James Chace

W.H. Auden called the 1930s the Age of Anxiety, although the Age of Disillusionment might have been more accurate. I believe that the new century may well usher in a new Age of Anxiety. By anxiety I mean a world in which we have somehow lost our bearings–both at home and abroad.

My students at Bard certainly seem bewildered, rudderless. Battles that they, or rather their older siblings, fought for sexual equality and multicultural disciplines have more or less been won, at least for the present. But a world without certainties is an anxious world, and certainties come when you have something to rebel against, some belief that there is a world elsewhere that can be seized and inhabited if you can find that world and then storm its ramparts.

The globalized economy that was supposed to bring to the world citizenry peace, or at least prosperity, turns out to be riven by inequality and subject to fits of violence (Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Chechnya, Indonesia, Afghanistan). Both at home and abroad the rich grow richer and the poor poorer. How long can the rich nations ride through the ghettos of the poor in closed limousines? Perhaps for a very long time–but the limos provide very little real security. With the resentful and neglected poor clawing at the windows, the occupants may find themselves very anxious indeed.

Franklin Roosevelt would have understood this. Early in World War II, when he set forth what he believed were the four freedoms that all peoples should enjoy–freedom from fear, freedom of worship, freedom of speech, and freedom from want–he did something extraordinary. “Freedom from want” was a commitment to a kind of global New Deal to provide for the wretched of the earth. In foreign policy this was revolutionary, extending the principles of domestic politics globally. Of course it was an aspiration that could not be met, but it reveals the interconnection between foreign and domestic policy that FDR believed would give the United States the moral leadership of the world, and in World War II and immediately afterward he was not far from wrong. If FDR, who was as much a realist as an idealist, governed us today … I have to leave that sentence unfinished. Machiavelli in 1513 looked back on the golden age of Florence, when Lorenzo de Medici–il Magnifico–held sway, and lamented the parlous times into which his city-state had fallen. He then wrote a handbook for princes that ended with an appeal to God to send down a savior to restore the glories of his land. Things here are not so bad as they were in Florence at the turn of the 15th century; on the other hand, I don’t see a new Lorenzo in our future. Nor an FDR.

It is sadly ironic that the United States, at the apogee of its power, should be turned in on itself. The anti-internationalism of Congress, which refuses to pay our back dues to the United Nations and denies monies to the International Monetary Fund while exerting its energies to impeach the president for low crimes and misdemeanors, is a historic error of staggering proportions. It is a tragedy and a comedy in one, and a criminal repudiation of the Rooseveltian legacy.