Eye of the Storm

By Michael Lederer

Hur­ri­cane Rita Peak. Source: Wiki­me­dia Commons

His­to­ry nev­er crawls or walks. It runs. Some­times silent­ly as if on the soft­er sands of time. Some­times we can hear its foot­steps loud­er as they hit the hot pavement.

As I write this on Jan­u­ary 19, 2017, Barack Oba­ma is still the Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States. But only just. Great Britain is still a mem­ber of the Euro­pean Union. But only just. And after the painful lessons of the 20th cen­tu­ry, nation­al­ism is still a sleep­ing giant. But only just. The giant is waking.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to the vote for Brex­it in 2016, Europe and the Unit­ed States have known over a quar­ter cen­tu­ry of rel­a­tive peace. No wars, hot or cold. Some excep­tions: Sara­je­vo, Sre­breni­ca, 9/11. But for the most part, some 10,000 morn­ings, after­noons, and evenings have unfold­ed in secure calm. But as in the eye of a storm, calm can be decep­tive. And temporary. 

We live in the con­text of our times, inch­ing from day to day. Not always easy to see the grander sweep of change at work. How­ev­er, take a peek at larg­er inter­vals – birth­days, elec­tions – and it becomes obvi­ous. Noth­ing lasts for­ev­er anymore.

Today is tomorrow’s history.

As an Amer­i­can writer liv­ing in Europe, I used to look back at the 1920s with a fond and, as it turns out, naive nos­tal­gia. “The Lost Gen­er­a­tion.” Hem­ing­way, Stein, Fitzger­ald, Eliot. Dis­il­lu­sion­ment. Despair. War. How deli­cious! And how easy now to roman­ti­cize that time even as anoth­er world war brewed. Con­flict is mother’s milk for the artist. Nobody wants a book or poem about daf­fodils in spring. They want Guer­ni­ca. They want Gatsby’s bro­ken dreams. Chaplin’s Tramp over­whelmed by Mod­ern Times. Jake’s impo­tence in The Sun Also Ris­es. They want “The Waste­land”: “I will show you fear in a hand­ful of dust.” It took 38 mil­lion dead in World War I to get to a line like that.

These again are good days for the artist.

Thanks to human num­bers swelling (under 3 bil­lion when I was born in 1956, 7.5 bil­lion today), and to human inno­va­tion (glob­al warm­ing; arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence and robot­ics with their effi­cien­cies of mass scale – thank you Ama­zon; nuclear bombs over 3,000 times more pow­er­ful than the one that anni­hi­lat­ed Hiroshi­ma), Man and Wom­ankind stand today on the brink as nev­er before. And to con­front these pro­found dan­gers, solu­tions being pro­posed include: build walls and dig coal. 19th cen­tu­ry solu­tions to 21st cen­tu­ry challenges.

Hun­gry for “the old days,” an alarm­ing num­ber of peo­ple are buy­ing into it. Lead­ing them toward this Black Fri­day sale, the yap­ping voic­es of the small­er pipers: Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, Jarosław Kaczyńs­ki, Vik­tor Orbán. And the boom­ing bass drums mov­ing this march­ing band back­ward: Putin, Trump, Xi. War over Tai­wan, any­one? Sleep­ing well tonight, Esto­nia? Grand­par­ents, hap­py to know your grand­chil­dren won’t have to trav­el to the warmth because the warmth is com­ing to them? And think of the fun they’ll have fish­ing plas­tic from the seas! Eight men have wealth equal to the poor­est 3.6 bil­lion? The seeds of rev­o­lu­tion were plant­ed in such soil. And if that hap­pens, it will not be a bil­lion­aire lead­ing that revolt.

Many jokes about “there are two kinds of peo­ple…” This is no joke. There are two kinds of peo­ple. The great­est divide in human think­ing is as fol­lows: “Us against them” vs. “We are all in this thing togeth­er.” From there you can zoom in to see the details, the par­tic­u­lar fault lines, reli­gious, nation­al, racial. But it’s that big­ger ques­tion that counts. If one can whol­ly enjoy one’s own pros­per­i­ty while oth­ers are suf­fer­ing, one belongs to the first group. If not, to the sec­ond. Only one group points toward a brighter future.

Today is tomorrow’s history.


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Michael Led­er­er is an Amer­i­can writer who lives in Berlin, Dubrovnik, and Cadaqués. His first nov­el, Cadaqués, was pub­lished in Feb­ru­ary 2014. He has just writ­ten his sec­ond nov­el, Don Quixote Sav­ing Amer­i­ca.