Abandoning the Past, Mired in the Moment
By 0aPico Iyer
The Los Angeles Times
Friday 04 July 2003
America, in all the myths, is the place where the future begins, 0afirst settled by pilgrims who wished to leave the past far behind them. That 0asense of broad horizons is what has always drawn people from the Old World (myself included) to its shores - the sense that in America you can live in the 0aoptative mood, not as you are but as you would wish to be.
"America is a country of young men," said Ralph Waldo Emerson, 0awho seems as fresh as ever as his 200th birthday is marked this summer. His 0asometime-disciple Oscar Wilde added, more dryly, "The youth of America is their 0aoldest tradition." In the world's imagination, what happens in America today 0awill next week - or next month - be around the world.
To those caught up in the realities of the moment, in Detroit's 0ainner city or in an old person's home in Mississippi, that future can seem like 0aan empty promise. In its most extreme form - what we call California - it can 0afeel no more useful than a lazy daydream on a summer's afternoon. But everyone 0aneeds to believe that there is somewhere we can repose our hopes. And with the 0aold cultures having ruined their credit rating long ago, thanks to centuries of 0aoligarchy or war, America has fit the bill even (or especially) for those who 0ahave never been here.
And yet, just recently, a suspicion has begun to arise that, as 0aYogi Berra put it, "the future ain't what it used to be."
The space program, a perfect metaphor for America's conquest of 0athe future - high technology married to high idealism - plunged to earth with 0athe Columbia. The computer industry, hailed overnight as the solution to all the 0aproblems of mankind, proved, inevitably, to be a product of mankind. The 0aonce-soaring stock market made "futures" a dirty word, thanks in part to the 0astabs of terrorism. (Terrorism's diabolical logic, of course, being that the 0afuture can be undone if the present is unsettled.) Even the buildings that once 0asymbolized Manhattan's thrust toward the heavens are gone.
More profoundly, people in the Old World have begun to mutter 0athat the dark side of an abolition of the past is that it leaves one with a hazy 0aunderstanding of the future; America, they say, is mired in the moment that its 0apop culture celebrates.
Meanwhile, the European Union, the very bastion of the old, is 0asurging toward a transnational future, with as many as 10 new members on the 0ahorizon.
Canada, home of the global village, is fashioning new ideas of 0acommunity through its government and its artists. The biggest surprise for a 0avisitor to Toronto and Vancouver today is that they make New York and Los 0aAngeles seem positively old-fashioned.
Even the grand old powers of Asia, famous for their conservatism, 0aalthough not showing much taste for theorizing about the future, show every sign 0aof wishing to claim the future and make it happen now. Is it possible that 0aAmerica, so long an anthology of the world's dreams, is losing the one asset it 0ahas enjoyed since its founding ? That its fixation on the urgencies of 0atechnology and politics has gotten in the way of the higher necessities of 0avision? Could it be, in fact, that America is less able to offer a blueprint for 0athe future than in the days of Tocqueville (who noted of the "land of wonders" 0athat in it "every change seems an improvement")?
Certainly the son of the president who so famously lacked the "vision thing" seems to have a much clearer sense of how he would like the world 0ato be than of how it really is. Even his triumphs in Afghanistan and Iraq do not 0aseem predicated on a clear sense of where Kabul and Baghdad will be two years 0afrom now.
No one, I would guess, is going to start projecting her hopes 0aonto Germany or Japan, even if Berlin is serving up cutting-edge culture and 0aJapan is making the niftiest gizmos around. America's visions of the future (in "The Matrix" or even "The X-Files") may be shot in Sydney or Vancouver, but the 0aimagination still conceives them to be American.
Indeed, the self-perpetuating nature of dreams means that America 0awill continue to be an emblem of the future, and so attract the best and most 0aforward-looking minds from everywhere who will make that notion come true. The 0afuture can always be imported.
But unless the country works on expanding its attention span, or 0acrafting a vision that lasts longer than a special effect, it may find that the 0afuture stretches no further than next week. One of the unsettling things about 0athe war on terrorism is that those striving to keep the peace seem to be 0athinking in terms of months, while those seeking to wreak havoc are thinking in 0aterms of eternities.
And even though more people than ever may believe that America 0aowns the future as the world's lone superpower and policeman, that does not seem 0ato inspire the optimism it once did. In most parts of the world, the future 0aremains a luxury; in America, as Emerson continues to suggest, it's a necessity 0aon which the rest of the world depends.
See the future as a season and you leave the present permanently 0aon edge. Which is, in fact, exactly what the terrorists want.
Pico Iyer is the author, most recently, of "Abandon" (Alfred 0aA. Knopf, 2003), a novel about California, Islam and the dialogue between 0athem.