sense that America has reached an impasse, that it has arrived at a moment of transition, and not just on the matter of abortion. Whether one looks at politics, economics, or the world, one sees a realignment of forces, a shuffling of players off and on the stage, to prepare for the next act in the drama. The Trump presidency seems less like the harbinger of a new beginning than a spectacular climax to a historical epoch.
It’s not just that things are changing fast, it’s that we are at a generational inflection point. Matt notes that 19 House Democrats have already announced their retirement, and that Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer are unlikely to serve past 2024 (should they survive their midterm trials). Biden himself, elected as a last-ditch attempt to keep the world of yesterday going for another four years, looks troublingly tired. Nevertheless, it doesn’t feel like the next generation has a better grip on the world that is coming into view either. The most talented rising politicians are as deft as Donald Trump at wielding social media for demagogic ends, but don’t appear particularly well suited to handle the moment’s challenges. There is a maddening frivolity to our public life at every turn.
Janan Ganesh, writing at the Financial Times, puts his finger on one of the potential sources of our deep unseriousness. He makes an argument that I have long enjoyed scandalizing friends with at parties. “It’s been too long since we have had a truly cataclysmic meat-grinder of a war, the kind of civilizational conflict that wipes out tens of thousands in the trenches and imposes truly existential costs on societies.” If I’ve had a bad day, I’ve been known to add with a shit-eating grin: “Our generation badly needs one.”
Ganesh used the passing of Senator Bob Dole to note that we are currently as far away from the convulsions of World War II as the Greatest Generation was from the American Civil War. It’s easy for populists to play with dangerous ideas and get a hearing when the memory of truly bad outcomes is so badly faded. Politics becomes a distraction, an amusing team sport. We forget that by being politically frivolous, we are playing with deadly “fissile material,” Ganesh says.
He’s onto something in focusing on World War II, but maybe in a different way than he intends. It’s not only that we are unserious because we can’t imagine how dangerous things can become when politics get out of hand. We are unserious because we take far too many things for granted. Yes, Vietnam was a meat-grinder of a war, but it came hot on the heels of Korea, which itself followed on closely to the cataclysms of the early 40s. And those wars, notably including World War II, were put in strategic context for American voters by their leaders before the first American GI fired a shot in anger. Let me explain.
I’m writing this Monday Note from Skopje, North Macedonia. On the flight over, I ended up reading Stephen Wertheim’s delightful short book, Tomorrow, The World, which takes a swing at the rose-tinted view we tend to have of America’s drive to primacy after 1945. Wertheim focuses on a cadre of Ivy League intellectuals working at the Council of Foreign Relations, at Yale, and at Princeton, who were hired by a still badly understaffed State Department to plan for the end of the European war.
In Wertheim's telling, it was the fall of France in 1940 rather than Pearl Harbor that really focused minds in America’s brain trust. A continent dominated by Nazi Germany would be a first-order geoeconomic challenge for the United States, and at first the group toyed with the idea of setting up a hemispheric defense—an update of the Monroe Doctrine—that would allow the United States to remain prosperous in the Americas. Thinking quickly turned, however, to sustaining Britain in the war, and of taking over the running of its Empire in the aftermath. The signing of the Atlantic Charter ends up being less the idealistic founding of a transatlantic “community of values” that in turn would spawn NATO and the United Nations as much as it is the moment the United States sought to take up the “white man’s burden”.
This surprising turn to colonial thinking by America’s best and brightest is not, however, simply the product of the casual racism that was the background noise for most educated thought at the time. Instead, it is the result of the collapse of the idea President Woodrow Wilson championed in his drive to set up the League of Nations—that world order could be anchored in the rationality and common sense of the world’s peoples. “Hitler’s conquests had driven the nail into the coffin of world organization, still associated with the search for pacific alternatives to the use of force,” Wertheim writes. “The belief that public opinion could underpin world order, appearing as a false hope since the mid-1930s, now looked like a perilous delusion.” If Hitler was democratically legitimate—and we can at minimum say that he was never an unpopular leader—then any democratic solution to the problem of global order was simply not going to work. America, seeing itself as incorruptibly decent, would have to steward the world for the foreseeable future.
Wertheim is therefore not making some kind of glib leftist argument about how of course the postwar period is merely a rapacious, racist grab for dominion by America’s insulated elites, and that all the positive-sum ideology about values that followed is thin cover for the true original purpose of American empire. He is excavating the intellectual history of how we see the world today.
And what is most striking about his excavation is that we have by and large lost this sense of the tragedy that underpinned the reasoning of the Greatest Generation. Instead, we gibber on about rights and values as if they are self-evident and self-sustaining, and are at a loss as they melt away before our eyes. It’s an affliction that is hitting us both in domestic politics as well as in managing foreign affairs. We are a deeply Unserious Generation.
Or maybe things aren’t all that bad? It’s always good to try to keep some perspective.
I had dinner with a Kosovar friend of mine last night after I arrived in Skopje. In the course of our conversation, he recalled a panic that had overcome him and all his friends a few years back during one of the periodic ratcheting-ups of tensions between Kosovo and Serbia. Given the media coverage, it felt to him as if society was at the precipice of war once again. Amidst the crisis, he decided to travel north to the divided town of Mitrovica, the site of a lot of the tensions that had everyone so concerned. Alone, he crossed the bridge over the Ibar River to the Serbian-majority half. There, he was shocked to see that life was completely normal, with ethnic Albanians and Serbs normally going about their daily business.
On Tuesday, he and I will road-trip to Mitrovica again. It’s once again a pregnant moment up there, though for different reasons this time: the Biden Administration has uncorked a series of sanctions against organized crime figures operating in the area, with links to both Serbian and Kosovar political parties. My friend has thoroughly sold me on the trip: “I haven’t been in a few years, I’d like to meet up with some people. There’s a good place I know we can get some local rakija. What could go wrong? An Albanian and a Croat walk into a bar in Northern Kosovo...”