I can only remember the 1950s as sunny weather and dull people. Almost nothing happened: my Dad became irate during 1956 over a place called Soowez and an Arab called Nassa. It was Hitler all over again, he asserted. Another man called I’s an hour had left us in the lurch. I though he meant we’d been abandoned up a tree. In 1958, Manchester United’s plane crashed taking off from Munich airport and, quite genuinely, it was by far the most affecting event of the decade for me.
In 1962 we nearly blew up the world over Suez, and an assassin shot Kennedy, the hero of the decade, a year later. Other nutters killed his brother Bobby and Martin Luther King. And everyone marched to everywhere and back about Vietnam. There was some peace and love, and a Tsunami of social drivel referred to as The Counterculture was born, but died in infancy of multiple opinion syndrome.
Since then we’ve had the usual riots, regional wars, minor economic crises, unburied dead followed by Thatcher the Undead, the collapse of the USSR, the fall of Apartheid, Major sleaze, even more major Blair sleaze, and Princess Diana. Labour was relaunched as New Labour, but then sank under the weight of 37,659 new legal instruments and three trillion pounds of debt.
But in the two years since 2008 (I always put the start of all this mess at 2004, with the first symptoms showing in late 2007) the world has gone from occasional to daily nightmares on almost every dimension of human existence: trade, religious fanaticism, currency, politics, communication technology, jobs, war, diplomacy, stock markets, sovereign debts and mad banks have all arrived at an intersection with no traffic lights or give-way lines. We get no double-decker buses for sixty years, and then eleven arrive in eighteen months.
After posting yesterday afternoon about the true depth of America’s debt/gdp/tax hole, I sat and watched Mahmoud Imadinnejhad addressing the UN. I listened to his psychotic fantasy about 9/11, and thought, “Oh look, there’s a mad person close to owning a nuclear weapon addressing the UN”. No doubt he was encouraged by the UN’s ridiculously biased conclusions about the Rachel Corrie: either way, it struck me as normal. Then that sense of normality struck me a hugely abnormal.
I switched off, and looked down a Huffpost comment thread at the views being expressed about this event. A good two-thirds of them were from the spittle and green ink tendency – all crazy assertion, all riddled with hate, and of course, all anti-Israel. “Israel HATES the US wrote one”. “Great comment!” opined the next loon.
These days, I believe that there are three dimensions to any debate, where there used to be two – right and wrong. There is now right, wrong and real. Quote often (for example, about the Gaza flotillas and the global banking system) everyone whether right or wrong seems unable to summon up the courage to be real. Not since the military and the Fluffies argued about nuclear weapons in the 1980s has that combination been present. In 2010, it applies to almost every debate there is.
It is a specific example of a general drift away from reality – via a combination of blind faith and bad science – that infected the West after the financial markets were fully deregulated, the Berlin Wall came down, and Nelson Mandela walked out to the most deserved freedom of the twentieth century. Why after those events? I’m not sure – who could prove such a thing? – but my own pet theory is that they all bred a sense of sloppy optimism and misplaced confidence – and crucially, left the Right needing new bogeymen, and the Left looking for new injustices to invent and moan about.
Invention is the primary facet of multivariate debate today: it leads to increasingly split and/or confrontational politics, diplomacy, economics and even fund management. Electorally and fiscally, this is the age of dead heats and unshakeable beliefs, of deadbeats and immovable elites. All of these are deeply antithetical to stability, democracy and liberty.
Sensible debate about climate change has left the building. There has been some invention and almost universal exaggeration on both sides. Any debate at all with Islam became pointless after 9/11 (I suspect that was the idea) and now consists entirely of invention from the Islamist contingent, plus deluded denial from almost every Western leader from Obama to Cameron.
Austerity v stimulation. Inflation v deflation. Bank lending v balance sheet repair. Globalism v Green. Europhile v Europhobe. Sunny v Sh’iite. Jew v Arab. China v Japan. Libertarian v Stateist. The Premier League of political football has never been more aggressive, nor the fixture list more crowded. For historians like me interested in society, business and politics, it’s a wet dream. For everyone else, it seems like a never-ending nightmare. Crucially however, in terms of effective remedial action, it’s a disaster.
We have far too much ‘news’, far too much spin element in that news, and nowhere near enough analysis followed by creative reflection and genuinely original solutions. This is the big problem created by IT, whether facilitating mass, untraceable stock market trades, or every event to be immediately tweeted to a billion apps: it has created a world of March hares terribly late for a very important date, but with no idea what time the appointment was, or where they have to be.
But it will end. And it will rebuild into a different kind of world. My view has always been that eventually, Western society will emerge from the coming tunnel a more balanced, fair and accountable thing at every level – personal, familial, community, Westminster and Whitehall. But trying to guess the sequence of events before that time – while fascinating to me – is ultimately an academic mug’s game: as Harold Macmillan was fond of remarking, “From here on, it’s about events dear boy, events”.