Today, we take you on a journey through history with S.Y.S.T.E.M.I.C. (The Society For Young Sensible Technocrats Engaging In Meritocratic Interdisciplinary Centrism).
TOUR GUIDE: All aboard! Strap yourself in—don’t take up too much space—and please, hold all comments to the end. When credentialed authorities speak, the ignorant masses ought to stay silent, don’t you agree? Of course you do!
Now—before we set off—a few words about our time machine. This lovely device you’re seated in is a joint project by our dear friends at Lockheed Martin and the U.S. Department of Education. Our research has shown that today’s young people are indifferent to history. You millennials just want to protest, grade-grub, and complain about your identities. You eat too many avocados and not enough diamonds, you despise hard work and property ownership, you refuse to acknowledge the glory of a global capitalism that allows you constant real-time updates on all your favorite sexual abuse scandals! It’s not enough to have a supercomputer strapped to your wrist, all you can talk about is the people who made the supercomputer and mined its constituent parts, their working conditions and power dynamics blah blah blah, skyrocketing inequality and it’s all so unfair, I don’t want to participate in this vicious system, I can’t afford my rent, I’m terrified of getting sick because my insurance is garbage, I’m anxious and exhausted all the time, blah blah blah, me me me!
Well, that’s why we’re taking this journey today. It’s time to step outside the narrow confines of the present moment and take a really hard, serious look at our past. Once you’ve seen the most important and exciting events in the history of centrism, I think you’ll understand how perfect and inevitable it was that we arrived here, on this flat, shrinking, globalized earth, the best of all possible worlds.
Are you strapped in? Are you ready? Too bad if you aren’t, because technological progress will leave you behind regardless, ha-ha!
(Deep whirring noises. The windows blaze with watercolor light. There’s a moment of terrible, wrenching inertia—and the noises stop. The windows clear.)
Tour Guide: Now, we begin deep in the wilds of prehistory. The year is 4484 BC, and the local warlord is Orrag the Basher. Yes, that’s his army, racing through the grassland. And that’s Orrag in front, raising his club—oof! You can see how he earned his name.
Now, I don’t want to make any excuses for our friend Orrag here. He is a tad on the aggressive side. But on the other hand, it’s pretty clear that the Antelope People weren’t operating their agricultural fields at full capacity. In order to compete in a rapidly expanding global marketplace, they needed to increase their grain output by at least 130%… so let’s skip ahead a little… and yes, see how much more productive the Antelope People have become? Orrag cut a lot of unnecessary overhead. No more silly ritual dancing, no more elaborately decorated huts, no more calorie-heavy feasts… they were really living above their means, weren’t they, and getting chubby too, am I right? Give Orrag credit: he’s really trimmed the fat. The Antelope People have become a lean, mean, producing machine!
Sure, it was a hostile takeover. But that’s how it goes. Whoever wins is morally justified in their victory, because if you have something, it means you earned it. Orrag and his soldiers obviously worked harder, that’s all.
And let’s be real: given the chance, the Antelope People would have become conquerors themselves. You see, human beings have always been nasty, brutish, and sectarian. In fact, we’ve never evolved beyond our early conditioning. Thanks to the rigorous science of evolutionary psychology, we know that, deep down in our cortexes, we’re still the same competitive, cruel, status-obsessed, selfish, tribalist apes we’ve always been…
(one voice murmuring)
What’s that? Are you suggesting there’s no hard scientific evidence to support this theory?
(same voice murmuring)
Really? Not a single, identifiable genetic structure? Just a collection of unprovable hypotheses, and soft science data which might only indicate contemporary cultural biases?
(voice murmuring again)
But if that’s true, then surely reputable scientists would no longer advance such an unpromising theory. As they do, we must assume its veracity. Well! Moving on!
(Deep whirring noises. The windows fade to watercolor, and then to mist.)
Now we’re navigating the murky waters of myth-history. If you look closely out the viewports, you’ll see the pyramids of Giza. These immortal monuments were built only for the greatest leaders and innovators of Egyptian society. Tragically, most tombs were looted over the years by greedy, grubby locals, who sold the golden treasures of their kings for “food” and other “necessaries.”
The people who looted the pyramids may have been the descendants of the slaves who built them? Well. At SYSTEMIC, we don’t really like to use the word “slave.” It has a great deal of hurtful historical resonance—in fact, it’s unpleasant for us to hear that word, and we ask you to respect our desire not to be hurt by words that make us feel unpleasant. We prefer the term “contracted agents.” Yes, the pyramids were likely built by some sort of contracted agents, but there really isn’t much evidence they were ill-treated. Maybe these contracted agents enjoyed cutting and lifting stone slabs to make inert, functionally useless monuments for the immortal glory of their leaders! Also, they were paid in beer. That’s an ideal condition for you millennials, am I right? Payment in beer? It was even technically micro-brewed!
Well. I think you’ll agree that the technological marvel of the pyramids is worth a certain amount of human suffering. But before we leave, I do want to touch on the mythic part of the story. If you go by the biblical legend, then 400 years of sensible partnership between the Egyptians and the Hebrews were shattered by the unauthorized Exodus. Even if these—let’s call them foreign guest workers—were treated somewhat unfairly, was it really necessary to hurl Pharaoh and all his soldiers and chariots into the sea? Surely, if both sides had sat down and really listened, they could have reached some kind of practical compromise. Instead we have this myth—this terrible, misguided myth—that it’s perfectly okay for workers to just walk away en masse from a job they don’t like. I hope you’ll understand how dangerous and destructive this story really is.
Hold your questions to the end, please! We’ve got an appointment in Rome.
(Rapid whirring, and more glowing watercolors—a bump of inertia, fading into bright, dusty sunlight)
We’ve arrived at the Theatre of Pompey, the Roman senatorial chamber. Even with your limited, touchy-feely education, you’ll probably recognize the death of Caesar. Ouch! Yikes! That sure is a lot of knives!
You may be surprised I’ve brought you to this particular point in time. Wasn’t the death of Caesar one of the events that signaled the end of Rome’s already limited democracy? And how, you may be asking, could the end of a democracy count as a victory for centrism? Well! I’ll tell you. The transition to empire—under the hand of Augustus—brought a much needed end to a period of populist unrest. As citizens of the 21st century, we would obviously prefer democracy, but sometimes people need to be ruled by strongmen rather than give way to the chaos of civil disorder. If you look closely at the early Roman empire, it was really a lot “freer” than many of our so-called current “democracies.” Citizens enjoyed civil discourse and open inquiry—in fact, Augustus was so committed to the art of civility that he exiled poets for writing crude, impolitic verse! And on top of that, he really unleashed the creative/destructive capabilities of the Roman Empire. The Romans moved fast and broke things; they conquered a great deal of the globe, spreading the light of Western civilization and progress—
Yes, you in the back—you keep waving your hand, even though, as I said, I’m not taking questions at this time—
Ok—you want to know if we’re going to cover any events from the point of view of the Near East, sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia, South Asia, or the Americas before Columbus? Let me say, right here and now, that the planet is full of noble civilizations with vast and complex histories which we fully respect, absolutely. We’re totally committed to racial equality, here at SYSTEMIC. You can believe us, because we keep insisting on it.
(More whirring, and glowing light. The Tour Guide starts speaking before the image resolves.)
In fact, our next stop takes us to Syria. The year is 1098… now, you might say that the Crusades were a violent, shameful historical period. But it’s important to hear both sides—that’s not an ideology, incidentally, just good common sense. While we deplore the terrible violence of the Crusades, we have to remember that the West enjoyed many social and technological innovations as a result of the invasion, so really, we have to take the bad with the good.
I’ve asked—I’ve really asked you more than once, and—hey, let’s show some respect here! Let’s be polite, ok? Let’s hold all questions and comments to the end, please!
Obviously, a certain degree of violence is necessary. All human beings are inherently selfish and tribalistic after all! But if you look at the Crusades, you see a beautiful moment of unity—the Christian West, uniting in common cause against the terrible threat of people living peaceably on their own lands. Who knows what would have happened if the West hadn’t intervened? All kinds of terrible instability might have been unleashed—I mean, more than the instability that actually occurred. Plus, if you think about it, the Crusades could’ve been much more violent, much more depraved. Every situation could always be worse.
You see, a good centrist doesn’t see the glass as half-empty or half-full. A good centrist looks at a chalice half-filled with children’s blood and says, “Well, at least it wasn’t filled all the way!”
(more crosstalk, loud and heated but still inaudible)
You know: that’s the problem with you millennials. Your expectations are too high. If you want too much peace and happiness you’ll only be disappointed. Progress is a slow and steady tortoise. Not every civilization develops—or can be allowed to develop—at the same rate. Rationally, we have to accept that—
(talk grows louder)
All right! Let’s skip ahead.
(Loud machine whirring. The stage tilts dramatically, then rights itself. The windows clear, but they’re barred with graceful iron railings.)
We’ve arrived at the triumph of Reason. Paris, the 18th century. It’s the age of Voltaire, and witty repartee in exclusive salons. The birth of meritocracy. Why, if you were smart and ambitious enough, you too could rise up the ranks and participate in civil society, even if you were merely the son of a wealthy lawyer! Look in at the window—such elegance! Flowing wine and gilded wigs, the absolute attention to manners, the proper forms of things…
(tour guide sighs)
You want to talk about the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Of course. More identity politics. You know, this is the same attitude that led to the revolution. The age of Voltaire was an age of spirited questioning, of discourse and real progress. Liberal democracy was coming, but the people spoiled it. They weren’t willing to wait—
Because they were starving? You know, if you actually look at the numbers, I’ll think you’ll find that human mortality from deprivation actually decreased in Paris between 1788 and 1789 by a full 2%! Look at the numbers and tell me that isn’t progress!
Yes, and so what? What about Haiti? Surely the slaves—er, contracted agents—would have been freed eventually. If only they’d had the patience to wait for the proper historical moment—you know, there’s always a respectful time and place to bring up this sort of thing—
(crosstalk and muffled shouting)
Well! Obviously we need to put some funds into a Tour of Historical Politeness! I’ll contact our friends at Lockheed—but before that, we have one last stop. And after that—at the appropriate time—you can ask all the questions you like.
(This time, the machine thumps and roars. When the windows clear, the noises don’t stop.)
I’d hope to put this into proper context, but you millennials have short attention spans. So. Here we are, our last stop: November, 1989. The fall of the Berlin Wall. The greatest triumph in the history of centrism. In fact, it marked the end of history itself.
I know this concept is confusing, so bear with me. When the Berlin Wall fell, the grand utopian myths—the plans to shake up and destroy the world—died with it. From this moment forward, human civilization could only continue along the path of liberal democracy and muscular economic progress. Sure, we know there will be occasional setbacks. We’re experiencing one right now. But if you look at the grand overall data set, you’ll see the numbers trend in only one direction—up and up and up forever.
Look at the numbers! Fewer dead from war, illness, poverty, disease—
Well, yes, if your loved ones are among the dead, then I suppose—to repeat your colorful colloquialism—you “don’t give a shit about the math”—but the numbers remain the numbers. The facts remain the facts. And the facts clearly show that modern history is one slow steady climb toward better numbers.
(Crosstalk. The Tour Guide seems ill at ease —he keeps trying to interrupt, but the other voices drown him out.)
No, no, you don’t understand! You don’t have access to all the facts. If you look at the numbers you’d see that some mortal slippage is necessary. They’re debits on the cosmic balance sheet—
No, no, this isn’t an ideology! Communism, socialism, fascism—those are ideologies. Extremist utopian narratives… but centrism is in the middle, following the narrow, winding path of reason through the mountains of insanity… we aim to reduce the number of people who must necessarily die so that our most brilliant innovators can achieve—
Progress is always right! Progress can’t be disproven. If you just look at the numbers they’ll take away all your doubt, all your anxiety—even when people die unnecessarily, even when workers aren’t treated quite so ideally, you just need to keep faith in those glorious, ever-improving numbers!
History is over! Centrists are on the side of truth, and justice, and the spirit of inquiry, which leads us in only one rational direction—
(The shouting intensifies to the point where the Tour Guide can’t be heard. He appears desperate.)
Tour Guide: (briefly audible above the melee): Can’t you see it? Can’t you see there’s no more doubt, no more judgment, no more questions to be answered—
The machine whirrs to life. It groans as it returns to the present. As the curtain falls the Tour Guide screams:
That’s it! No more questions! No more questions!
This article originally appeared in our Jan/Feb 2018 print edition.
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