Jill Lepore’s most recent book, These Truths, is a tour-de-force. The American experiment, she argues, rests on three ideas that Jefferson called these truths - political equality, natural rights and the sovereignty of the people.
But has the nation, and democracy itself, delivered on that promise? As she reckons with both the beauty and tragedy of American history, Jill asks whether the course of events over more than five centuries has proven the nation’s truths, or belied them.
Along the way (and there are 800 pages of ‘way’) she makes a remarkable observation. “Adams and Jefferson lived in an age of quantification. It began with the measurement of time. Time used to be a wheel
that turned, and turned again; during the scientific revolution time became a line ….The new use and understanding of time contributed to the idea of progress - if time is a line instead of a circle, things can get better and even better, instead of
forever rising and falling in endless cycles, like the seasons.”
The concept of time as cyclical starts with the earth revolving around the sun, which creates the seasons, to which, over millions of years, all
life has evolved and adapted - plants, birds and mammals. Mankind too. For thousands of years, and especially outside the tropics, we observed the cycle of spring, summer, autumn and winter, of planting the seeds, watching the crop mature,
harvesting the bounty and surviving the dearth, waiting for life to re-appear. In another sense, people were essentially non-transient and lived through a cycle of birth, growth, maturity and death, generation after generation, with no particular expectations
of improvement or change.
Honey bees go through the cycle of egg, larva, pupa and a mature adult which fertilizes, provides or tends the eggs for the next cycle; or, in a larger sense, they forage in the
spring, reproduce in the early summer, store resources in the autumn, and cluster through the winter, waiting for the first signs of renewed plant life before sending out the foragers and feeding the next generation of brood. Their purpose is the survival
of the colony, and thus of the species, in as strong a form as possible. This has not changed for some 80 million years, neither in purpose nor in practice.
But, Ms Lapore suggests, this changed for mankind, and
only for mankind, in the eighteenth century, with the predominance of science, reason, the enlightenment and a change in the concept of ‘progress.’ After the Reformation the word ‘progress’ related to moral improvement,
a journey from sin to salvation, from error to truth. But following the emphasis on reason and science, progress came to mean technological improvement, and by the twentieth century it had been surpassed by the term ‘innovation.’
The latter is no moral concept - innovation is concerned with novelty, speed and profit, rather than with goodness - and for many, in the age of the atom bomb, progress seemed to be obscene; salvation had not been found in machines despite the wealth of materialism
available to many consumers.
The point is that mankind, and only mankind, has moved from a cyclical concept of time to one that is linear. We expect to do better than our parents, to learn more, to earn more, to
have more. For example, in February, 1946, the New York Times introduced to the American public ENIAC - the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer - which, like the atomic bomb, had been produced by the military to fight the Second World
War, in particular to break codes and to project weapons trajectories. Grace Hopper, a professor at Vasar, explained, “It is the current aim to replace, as far as possible, the human brain.” ENIAC could make calculations one hundred
times faster than any earlier machine, and as from 1946 history cannot be fully understood without the concept of computerization.
Six years later, in November, CBS announced that it would predict the result of the presidential
election using ‘a giant brain’, namely UNIVAC - the Universal Automatic Computer. Half the size of ENIAC, it was twice as fast. Built for the Census Bureau, the new concept of ‘data processing’ turned people into consumers whose habits
could be tracked and whose spending could be predicted. Just as advertisers could segment the market, so too could political consultants divide voters into different categories and send them separate messages.
forward thirty years and the Silicon Valley Entrepreneur became the envy of the world. Many of the wealthiest people in the world - Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckenburg, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, for example - made their billions in computers and start-ups.
As IBM marketed mainframe computers to the business world, Apple designed personal computers that most people could afford, culminating in the Internet (another military initiative) by which the model of citizenship that involved debate and deliberation
was replaced by one that involves consumption and persuasion, driven by the hyper-individualism of blogging, posting, tweeting, user-profiling and the eventual radicalization and polarization of the public forum. It is a new narcissistic culture.
And now we anticipate 5G (meaning fifth generation) mobile technology that will process data one hundred times faster than currently. How fast is enough?
Computer innovation is only one rather
obvious example of many linear developments that happened during what for many is our life time, and at a pace that was inconceivable when it started. Meanwhile the sun continues to rise at predicable times, the moon sets as it always has, and
it takes 21 days for an egg to develop into a worker bee, no matter what we do. We use chemicals to make hens increase their egg production, cows to produce more milk, plants to produce more flowers, orchards to produce more fruit, bee colonies
to expand faster in the early spring … and we blithely ignore the subtle distinctions between quantity and quality.
Is this the critical issue that underlies the global climatic crisis? That in our over-confidence
and arrogance we believe we can adjust everything to suit our linear needs? If so, the natural world is showing, dramatically, just how futile and ill-advised this is. And this is one of the messages from the bees, expressed in the constant
rhythmic cycle of their lives.
It’s time to stop talking. “Like the best of liberalism,” writes Kevin Baker in a superb essay in the May edition of Harper’s, and with particular
reference to the USA, “ the proof is in the doing. All the efforts to dismiss (climate change) as some socialist plot will not stand, cannot stand. These challenges will not vanish because we want to avoid them. They will not slow just because
we choose to go slow. The Green New Deal, as its name implies, is meant to be a restoration, a return to the sort of fairness, the human balance, the dignity of a working life, wantonly abandoned and derided by so many of our leading politicians and
commentators. If we are to survive, it will be necessary to ignore them. Obviously they have nothing more to offer.”
Amid the denial and ideological bankruptcy of much of the political leadership as we race to
self-destruction, we can find direction and inspiration from the natural world, which resolutely does what it has always done - live in conformity with the seasons which in turn reflect the power of the cosmos.