In a recent New York Times article, entitled “Our Dark Century,” Thomas Friedman proposes that the darkness that seems to be descending over the world is not some aberration, but actually a return to the “normal” state of affairs that existed in earlier centuries. “The 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th centuries,” he writes, “were normal. Big countries like China, Russia and Turkey are ruled by fierce leaders with massive power. That’s normal. Small aristocracies in many nations hog gigantic shares of their nations’ wealth. That’s normal.”
I found this thesis quite striking, even disturbing, although on reflection and from a historical perspective, it is probably true. I would like to think that the ideals of liberal democracy, freedom, and equality have become the new “normal,” and that we can look at the tragedies of earlier centuries as something we have grown beyond. But Friedman makes a compelling case for the opposite view, and buttresses his argument by quoting America’s founding fathers, who tried to create a new, enlightened society on the ashes of Europe’s tyrannies, but also recognized the dark forces of human nature that were arrayed against it. Friedman quotes Samuel Adams, who said, “Ambitions and lust for power … are predominant passions in the breasts of most men.” The invasion of the Ukraine, which now dominates world news, happened just days after Friedman’s column, in a sense validating this thesis.
Reading Friedman’s article caused me to reflect on my own life and upbringing, and to re-assess what I thought was “normal” at various times in my life. For example, I grew up in Southern California and went to an integrated high school, with Whites, Blanks, and Latinos in school together. At that time, in the early 60s just before Civil Rights, that state of affairs seemed progressive and “normal,” at least compared to the segregated South. But now as I look back, I remember that in my high school everyone was “tracked.” I don’t know the details of the tracking, or whether they were buttressed by some sort of testing, but tracking was the norm. There was an academic “track,” which is the one mostly the White kids were in, and then there were the vocational tracks—wood shop, metal shop, auto mechanics, home economics—which is where the students of color were. I rarely saw a Black or Latino student in any of my classes. At the time I didn’t think much about it, but now, of course, I realize that this was just another kind of segregation. Segregation was “normal” in America of that time. Everything seemed calm and peaceful. There were tough kids, but the most dangerous weapon they had was a switchblade. Guns were unheard of, there were no mass shootings in schools. Now the conflicts in society that were buried or hidden when I was in school are out in the open and have become deadly. Which state of affairs is “normal?” According to Friedman’s thesis, today’s society of open racial, social, political and class conflict is normal; the peaceful childhood I thought I had was a fiction or a momentary hiatus.
For my generation, the “normal” world of conflict and darkness broke into the open first with the civil rights movement, and then with the Vietnam war. When Vietnam hit, we all realized, as though waking up from a hypnotic sleep, that the peaceful world we lived in as teenagers, going to sock hops and listening to Elvis on our radios and record players, was an escapist fiction. The ugly, horrifying world of war which our parents lived through was suddenly back, and this time, for the first time, we could see people being burned and killed on live TV. The “normal” world was back, and the lives of my generation were forever changed.
The same thing has just happened with the war in Ukraine. The whole world has suddenly realized that the last thirty years of so-called post Cold War peace was not the new normal, it was just another hiatus. And this time, instead of being brought the truth of the world on TV, we are seeing it in social media, on our phones. As Friedman quipped in a later column, “welcome to World War Wired.”
Is it good that we are once again waking up, as Friedman says, to a new “dark century?” It’s awful to see, and horrible to contemplate the possible catastrophes that could ensue, but I have to believe that that seeing the truth is necessary, waking up is necessary—although war or mass killings due to the proliferation of guns are a truth of the most awful kind. Maybe that is what happens in the trajectory of a whole human life: at various times we are asleep, and then the “normal” world shakes us awake and we have to change.
In spite of everything, I trust in change, I remain an optimist, and cling to hope. The alternative is too depressing to contemplate.