One hundred years ago, the world was on the brink of World War I. Airplanes were just being figured out, tanks had yet to be made or used, dreadnoughts of the sea were in mass production and cavalry still used horses and spears.
The war broke out in a peculiar way, with mistakes and miscalculations on all sides. And, quickly the fights slithered into muddy trenches, where literally hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides were killed, on some days more than 50,000.
At the same time, modern medicine was still in its infancy and the ability to save and fix injured soldiers was extremely limited. As a result, there were, in addition to the dead, hundreds of thousands of limbless and completely disabled former soldiers.
Social standards were still rudimentary compared to today. Women’s rights were just emerging as an issue.
Finance was still in its early infancy – JP Morgan was just getting organized to create giant industrial elephants, despite Teddy Roosevelt’s trust busting. A bond was a bond and no one had ever dreamt of something called a derivative in finance. Oil was also in its infancy. Navy ships converted from coal just as the war started.
International law was pretty much limited to treaties and borders. Virtually nothing existed in the form of transnational governance.
President Wilson was a much respected intellectual leader and did his best. The US finally entered the European war in 1917. At its conclusion, he sought the creation of a League of Nations. The US Senate did not get it. Wilson died crippled like a lot of soldiers. In forging the peace that ended WWI, the seeds were sown for World War II.
Despite the fact that everything listed above was pretty well known and understood in quite tangible form, the leaders of the world then had a lot of difficulty coming to grips with the nature of the challenges and how to deal with them.
Fast forward past World War II to today. World War II was in many ways a delayed continuation of World War I.
The issues, problems and challenges were still pretty tangible and the US under Franklin Roosevelt’s leadership mobilized quickly and after great effort and a fraction of the loss of life compared to WWI, peace came in 1945.
Since WWII, we have seen the Korean and Vietnam wars including some early stirrings in the Middle East. And then Iraq and Afghanistan. Still those wars and related problems were pretty old fashioned in how they were seen and dealt with.
Today, it looks very different and we the people of the USA and our leaders are looking at a haze of shadows:
ISIS is phantom like. Now you see it now you don’t. Planes and tanks have a hard time finding the enemy. How do you find and decapitate the enemy’s leaders? It took ten years to find Osama bin Laden. Will it take ten years to deal with ISIS? How much of a threat can ISIS become to us in the meantime?
Modern medicine is amazing [though all screwed up] and along comes Ebola. We still are not getting clear answers about whether it poses a serious threat to the United States. This is a virus long known to have serious ability to spread and become a deathly plague.
Women’s issues are far advanced but now a debate is underway about when and how a young man and woman can reach a legally binding agreement of consent in the heat of drug and alcohol passion. That is a seriously tough question to sort out, short of abstinence which it seems is unlikely given nature’s powers.
International law has become very cloudy. National borders are moving around at the whim of unrestrained leaders and the UN and US have few useful tools – that do not boomerang – -to deploy.
And, lastly finance is a deep puzzle. Derivatives, hedge funds, zero interest rates, a central bank going deeply into debt to stimulate the economy are all uncharted waters, with unknown consequences.
What is common to all these changes in the last 100 years?
1- Vast complexity compounded by modern communications, the internet and social networking.
2- Everything is a shadow of something else. And as more things become intangible, they also become less understandable to the majority of people.
3- The interconnectedness of all the moving parts has completely buffaloed our governance system into dreadful stalemates of misunderstandings.
4- We as a people fall into a trap of concentrating on only those issues which impinge on us in the moment, so that anything resembling a national consensus on anything really important to everybody seems very elusive.
5- Lastly, we seem to be trying to hold our elected leaders to a standard that might have been suitable 100/50 years ago but is essentially impossible in today’s world.
What does all this add up too and what might be done about it?
It adds up to a world of constant shadow boxing, which leads to endless frustrations and a deep sense that we are headed helplessly in the wrong directions.
What might be done to deal with all this confusion?
For President in 2016 we should go beyond the usual political types and be looking/hopping for an enlightened person not wedded to the past or simply romantic about the future, who has passion, energy, curiosity and understands this new shadowy world.
Where are you Teddy Roosevelt?