Episode 117: The World Today or, “Too Soon?”

Friends, we’ve done it. We’ve reached the final episode of Season 1: The Big Picture of World History. Let me tell you, my original plan was to make six episodes. Six. One for each era in world history. But it turns out that a lot of things have happened over the last 12,000 years. Who knew?

So just as a recap: Global empires have risen and fallen twice. That’s the way we should understand political history. Ancient kingdoms grew into classical empires that fell apart into a period of relative chaos, when people tried to sort themselves out into a new type of organization. Some did this through religion – like the Islamic caliphates – others did it through trade – like the African kingdoms – and others never fully united back together again – like in Europe. China was always there, just trucking along, selling its stuff to the world.

Then the process started all over again. European kingdoms rose and came to dominate the globe during the age of industrialization and imperialism. And it all came crashing down in the 20th century thanks to a few world wars and independence movements in Asia and Africa. And throughout this process, the economy has continued to be more and more interconnected. Silk Road 1.0 fell apart but was reunited by the Mongols. Ocean trade began with just India and the Mediterranean, but then expanded to include the Atlantic and, then, the entire world.

So, the question I have for you is this: are we still in Unit 6? In my class, I divide the year into six units for the six eras of world history. But I’m not sure where to include the last 25 years. Are they part of the Late Modern Era that began in 1914 with World War I? The era that was known for nationalism, ethnic violence, and cultural clashes during the Cold War? I don’t know. I think we may be living in a new era. A Unit 7, if you will.

I think it’s possible that the last era ended around 1990 when the Soviet Union fell apart and the Internet became a thing. Or maybe it ended on September 11, 2001. Either way, I’m pretty convinced that we’re all living in a new era of world history. But the trick is that it will take a solid 50 years before we can look back and know for sure. It’s almost impossible to see the big picture when you’re experiencing it, but let’s do our best, shall we?

Act 1: The 1990s

Act 2: The 21st Century

Act 3: Future History

I want to end Season 1 with a thought experiment. Imagine yourself in 20 years. It’s 2038, Kanye West is the Emperor of New America, and you’re having a history textbook beamed into your consciousness rom your Apple iBrain. There will be a chapter about right now. There will be bold words for terms that we are currently creating. What will they be?

Think about it this way. The Library of Congress is currently preserving peoples’ tweets. The same organization responsible for preserving the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, is also cataloging every single public tweet. Not just the president’s. Yours, too. Every tweet, every Facebook post, every hashtag, is now a primary source that people in the future will use to understand early 21st century society. Graduate students in 500 years might write their thesis on the true meaning of “covfefe” or the influence of dabbing on American culture. It’s upsetting to think about.

If I’m betting, here are some people or events that are going on right now that I think will be bold words that my son will learn about one day in his history class.

In the section on the 21st century Civil Rights movement:

  • Bathroom Bills
  • Black Lives Matter
  • Colin Kaepernik
  • The Me Too Movement
  • Women’s March on Washington

In the section on post-Obama politics:

  • Hillary Clinton email controversy
  • March for Our Lives
  • Robert Mueller
  • Fake news
  • Anthony Scaramucci. Just kidding. But, man, he was fun while he lasted, right?

In the section on American culture:

  • Post-modernism. (In case you’re wondering, this is a set of values that emphasize quality of life over concern with material gain. Examples include preservation of the environment, promotion of universal health care and education, or all your friends wasting their college degrees working as yoga instructors because they want to “follow their passion.”)
  • Beyonce. That’s all we really need.

Let me reiterate this one last time, in a way that’s as preachy as possible. What’s our bold word that’s going on right now that we will have to answer for? Because people are going to judge us the way we judge Roman emperors, or conquistadores, or everyone in the 1930s. Is there some injustice happening that you’re ignoring? Or something that is just “the way it is”? When future generations ask us, why didn’t you do something about ______________, make sure you have a good answer.

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