Yesterday was the 90th anniversary of the end of World War I and the beginning of our own time.
What has always fascinated me about World War I was the fundamental change that this titanic futility worked in the way English-speaking people thought. It exploded the moral certainties that had propped up the middle-class order. Leaders couldn't lead; oppositions didn't oppose; and patriotism itself seemed only to point to the yawning graveyards of Ypres and Verdun.
"It reversed the Idea of Progress," writes the literary historian Paul Fussell in "The Great War and Modern Memory," the single best account of the war's cultural impact. No longer could people understand history as a reliable flow of improvement upon improvement. No longer would authority -- civic, religious or familial -- enjoy unquestioned its place in the great chain of being.
As we pass through our own, far smaller catastrophes today -- as our political and business leaders are again exposed for their martial incompetence and their suicidal gluttony, those colossal blunders of 90 years ago come once again into sharp focus.
Martial incompetence and their suicidal gluttony; well put.
In our own time, a cheap cynicism has been so fully assimilated by the governing class that the disenchantment is already there, incorporated into the orthodoxy itself. What distinguished the late conservative era, after all, was its caustic attitude toward the state and its loud expressions of disgust with the media.
The government was supposed to be the problem (as Reagan said 30 years ago, and Palin contended just this election season), and the media and the elites are causes of many of the problems society faces.
The treason-dreams of the Great War era have likewise changed their tone. During World War I, suspicion fell on those on the bottom of society -- recent immigrants, socialists and radical labor unions. Today, though, it is the elites who are said to pose the greatest threat: the multicultural college professors and the goo-goo liberals who always seem to want to read terrorists their rights.
Cynicism of this kind is something you can get out of any comic book, and now it has brought us to disaster. Disillusionment is something very different, and potentially very productive. The nation today stands disillusioned with its own cynicism and ready to try a little audacity.