And there came a pharaoh who knew not Joseph

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The New York Times’ Opinion section is ending the year with a series of essays called “Turning Points.”

In one essay, “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah encourages people to work together, to not let ourselves be divided — by politics, mainly, but also by passion. (“America, I’ve found, doesn’t like nuance,” he writes at one point. You bet, Mr. Noah.) Keeping people divided was what worked to keep the powerful in power in his native South Africa; it works here, too, and it may be working better than ever.

And then there’s Francis Fukuyama, he of “The End of History” fame. He admits the failures of the cosmopolitan class, who ignored globalism’s disruption at the expense of its promise. His hope is that the ruling classes in Western democracies “fix damaged institutions and … better buffer those segments of their own societies that have not benefited from globalization to the same extent.”

I wish I could be optimistic about that.

Instead, I’m thinking of a post Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall wrote over the summer and then reposted about a week ago.

“This Is Not the Natural State of Things,” it was headlined, and within, Marshall riffed on a tweet he saw from writer John Scalzi.

Marshall observes that the world that existed between 1945 and 1980, and to a lesser extent from 1989 until perhaps 2001 (or maybe 2008), was the exception, not the rule:

As John (Scalzi) says, the horror of autocracy is diminishing as the living memory of World War II drifts into oblivion. But it’s not just autocracy. It’s the world of cycles of killing, ‘high fear’ rather than ‘high trust’ patterns of international relations and domestic accord that we take for granted as the natural order of things but most definitely are not.

I agree with this. The 1914-1945 era was perhaps the most brutal period in recorded history: two world wars, tens of millions dead, totalitarian regimes dominant in Germany, the USSR and other countries. (I’ll set aside the terror of the Mongols, which was only stopped thanks to a death at home.) The Western leaders of the postwar era set about creating alliances to rebuild Europe and counter the Soviets; at the same time, many created safety nets in their countries, providing healthcare and a minimum level of sustenance. Unions were at their height; economies boomed. The idea was that the world wasn’t going to make the same mistakes again.

There were down stretches — the 1970s oil crises, Cold War brinksmanship, the never-ending Middle Eastern wars — but, though the Bomb hung over everybody’s heads, the system generally worked.

In the United States, the era of consensus was splintered by race and then Vietnam, but it, too, held up. It was enough to make Fukuyama write “The End of History” and then seem prescient when the Warsaw Pact collapsed soon after.

These days, though, Fukuyama seems as wrong as he can be. Which brings me back to Marshall and Scalzi: the era of consensus is pretty much over. The UK had Brexit, the hard right is rising in Europe, autocrats such as Vladimir Putin are exercising their power and we’ve got Donald Trump. Without memory of the Depression and World War II, there’s plenty of room to make the same mistakes again.

“Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph,” says the Bible in Exodus 1:8, telling the story of how the once-welcomed Israelites were suddenly the enemy. Times had changed.

And so they are again.



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