The New Thinking

by Leon Wieseltier | January 27, 2011

One expects to discover, as one’s experience of the years grows great, that life is too short, but it is disagreeable to discover that life is also—I do not want to say too long, because only a fool would want the light to go out, but long enough for one to suffer the marginalization, and even the disappearance, of values and causes and of course people that one loves. The world does not care about anything forever. Its forward movement will not be broken. The relentlessness of time is a condition of progress, but even when it does not bring progress it is relentless. Sometimes the turnings can feel stupid, as when there seems to be no good reason for the falling away of things and understandings whose worth was only recently so proven. Time is not an argument. One feels at home in one’s universe when it concurs with one’s sense of what is significant, but the concurrence—be warned—is fleeting, the world will revolve again regardless of the merit of one’s belief and way of life, leaving one in a blue but perfectly honorable isolation. Sooner or later we are all minorities, except of course the opportunists—they have fancier names for themselves—who move with the scene. “Do Truth and Falsehood exist?” Cavafy wondered anxiously in 1902. “Or is it only the New and the Old that exist—with Falsehood merely being the old age of Truth?” I have watched ideals and traditions that I cherish—a certain sort of liberalism; a certain sort of philosophy; the speaking of Hebrew; easel painting; the joyful making of books; long sentences, and even the sound of a voice, in personal communications—fall into disrepute. (We all have such a list.) But there is dignity in the fugitive existence that those customs now lead: historical failure is not evidence of error, not at all. History rewards all kinds of nonsense. One learns to live with less external vindication; to find others similarly unreconstructed; to thrive a little out of step. And of course to watch the gaudy parade of new thinking.


We are living in an era of new thinking. I hear that it is almost unbearably exciting. You know the drill. Times have changed. Nothing is what it was. A revolution in life calls for a revolution in thought. The dustbin of history is filling up. And so on. It is worth observing, therefore, that new circumstances do not always call for new thinking. Sometimes the explanatory power of a prior concept survives into an altered situation; or else all concepts are merely expressions of their moments. And some of the historical thresholds that are supposed to have retired the received ideas—a new decade, a new century, a new millennium, a new generation—are meaningless chronological distinctions. New thinking would do better to seek a solid foundation not on new times but on new knowledge. The magnitude of scientific and technological discovery in our day certainly overwhelms the mind, and rains challenges upon what we have hitherto believed. The emergence of the controlling scientific metaphor of our era—the network—is only the most obvious sign of the upheaval in perspective. We are wanton paradigm-shifters. We should be careful, however, to match our answers to our questions. Non-scientific questions do not have scientific answers. Too much of our new thinking consists in an unwarranted scientism, as if the solutions to time-honored quandaries of morality and metaphysics simply await the attention of a few neuroscientists. And some of our intellectual freshness is just another round of indulgence in the cute and the counterintuitive, as in those anniversaries encoded in the Google logo: one day Cézanne’s birthday, another day the birthday of buckyball.


I have been reading a document of the new thinking. It is called How to Run the World and it is by the “brilliant, eloquent, well-connected, and charismatic” (so his publisher says) Parag Khanna, who sits at the New America Foundation, a hive of the new thinking that sometimes seems devoted to proving that really the best Beatle was Ringo. Khanna’s book is a parody of the newness binge. Diplomacy is over, it proclaims. “We just need to load new operating software onto our emerging global network.” That software he calls “mega-diplomacy,” which consists of “action-oriented networks.” This is “Generation Y geopolitics.” “Generation Y will own mega-diplomacy,” not least because “it subscribes to postmaterial values such as equality and ecology.” Mega-diplomacy, which “forces us to cast aside ideologies,” consists essentially in non-governmental individual and collective action abetted by the Internet and other technologies of linkage: best practices plus social media. In this way we will achieve “universal liberation through exponentially expanding and voluntary interconnections.” For “mobile phones and Internet are closing the gap between activism and uprising,” as Twitter did in Iran in 2009. (Really, he says this.) And “eventually, the Chinese authorities may respect and even follow Google’s unofficial motto: ‘Don’t Be Evil.’” (Really, he says this, too.) As an historical actor, the state is over. “Is statehood itself the problem?” Maybe “hybrid statehood” is the answer. No, the answer is “networks of resilient systems.” In any event, “everyone has a role in running the world.” And corporations, too, have a role in the “diplomatic-industrial complex.” For a tribune of the people, Khanna has an unattractive infatuation with elites. “Celebrities possess one of the core ingredients of diplomatic success: prestige.” That is how “Madonna has helped put Malawi on the map.” “Madonna cites her resilience and tirelessness as the reasons why she remains at the top of her game. Regular diplomats should learn from her staying power.” At the World Economic Forum in Davos, too, “everyone at the table is at the top of their game.” And the Clinton Global Initiative “produces the same aura of great consequence.” Also, “the WEF also embodies our postmodern age because it allows people to maintain the multiple identities they carry today. Bill Gates has appeared at Davos as Microsoft CEO and as head of the Gates Foundation at the same time.” You will have noticed that the new thinking is not without platitudes of its own: this dizzy and self-adoring book is an anthology of them. It is cool, but it is not serious. Who, surveying the dangers and the failures and the horrors of our world, the temptations of tribe and race and church and empire, would give up the old internationalism, and the power of the democratically regulated state, for this? Every generation, I suppose, has a right to get it wrong.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor for The New Republic. This article ran in the February 17, 2011, issue of the magazine.

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