Coming Soon: The 21st Century

Today’s must-read is E.J. Dionne’s Washington Post op-ed, Coming Soon: The 21st Century.  Just as the 70s didn’t really begin until the winding down of the Vietnam War in 1972, this century is going to begin a little later than scheduled.

Some thought the new century may have begun with 9/11, but as Dionne points out, the way we made sense of that calamity was with old 20th century ideas like totalitarianism, fascism, and quasi-nation-states.

It was a dangerous and self-defeating set of illusions. Our battle with the terrorists is difficult precisely because it doesn’t fit into the familiar categories. It grows out of struggles within Islam over which we have little control — between Shiites and Sunnis, between modernizing and reactionary forces, between old regimes and new contenders for power.

The shortcomings of applying 20th century ideas to contemporary problems highlights “the urgency of disenthralling ourselves from dated ideas.”

So, too, does the rise of a new architecture of power in the world with the emergence especially of India and China. Fareed Zakaria says his book “The Post-American World” is not “about the decline of America,” even if its catchy title suggests otherwise, but he’s right to think anew about American influence.

What should fall is another illusion, the idea that the United States is the world’s “sole remaining superpower.” This notion weakened us because it suggested an omnipotence that no nation can possess.

By shedding this misapprehension, the United States could restore its influence. We could rediscover the imperative of acting in concert with others to build global institutions that strengthen our security and foster our values.

Dionne argues the world’s economic problems also merit concerted action.

What Dionne is pointing to is the need to imagine a new political topography, a new position for the United States in an interconnected world. This is a philosophical project, not just an empirical one of drawing up new treaties and alliances.  Relationships follow up on our mental images and self-conceptions. We in the United States need to start imagining ourselves as partners and co-creators of a more just, peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable world.  If we are going to be world leaders, we are going to have to lead with moral authority and not brute might.

If Al Qaeda has shown us anything it is that the American “bully on the block” (Colin Powell’s term for the U.S. at the end of the Cold War) is powerless before more insidious and diffuse physical power.  If we stay on the page of power as might, we are going to remain in peril.  That power might have worked in the 20th century, but it is increasingly impotent in the 21st.  America’s new power, power that can be shared with all others, will have to be the moral kind where we move away from realist notions of self-interest and self-preservation and towards normative ones of justice and right.

George Will’s Paranoia

Someone please help me out.  Why is George Will obsessed with the possible return of the Fairness Doctrine?  Who are the “reactionary liberals” he fears who want to reinstate the doctrine that called for a balance of perspectives on the publicly-owned airwaves?

Because liberals have been even less successful in competing with conservatives on talk radio than Detroit has been in competing with its rivals, liberals are seeking intellectual protectionism in the form of regulations that suppress ideological rivals. If liberals advertise their illiberalism by reimposing the fairness doctrine, the Supreme Court might revisit its 1969 ruling that the fairness doctrine is constitutional. The court probably would dismay reactionary liberals by reversing that decision on the ground that the world has changed vastly, pertinently and for the better.

Until the Reagan administration extinguished it, the doctrine required broadcasters to devote reasonable time to fairly presenting all sides of any controversial issue discussed on the air. The government decided the meaning of the italicized words.

Now that cable and the Internet have supplanted the airwaves, there could hardly be a rationale for reinstating it anyway. But Will devotes today’s column to dredging up the history of the fairness doctrine; hurling epithets at liberals: reactionary, illiberal, worrywarts; and getting all worked up about the specter of liberals trying to censor public discourse.

some liberals now say: The problem is not maldistribution of opinion and information, but too much of both. Until recently, liberals fretted that the media were homogenizing America into blandness. Now they say speech management by government is needed because of a different scarcity —- the public’s attention, which supposedly is overloaded by today’s information cornucopia.

Honestly, there’s surely a progressive agenda for media reform. Just go to the Consumer Federation of America’s communications page or the Consumers Union media page and see some of what is on it.  But if you type “fairness doctrine” into either of their search engines, you’ll get nothing back calling for the return of the fairness doctine.  It’s simply not part of the agenda.

That was a policy that made sense during an analog, broadcast era; not one that makes sense in an era of digital media.

Surely I’m missing something.  George Will may be wrong but he’s not stupid.  What is he all worked up about?