Watching William Gibson’s “No Maps for These Territories,” I found one brief moment in the film that resonated with a million other moments in time. The famous science fiction author wanted to describe his work and to explain why he has never seen himself as a visionary. He said we live in an incomprehensible present and his work attempts to illuminate it. His work brought light to better see the now rather than forecasting the future.
That might be a way to describe our work at the National Academy and our discussions on Politicolor too. Civic education has to share this concern for illuminating complexities in political life.
Gibson also said we are most comfortable living ten years in the past. We’re blind to the potential of the technology we have because we’re just getting comfortable with the technology of our past. In a 2003 interview with The Economist, Gibson quipped, “The future is already here–it’s just not evenly distributed.”
And it’s this relationship between now, the future and the past that leads us to David Brooks’ column in the New York Times this week, “Two Theories of Change.”
In a short opinion piece, Brooks compares the characteristics of the French Enlightenment led by Descartes to a British Enlightenment led by Hume and Burke. With one focusing on the power of reason and the other emphasizing its limits, “these two views of human nature produced different attitudes toward political change.” One theory pursues radical change with each society embedded in an “eternal now,” while the other advocates incremental change informed by the past.
And here the thoughts of a science fiction author and a New York Times journalist fuse together to provide an essential vantage point for understanding contemporary politics. Brooks writes:
We Americans have never figured out whether we are children of the French or the British Enlightenment. Was our founding a radical departure or an act of preservation? This was a bone of contention between Jefferson and Hamilton, and it’s a bone of contention today, both between parties and within each one.
Brooks suggests a style of change emphasizing modesty, gradualism and balance has emerged from this contest between the French and British Enlightenment in the United States. Gibson’s observation that we are all more comfortable with our past also suggests a fundamental discomfort with change. Have Americans ever been as radical as their political vitriol imagines them to be?