Most of what we mean by progress in our “fast moving” world falls into a kind of James Bond gizmo category. Things that half a century back were issued to 007 by Q at the start of his mission are now available for $19.95 at Wal-Mart: A device no bigger than a cigarette lighter enables you to take top-secret photographs and then communicate directly with HQ as you’re escaping through the air duct. Alas, most of us aren’t secret agents, rappelling into the top-security Soviet facility and then skiing off the cliff and hoping the Union Jack parachute opens before the pursuing Russkies’ machine-gun ski poles gun you down. It would be exciting to see Anthony Weiner doing that. But instead he uses his super-secret spy camera to photograph his private parts and Tweet them to coeds.
Great! What else can it do? We were told the toppling of Mubarak in Egypt was the “Facebook Revolution.” It sounds so cool when you put it like that! But the old pharaoh’s gone, and his generals are in charge, as they have been to one degree or another since 1952, and the only difference is that this time round they’ve reached a modus vivendi with the Muslim Brotherhood on various issues from storming the Zionist embassy to female genital mutilation. A new Facebook on old-school clitoridectomy: That’s cutting edge, for sure.
In my book, I take an H. G. Wells time traveler, propel him forward from his home in 1890 to 1950, and then again from 1950 to our time. He would conclude, fairly rapidly, that the first half of the 20th century was the “fast moving” bit. Air travel went from Wilbur and Orville to biplanes to flying boats to transatlantic jetliners in its first 50 years, and then for the next 50 it just sat there, like a commuter twin-prop parked off Gate 27B at LaGuardia waiting for the gate agent to turn up. Yet that graduation ceremony in Vermont caused me to wonder if we’re not stuck in mid-century in a more profound sense: We have the attitudes not of the young capitalist who builds the assembly line for the mass-production automobile but of the elderly titan half a century later preoccupied with his memorial foundation to “effect social change worldwide.” Indeed, in its attitude to both foreign policy and domestic priorities, America operates less like a nation-state prosecuting its interests and more like one of those non-profit foundations funding various unwatchable offerings on PBS. A great nation can coast for a while on the accumulated inheritance of a glorious past. But, as the Wright brothers could have explained, gliding doesn’t really meet the definition of “fast moving.”