Imagine a time traveler from just 10 years ago. An ordinary person from the go-go 90s shows up at your doorstep a bit confused, and you naturally want to bring them up to date. You tell them how the Tech Bubble burst, how the election in 2000 went in Florida, and how we all watched the World Trade Center fall on live teevee. You go on to describe the war that has cost us $600 billion and counting despite being a humiliating failure, and let them know that we’re having massive failures of financial institutions that have everyone thinking about a Depression. You can tell them that New Orleans was nearly wiped out in a hurricane, and Detroit is gradually becoming a ghost town as GM teeters on bankruptcy.
How would your visitor react? Obviously, this would be too much for them to believe. The world that we all lived in just 10 years ago was one of unlimited possibilities in nearly every way. The simple story of what has happened would be over the top and unbelievable. You can say nothing but truth, but it’ll be too much for them.
In one of my favorite episodes of “Doctor Who”, the British sci-fi show that has been running off and on since 1963, a 1970s Tom Baker as Doctor is asked to prove that he is a Time Lord, a master of travel in time and space. He tells his inquisitor, “I was with the Filipino Army during the final assault on Reykjavik.” It’s clearly the most ridiculous thing that the writers could come up with, a statement absolutely over the top. But it was essential for the moment because travel across the frontiers of history means that you run into things that are simply unimaginable. Things go along just as you might expect for a while, and Bam! Everything changes. Only the outrageous will do to explain it.
We are crossing one of those wrinkles in time when everything changes and the outrageous becomes ordinary. This is either a terrible coincidence or the action of something else that has not yet been talked about, a force that has caused nearly every one of our institutions to fail simultaneously. I don’t believe in coincidences that are this powerful so there has to be a single force to explain it all (outside of Hurricane Katrina). This force is the end of the American Empire, a topic that I have written about many times before.
As our primacy in the world ends, we can expect a lot of things to go wrong. The first is that we go broke trying to keep things just the way they are, like the characters in Edith Wharton’s “House of Mirth”. We can also expect people who don’t like us to start messing with us just because they think they can. The terrible distraction this all causes takes our leaders’ attention away from what’s really going on at home, as they think they have other problems.
Please note that while I am sure the American Empire is falling, I see no reason why the United States of America can’t continue on just wonderfully. We’ll have to re-think our ability to do whatever we want and re-invent ourselves as we have many times. But there is no reason to think that we can continue doing what we are now. It doesn’t make any sense at all.
Imagine another time traveler, this one from 100 years ago. If Teddy Roosevelt were transported forward to today, what would he say? After all, he is often credited with the founding of the American Empire in the first place, so you might think that he’d want us to defend it. “We can only accomplish good at all,” he once said “by not trying to accomplish the impossible good.” In other words, we must have the sense of “Practical Idealism” that drove his administration. Is the American Empire, at least as we know it, really possible to maintain? I think TR would be appalled by what he would see today.
Thought experiments in time travel are always fascinating when you’re right on the edge of a major change. Imagine, for a moment, that we go forward into the future and have a look around. How will they bring you up to date? What utterly outrageous things might they have to explain? If we can think that through for a moment, perhaps we can help prevent them. Perhaps our hosts in the future won’t have to go totally over the top to explain things if we understand our goals, our ideals, and our limits.