What do you call the end of the end? (the world since the Cold War)

I think a lot of the angst in the English-speaking world, from Trump to Brexit and everything in between, comes from the disillusionment that inevitably followed the unwarranted optimism of the early 21st century, by which I mean since 1989.

For those who don’t follow history, generally scholars divide the modern era into a long 19th century, stretching from the French Revolution to the end of WWI; a short 20th century, from the inter-war period to the fall of the Berlin Wall; and from thence the 21st.

The end of the Cold War was a big deal. A really big deal. It basically brought to a close — as far as we know, since history is never finished — roughly a thousand years of absolutely brutal intra-European conflict that, thanks to the post-Columbian conquests, eventually spread around the globe. At the same time, the Western economy rebounded, the internet was born (and fed the telecommunications revolution), and smart people everywhere had a sense that humanity had turned a corner, that we’d narrowly avoided thermonuclear holocaust and were on a path to — well, if not utopia, at least something better.

You saw this in the books of the time, which are a direct reflection of the latest intellectual fads. A whole spate came out declaring the “end” of everything: Fukuyama’s “The End of History and the Last Man,” Horgan’s “The End of Science,” and on and on. (“The End of…” was as popular a book title in the 90s as “The Girl…” is now — The Girl on the Train, The Girl with All the Gifts, Gone Girl, etc.)

On 9/11/2001, history fought back. War returned as a way of life. Capitalism started to wobble — from Enron and WorldCom to the housing collapse. Environmental decay escalated, as seen by Hurricane Katrina and the Fukushima disaster. Even the seemingly benign internet turned from a beacon of the future to a means of stalking children and invading our private lives. More recently, we’ve discovered our racial woes have not, in fact, been quietly improving, despite every formal prohibition known to man.

These days, sovereign debt is soaring, the middle class is shrinking, and democracy itself is on the wane, experienced acutely in the U.S. — from the resurgence of gerrymandering in the late 90s, to the Patriot Act, to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision — but also globally in, for example, the uncertain accomplishments of the Arab Spring, which reversed the revolutionary trend toward democracy seen since the collapse of the Iron Curtain.

It’s easy to pick a couple of bogeymen and elevate them to Cause status. And those on the Right are not the only ones guilty of that. But really, it’s not that things are terrible — from the standpoint of history. It’s that they ebb, and if you don’t put effort in, they flow as well. Right down the drain. We never should have been quite so optimistic in the first place.

Not that optimism isn’t useful. Like democracy, it’s better than any of the alternatives. But it needs to be tempered by the phantoms in our basement, the cackling imps of human nature that hide under our hearts, the ones no one wants to believe are inside them (and not just everyone else).

In the old days, we called it the devil. What we need now is a new narrative, a persistent totem that reminds us, continually, what paves the road to hell, and that meaning well and doing good are not the same.