Last night I went to a screening of O Brother, Where Art Thou? at Gold Medal Park in Minneapolis. I arrived late, picking my way through the hillside crowd until I found my friends.
Behind us, the downtown skyline lit up and scrolling vertical marquees advertised the current productions at the Guthrie Theater. Before us played a movie about the American South, inspired by an ancient Greek legend and made by two Jewish guys from Minnesota. Girls in hijabs rolled quietly past on bicycles. The new I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River towered in the distance, behind a blue-lit memorial to the people who died when the previous bridge collapsed in 2007.
As I was reflecting on the scene, an airplane flew overhead and my thoughts went back to the afternoon when I attended Larry Summers’s induction as president of Harvard University. With heads of institutions of higher learning from around the world gathered in Harvard Yard, a plane flew low overhead; when it passed by, the man in front of me burst into gasping tears. It was fall 2001, and the memory of 9/11 was fresh. Maybe he’d wondered whether the plane was going to hit us. I had.
I thought, last night, about how fragile this all is. People living together in peace, working for shared goals and resolving our differences through democratic discussion, able to trust that things won’t fall apart overnight — I’ve always taken that for granted. I don’t anymore. I know this could all change, and quickly.
As an avid reader of science fiction, I grew up believing in progress: that things weren’t just going to stay okay, they were going to get better and better. I assumed humans would survive to explore the galaxy. Now, I fear we won’t make it that far.
At one point in O Brother, the characters are washed up by the flooding of their valley as a hydroelectric dam is activated. “Yes sir, the south is gonna change. Everything is gonna be put on electricity and run on a paying basis,” says Ulysses Everett McGill. “We’re going to see a brave new world where they run everybody a wire and hook us up to a grid. Yes sir, a veritable age of reason.”
I looked up at the power lines towering over the park and thought about the potentially perilous cost of this grid. 2016 has been the hottest year ever recorded on Earth. The glaciers are melting, and the sea is rising. Fields are drying up. Soon, it could be hard for us to focus resources on anything but surviving what seems certain to become a cataclysmic change.
When things get bad, people get scared — and, often, make things worse. Relaxing in the park, people must have been feeling a lot of the same warm communal emotions a crowd in Nice felt when someone deliberately drove a truck into their midst, killing scores of people, including children who were there to watch the fireworks. Are the terrorist attacks working? Are we in terror?
America is on edge this summer, traumatized by a constant cycle of shootings and other attacks. There’s a way forward here: a way to a more tolerant community, where our bonds of mutual trust are strengthened rather than frayed. Can we find it?
Onscreen at the park, the Ku Klux Klan gathered. The community was looking to the white-hooded men “for protection,” declared their red-clad leader. “From darkies! From Jews! From Papists! And from all those smart-ass folks that say we come descended from monkeys! That’s not my culture and heritage!” The Klan members cheered, and their cross burned brightly. We all watched, silently.