Professor Matt Warshauer closed the 10th annual Wilton Historical Society and Wilton Library series on American history in his usual brilliant fashion.
The series this year focused on American identity in recent decades. As we came through the buoyant final years of the 20th Century, things seemed in very good shape: the Soviet Union had fallen and with its fall, the Cold War had ended; our economy was doing reasonably well, and the world seemed generally peaceful.
Then 9/11 created a huge fork in the road. That is one of those few times in a society’s life — like the Pearl Harbor attack and JFK’s assassination — where those who lived through it can remember exactly where they were and to which one can trace so much that has happened since. In fact, more people not just in America but around the world watched 9/11 tragically unfold than any other event in world history. Yet Warshauer also noted that now “one-quarter of Americans are too young to remember 9/11 firsthand.”
Warshauer believes that the 9/11 generation hasn’t seen democracy work in the same way as those who lived through the Vietnam era and Watergate, who saw our country transformed through political action. They’ve seen instead the failure of the U.S. financial system — carrying down the general economy into the Great Recession — married with partisan gridlock that has thrown our governmental decision-making into disarray. The newest generations thus are not so confident that democracy is necessarily good for other nations or can easily be passed on without regard to what other people’s backgrounds may be.
Within the Middle East, many there have considered their own collection of nations to be the senseless product of European colonial divisions post World War I, confirmed with full U.S. participation as part of that new world order at the end of World War II. That new post-World-War-II world order was brought into being with the best of intentions in ways reflecting the hard-learned lessons of punitive peace terms imposed by the Versailles Treaty ending World War I combined with the U.S.’ rejection of the League of Nations and strong turn toward isolationism (that did not end until Pearl Harbor).
Acting with those best of intentions and with a noble global vision, Western leaders in the aftermath of World War II sought to enhance the chances for world peace by using global dialogue and freer trade as cornerstone principles. Yet those Western-established, post-World-War-I borders among Middle Eastern nations that were reconfirmed post World War II bore little relationship to ethnic and clan divisions and have created continuing polarizing divides among peoples forcibly brought together there in such an arbitrary manner. And those divides in turn have been central to major disruptions in world peace from that time forward even as they have also encouraged the growth of strong-man dictatorships.
As Warshauer points out, the U.S. itself didn’t really take full shape as a nation until the Civil War ended, three-quarters of a century after our founding. Nation-building takes great time and patience, yet American patience with “boots on the ground” is notoriously short such that those who seek to do us harm have learned to inflict American casualties and then simply wait out the short fuse of that patience. And the dark side of ever-advancing technology enables small cells of non-state actors to wreak enormous havoc while in Russia, Putin menacingly attempts the re-creation of the former Soviet Union’s geographic scope and international power, even as here in America income inequalities have continued to grow with 20% of pre-tax income going to 1% of American families, 30% to the next 9% of families, and the remaining 50% to the final 90%.
Yet at the same time, as Warshauer’s wife Wanda (who is his colleague in important portions of his work) noted after his presentation, young people today form networks that, with modern telecommunications, span the globe. They are used to tackling thorny problems by working together in social-media dialogue. And the evening after Warshauer’s presentation, the concluding session of the interfaith series on community-building co-sponsored by the Wilton Clergy Association, the Wilton Library, and Wi-ACT underscored our strength when we work together in community by supporting one another, doing good together, and celebrating our differences by making full use of the broad insights that a wide range of backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences brings to bear to the benefit of us all.
And that may be the true saving grace in challenging times like these.