History Of Our Time: Making Sense Of This Moment

May 3, 2017

This story is part of a series of conversations on Morning Edition with politicians, writers, scientists, theologians, tech innovators and others. From globalization to religious tolerance, identity to climate change, our conversations seek to capture this moment and how we're shaped by it — as individuals, nations and as a global civilization.


In 1965, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., said that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

To borrow King's imagery in 2017: Which way is the arc of our history bending?

That's a big question we're posing at NPR. We can't easily report on the future, but we can ask smart people how they think we got to this point in history, and where they think we're going.

It's a vital conversation at this transformative moment in our political and social order, here and around the world. Depending on where you stand, we're experiencing either a long-needed course correction or a feeling that the world has lost its way. Whatever your view, the rate of change has been dizzying.

So what is really going on? We're asking a diverse group of thinkers to help chart what amounts to the history of our time.

These conversations began with the social scientist Francis Fukuyama, who famously proclaimed "the end of history" just as the Cold War was coming to an end. What Fukuyama meant was that a single form of government — liberal democracy — was on its way to triumph over competing models like communism. A quarter century later, the forms of democracy remain in place around the world. But many are becoming less liberal. Russia has an elected president and parliament but has cracked down on dissent and the press. Turkey has also cracked down on the press, and in a recent democratic vote chose to concentrate power in the hands of one man.

In another conversation, Ireland's former president, Mary Robinson, warned of a "strange moment" in history. Much of the world had committed itself to "very strong" multilateral institutions, but she says, "we seem to be now going into identity nationalism in a narrow sense." Identity nationalism, concludes Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid, is almost hopeless — and it boils down to fear of change.

"Technological change is intensifying. We're becoming terrified by social media, by information, and in this state of high anxiety, we're looking to attach that anxiety to something," he says. "And cultural change, demographic change, is what we're attaching it to."

Recently we heard from an adviser in the Trump administration. Michael Anton's official title is deputy assistant to the president for strategic communications at the National Security Council. He says he's been so consumed by the day-to-day, he's had little chance to focus on the long term — despite that he came to prominence as a man who was trying to think long term. In 2016, while working at an investment firm, Anton anonymously published essays that sought to make sense of the Trump phenomenon. The most famous was "The Flight 93 Election." Anton compared Trump voters to passengers on the plane hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001, who were choosing to rush the cockpit. They might still die but it was their only hope.

In his conversation with NPR, Anton was a bit more gentle in his description of the world situation. His new boss, he says, views Britain's exit from the European Union as both "a hopeful sign" and as "a reassertion of nationalist sentiment."

"We want to put the brakes on globalization a little bit and reassert control over our country, our borders, our economic policy, our tax policy, with the recognition that the distinction of citizenship means something and citizens are in it together fundamentally in a way that the world community is not," Anton says.

Anton spoke just as Trump was nearing his first 100 days in office — and as the president was discovering some of the limits on what he could achieve.

Trump recently mused in an interview on Sirius XM that "had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn't have had the Civil War." The president was returning to one the most studied eras of American history: the Antebellum Period, the decades leading up to the Civil War. The causes of the conflict can be traced back to the beginnings of the country. It is poignant and instructive to read the accounts of people who lived in the 80 years before the calamity. Many knew that something was going grievously wrong, that the political system was beginning to seize up, caught in its own contradictions. Some desperately warned against disaster. Yet no one truly foresaw what history had in store for them.

In the early 21st century we, too, are headed toward some destination we cannot know, but we can at least get a handle on the direction we are moving. Will we know by the end of these conversations which way the arc of history is bending? Maybe not, but it's worth trying.

Web producer Heidi Glenn and Morning Edition editor Jacob Conrad contributed to this report.

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