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Now What?
December 2, 2009  |  by Michael Anft

(page 5 of 7)

Yash Gupta: Don’t you think part of it is also a function of the unequalness in the distribution of resources, of wealth?

Michael Vlahos: Oh, yeah.

Nathan Connolly: It’s a scary thought because when you follow that formula to its logical conclusion, it only leads to the prospect of there actually being domestic terrorism in the United States. In terms of your question about 20, 30, 40 years, I think the police state of the United States is going to have to develop a really sophisticated arm for dealing with increasing despondency coming from people who are structurally disempowered and disenfranchised.

Margaret Moon: There’s a great cover on The Economist magazine from earlier this year that reframed a famous picture from the French Revolution, and it was relating the notion: Is our public about to revolt? It reminded me that domestic terrorism, or what we call terrorism, can also be revolution. That terrorism/revolution balance is always a little bit unclear to me, but is that what we’re waiting for?

Nathan Connolly: Yeah. Right now it’s just called crime. [Laughter]

Chi Dang: When you were talking about networks, I was thinking that probably we could learn from biological systems to solve some of our issues globally. We’re really a growing organism with all these networks, and I still think that government will have to play a role in them. And if the governments are chosen correctly, they should serve as our nervous system to really make sure that the organism is synchronized. These pockets of terrorist activity parallel cancer cells. They kind of want to go rogue because they want to disregard everybody else for their own sake. I think there is a role for government to really synchronize this growing organism.

Michael Vlahos: Our military is barely able to function and manage the situation it has now. The same is true of government as a whole. People can run all of the systems of systems that have been created, but I don’t know how really adaptable they are. The problem with government generally is it can’t seem to get anything done. It’s not the same kind of government that you saw during the Great Depression, for example.

Michael Anft: Where are the centers of power going to be in 30 or 40 years—whether they are based on this national model we currently have of government or not?

Global Power Center

Michael Vlahos: India and China will reach their full maturity as economic powers, maybe Brazil as well. And the U.S. is on a kind of a long, slow descent. If you throw in the kicker of an increasing crisis emerging from all of the factors put together, then the best-situated place to ride out that crisis is North America, and possibly northern Europe.

Yash Gupta: I think the power issue is going to be much more clustered. There will be energy-based clusters, where power resides. There will be human resource clusters or innovation clusters that will create some power structures. So, the days of what we used to call United States, Europe, Japan—that model of power structures is no longer going to be valid. What will emerge will be based primarily on what the society values.

Michael Vlahos: Richard Florida has this nice thesis of clusters, nodes of cities. And that really replicates what Aristotle said about the Mediterranean. He said we’re like frogs around the pond. If you look at Roman and Greco-Roman Antiquity, it was all a network of cities. Those cities were the most highly valued thing in that world. That’s true now—cities are where everyone wants to live. The people who don’t live in the cities, even in the U.S., are more and more left behind. They’re kind of abandoned.

Nathan Connolly: Cities are going to maintain a certain kind of spatial significance. You might want to talk about how land and space aren’t going to matter because of all these other networks, but land is the absolute third rail in American conversations and also in these geo-political conversations. If there’s ever going to be a kind of shift at all, we’re going to have to radically rethink the way that we talk about land and the purpose that it serves. We’re going to have a lot of movements that are coming out of the so-called Third World that are going to be about land justice. We’re going to have movements coming out of the First World that are going to be about land justice. This land question is going to come back in a major way and crystallize how we talk about injustice.

Margaret Moon: So, if we’re forced to see beyond our current boundaries, how do we approach that question of justice if it’s not the United States’ idea of legal justice? If it’s some broader notion of justice as fairness, how do we do it?

Nathan Connolly: Partially we have to be honest about what government actually does. To continue with the biological metaphor, you need to have a strong skeleton to have a functioning organism. And I think infrastructurally the government’s role is still going to be very significant. We need to empower the government in that way, to provide support for the kinds of programs that help the poor and not having that idea be like a four-letter word.

Michael Vlahos: Americans have a civil religion and it is considered un-American to be pessimistic. Everyone who makes a speech that has difficult things in it will always say, “But in the end, I remain an optimist.” I’m neither optimistic nor pessimistic. My role is to be a strategist. I tend to make assessments without these religious considerations coming into play. However, I have to say Americans have a huge apocalyptic streak that comes from the great awakenings and from Calvinism, and it is very intense. The point I’m trying to make is we have already transformed our relationship to the wretched of the earth as an us-versus-them situation. And so Americans are much less interested in justice because they see in these teeming barrios and favelas the roots of terrorism and of the illicit. And the government is the major agent promoting this. They’re drying up the very sources of altruism that would make us care for others as though they were brothers. That is one of the most worrisome developments.



  1. Johns Hopkins Magazine – Letters: Spring 2010

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