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The future ain't what it used to be


The future ain't what it used to be

The American impulse of looking to the future is running up against the cold reality of the present.

For longer than you think, Americans have been an anxious people. There are a number of reasons for that, but as Alexis de Tocqueville ably chronicled, a big one is our experience with what he called “democratic life.”

Importantly, Tocqueville did not blame our miseries on democratic politics. Far from it, in fact — he emphasized that the only worldly cure for what ailed us was to be plunged into the messy, difficult details of shared local governance, the very epitome of political democracy as Americans have long known it.

If we are to do better than that, we’ll have to take matters into our own hands, cognizant that all such matters depend ultimately, and intimately, on God.

But democratic life — where the equality of conditions prevailed over the vast majority — led, he warned, to certain psychological and spiritual pressures that could often be overwhelming. The short span of 60 or so productive, mature years was not enough, he reflected, for people not born into riches and privileges to securely set themselves up for restful, confident, self-directed activity.

Instead, scrambling for advantage in a social scrum defined by competition and conformity, Americans were always worried about tomorrow, when they might lose ground or face some fresh tumult, and when — even if somehow they managed to climb the slippery pole — they’d wake up one day having squandered their life on the rat race for the fleeting pleasures and opportunities of this world.

Tocqueville made much of the need for “habits of the heart” to ameliorate (but never cure) the anxieties of democratic life. For him, that ultimately came from religion. Even what today might be called a “minimum viable” Christianity struck him as hugely better than nothing.

But today we might be pressed to reconsider the viability of that approach in light of the evidence. People, not just anxious Americans, are stubbornly reluctant to put in the hard spiritual work of confronting God amid one’s own frailty and folly in the scary depths of one’s own heart. It’s tough even with nothing else on your plate. Add in the hustle and bustle and uncertainty of democratic life, and all the distractions we manufacture in our desperate quest for a new instant fix, and it can seem impossible, however willing the Lord might be to forgive.

For that reason, Americans have long sought to leap out of their spiritual and social predicament by refocusing their social and personal attention away from the present. Some have preferred to do this by making the past their center of attention.

American optimism

But the past ain’t all that past in the United States, certainly not in comparison with the Old World. Here, there just isn’t a distant golden age to seek to return to or restore. In the vague lands of imagination, perhaps, an indulgent nostalgia not really one’s own might bloom for some.

For most, however, the best place to run to escape the responsibility and repentance demanded of us by actually living in the present — in God’s presence — is the future, and it is to the future that progressively more Americans, at least until very recently, have turned for relief by proxy.

This, despite consistent disappointment at the hands of the ostensible future, conjured up in shimmering disincarnate form by legions of self-appointed — sometimes credentialed — “futurists.” Futurists today are pushing back hard against the future’s sadly inevitable PR problem.

They have at their advantage a certain kernel of truth. It is perverse to want tomorrow to be worse than today and even sinful to despair of tomorrow. Falling down on our responsibilities today is guaranteed to bite us next week, if not sooner. The sins of the fathers really are visited on the sons down through the generations.

The “Great Stagnation” many partisans of the future lament is not entirely a figment of the imagination. On the other hand, the blame is most often wrongly assigned. Where the futurists finger envy, guilt, laziness, stupidity, or any other number of shortcomings, the real culprit is a deep-seated understanding in the human heart that more — more stuff, more distractions, more idols, more machines, more tools, more drugs, more speed, more noise — is, in the spiritual sense that plagues us most, actually less, actually a deepening of the hole in which we find ourselves.

Of course, that’s not to say we shouldn’t build better airplanes (instead of letting them drop from the sky) or more robust digital infrastructure (instead of letting the internet decay into spam). It’s simply to say that the biggest problem with futurism — the insurmountable problem — is the future itself. We can never really find refuge from the present in the future, because we can never really live there. As a result, futurism characteristically just turns out to mean distorting the present to make it seem like the future.

This lie, this illusion, merely aggravates our anxiety, despite superficially numbing it. Stuck in this vicious circle, Macbeth’s impulse to keep going because it’s easier than trying to go back (that is, to change heart and repent) becomes society’s impulse as a whole. “I want to outrace the speed of pain for another day,” Marilyn Manson sang in the late ‘90s — a warning from a person explicitly inhabiting the role of an alien monster from the future. Few could take the croaks of the shock rocker at face value, but look at us now, dedicated as a society to trying to do exactly that.

This is the bitter fruit of futurism, an idol of an imagined worldly perfection to which none of us can attain, and from which none of us can elicit mercy. It’s an all too poetic justice for a people led so far astray in the mid-20th century by another well-meaning but misleading cult, that of “living for today” and “being here now.” Those hippie mantras merely garlanded a culture of personal irresponsibility instead of pushing people where Tocqueville urged — into the necessities of shared life.

But without a shared spiritual life, the everyday toil of maintaining the fleeting things of this world — ultimately, including all merely mortal things — is, once again, too much for us to bear. Tocqueville believed that governments in democratic times could only bring people back around to faith by requiring them to attend to their own affairs as best as they could instead of reducing them to childlike slaves.

If we are to do better than that, we’ll have to take matters into our own hands, cognizant that all such matters depend ultimately, and intimately, on God.

That’s a presentism we can believe in.

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James Poulos

James Poulos

BlazeTV Host

James Poulos is the editor at large of Blaze Media, the host of Zero Hour on BlazeTV, and the founder and editorial director of Return.
@jamespoulos →