By the turn of the twentieth century, it comes to be further understood that the power to establish a government accommodating to the perfectibility of man is also the power at rest in every item stocked on the shelves of the American dream. More had fitted his utopian design to the specifications of a common good; a system that didn’t work satisfactorily for everybody didn’t work decently for anybody. The sixteenth-century humanist proposition doesn’t sell shoes or chocolate candy. Adjusted to the terrain of a commercial consumer society, the envisionings of a utopian future dwell on the perfections of the self, its agents and apostles entrusting the projections of a better world to the mail-order catalogs and the department stores. Happy birthday at every point of sale. Buy the bicycle or the truck, wrap up the handbag and the dress, take possession of the deck chair or the parrot, and you begin the world all over again. The future as pork belly and campaign promise, as credit card, share price, diet drink, lottery ticket, golf club, eyebrow pencil, and travel destination. Who can leave home without it?
The market fluctuates. The nineteenth century’s optimistic lease on mankind’s inevitable progress toward an upwardly mobile future—moral, medical, and mechanical—expired in the blood-soaked mud of Passchendaele and Verdun. As the twentieth century proceeded to offer further proofs of man’s inhumanity to man—two world wars, the Great Depression, the Nazi extermination camps, Stalin’s prisons, Hiroshima’s fires—the face in the mirror of the future comes to resemble a portrait painted by Francis Bacon. More’s benign monarchy becomes the malevolent tyranny envisioned by Yevgeny Zamyatin; Aldous Huxley reformulates Paine’s brave new world as a despairing science fiction. By the middle of the century that America was proud to claim as its own, the dystopian views of the future had become as supportive of the ambitions of the state as the utopian views of the future were supportive of the economy. How else was the Pentagon to fund its Cold War arsenal of apocalyptic weapons unless with the sighting of a future appropriate to their use?
Over the last fifty years, the picture of the future has changed often enough to become recognizable as a fashion statement. I’m old enough to remember a future that was merry and bright, everything coming up roses, men on the way to the moon, and the rain in Camelot falling only after sundown. President Kennedy in 1961 extended Tom Paine’s birthday message to every other country in the world, so sure of America’s holdings in and on the future that it could afford “to pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, or oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.” I’m also old enough to remember, a year later, New York City schoolchildren being advised to hide in broom closets and under desks in the event of the arrival, said to be imminent, of Soviet nuclear missiles on their way north from Cuba.
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