Lessons For The Future

Two diplomats, two journalists and a zombie expert speak of wisdom gleaned from the past—and why we need to carry it forward.
By | Jan 18, 2021
2021 January/February

Max Brooks

We Must Embrace Creativity

Max Brooks (Photo credit: Dan Winters)

When I think about the future, when I think about what we’re facing, I think about my own past. The first military forum where I was invited to speak was at the presidential forum at the United States Naval War College. I felt like the dumbest guy in the room until I heard someone else speak. This guy was so full of himself; he went to Yale and taught at Harvard, and he was an adviser to the then-president. So he knew what he was saying. He was a very smart man. And yet, he said the dumbest thing anyone could have said in a forum discussing future scenarios: “That would never happen.”

How can anyone say that? How can anyone think that? Forget about 9/11. There was also the post-collapse of the Soviet Union and a whole world order that we had assumed would be with us as long as capitalism. “That would never happen.” That is the most dangerous phrase that we can think of nowadays because it is the most dangerous thinking. In the times we live in, unpredictability and change are two constants. And for us to survive this present, and to teach our children to survive the future, we need to be as mentally agile as our homo sapien brains will allow. In order to be agile, we must embrace creativity. And that doesn’t just mean coming up with good ideas. That’s only the beginning. Ideas must be nurtured. They must be championed. They must be defended. Because an idea without champions is a flower in winter, and it will die.

So we must look to the future. We must look to this constant change. We must always be nimble. We must always be imagining new scenarios and new ways to confront them, and then imagining new ways to communicate these ideas. Because, in a democracy, great ideas don’t work if you don’t reach the voter and the taxpayer. So new ideas, new ways of thinking, creativity in all of its forms must be the new normal. We cannot afford to think inside the box anymore because whether we realize it or not, that box burned down a long time ago.

Max Brooks is the best-selling author of World War Z, The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks, and most recently, Devolution. He is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point, New York. Brooks is the recipient of Moment’s 2020 Creativity Award.

Thomas Friedman 

America Is Losing Its Cognitive Immunity

Courtesy of Thomas Friedman

Let me just say a few words about our own industry, or my own industry, these days, which is facing the greatest crisis that I’ve seen in my 40-year career. And that crisis is contributing to our political crisis. The days when we had three national networks that everybody watched, and a few mainstream newspapers, and every state had one sort of reliable big city newspaper that operated on the same editorial rules…those days are long gone.

Today we have a few mainstream media outlets. We also now have mainstream media outlets that are becoming highly partisan politically. And we have a welter of websites emerging and individuals offering news on Facebook and Twitter with virtually no standards whatsoever. As a result, we’re losing our cognitive immunity as a country. A country has physical immunity; it also has cognitive immunity—the ability to sort out facts from fiction. But that is hard these days when you have such an open system operating on so many different standards and increasingly on no standards at all. This is an urgent crisis because what it’s doing is attacking the two pillars of democracy: truth and trust. Without truth, we have no agreed pathway forward. And without trust, we can’t walk down that pathway together. Certainly, all of this was amplified by a president who deliberately undermined truth and trust. But it will be undermined going forward as well, because what’s happened as a result of the last four years, both Trump’s behavior and changes in my industry, is that the stigma against lying has been lost.

Without truth, we have no agreed pathway forward.

People lie freely now; they lie without stigma. They lie without hesitation, and worse, lying and enraging people has actually become an industry. It’s become a business. In fact, it has become such a big business that I fear in a few years it will be part of our GDP report. Car sales went down this quarter, but lying has grown 20 percent year after year. This is a national emergency. We need to be establishing norms and standards going forward. I hope we can do that under a new presidency that restores the stigma to lying, that calls out lying and calls out businesses and social networks that use their platform to deliberately enrage and divide us in order to keep us addicted to them. This is code red. There will be no democracy in the long term without it. There is no democracy without truth or trust. I’m glad there are organs out there like Moment that still abide by the old rules, the old standards. Not only do they abide by them, but they also celebrate and elevate them. God bless Moment for that.

Thomas L. Friedman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and columnist for The New York Times; he has also served as the paper’s bureau chief in Beirut and Jerusalem. 

Madeleine Albright

Democracy Should Not Be Taken For Granted

Courtesy of Madeleine Albright; Photo by Lauren Bulbin

I was nearly 60 years old when I learned of my family’s Jewish background. And I’m very glad now to know the truth. It has prompted me to learn more about my family who perished in the Holocaust and to begin to pay their memory the honor it is due. It has allowed me to feel a closer connection to the Jewish community, whose accomplishments I have always admired. And it has added a new and intensely personal dimension to my thinking about world affairs, especially about the importance of America standing up to evil and working on behalf of liberty and human rights. As a child of Europe, I learned early in life that there is much evil in the world, but I also learned early about a country on the other side of the ocean, where freedom was cherished, and freedom’s allies helped and defended it.

Moral courage is not just some abstract quality; it is a job description of the United States and of our people, including each of us.

More than 70 years have passed since I first came to these shores, but I have not forgotten the fundamental lessons taught to me by my parents. And that is to honor and value liberty and never to take democracy for granted. It may be a cliché to suggest that to whom much is given much is expected. But if we believe that children everywhere should be taught to respect one another and not to hate on the basis of creed, color or ethnic background; that bigotry can be defeated when people come together to teach and learn the truth; that the rights of any should be of concern to all, and that the phrase “Never Again” is a sacred commitment, then we will understand that moral courage is not just some abstract quality. It is a job description of the United States and of our people, including each of us.

Madeleine K. Albright is a professor, author, diplomat and businesswoman who served as the 64th secretary of state of the United States. She is the recipient of Moment’s 2020 Women in Power Award.

Michel Martin

We Must Hold the Line on Decency

lessons profile photo

Michel Martin (Photo credit: Steve Voss)

It’s been a long few years for people who take their marching orders from facts—what they see in front of them—and not from people in power who want to tell you what you saw and expect you to repeat it. But we know it’s never been easy to speak truth to power. There’s a reason that so many of our sacred texts and cherished folktales, and even our cherished voices, speak of the need to tell the truth despite the cost: To tell pharaoh, to tell the emperor, to tell the king, to tell the president, that he has no clothes, that there is a higher authority than his word. It’s never been easy, and it has cost many people their lives, not to mention their comfort. And we know this all too well.

But here’s what concerns me today. It’s never been easy to speak truth to power, but at least in the world that we live in now, it’s easier to speak truth to power than it is to speak truth to friends. Because what we’ve seen in recent years and in the last four years especially, is an unwillingness to challenge our own. And the surveys tell us that we are more divided and tribal in this country than we have been in decades.

Let’s talk about the other major story that we’ve been covering these last few months—the ongoing fight over racial equality and racial justice. Three-quarters of registered voters who support Biden said in the summer that racial and ethnic inequality would be very important to their vote. Just 24 percent of Trump voters agreed. And the two sides are miles apart when it comes to general questions about race too. Over the summer, 74 percent of Biden voters said it’s a lot more difficult to be a Black person in this country than to be a white person, which is a view shared by, wait for this, 9 percent of Trump voters.

In the world that we live in now, it’s easier to speak truth to power than it is to speak truth to friends.

So think about how hard it is to bridge these divides. The bottom line is that this is a country where political party has become an all-consuming identity, which is very strange in a nation that prides itself on individualism and thinking for yourself. It seems as though that is a skill that many of us have lost. And at a time like that, it strikes me that the people we most need to speak truth to are our friends, because they are often the only people we’re actually talking to.

And what does that mean? It means we need to have hard conversations with the people who are listening to us, in our own circles, and to try to avoid becoming Amen corners of our own. And I know this is hard, especially when you feel that you or your side is under attack and the other side, as it were, isn’t playing by the rules as we understand them, but there is no more truth if we refuse to accept the truth, and there are no more facts if we cannot accept facts. There is no chance we can arrive at a common understanding of the truth if we don’t hold ourselves to that standard.

Epithets and name-calling have become the lingua franca of our national discourse. And I will say it, yes, I’ll say it. It seems that one side has become more attached to this than the other, but that is all the more reason why those who disagree with this have to hold the line. It strikes me that many of us who believe in this kind of discourse of civility and calmness and fairness are often viewed as corny or as old-fashioned. But holding to values is not old-fashioned. Holding to values is exactly what it is. That doesn’t mean we have to be blind to the techniques of storytelling, to the modern ways that we want to get our stories out. But it does mean we have to hold the line.

We have to hold the line on civility. We have to hold the line on fairness. That doesn’t mean we can’t rethink some of our methods. It doesn’t mean that we can’t rethink some of our texts. It doesn’t mean we have to give into a both-siderism, where both sides are considered equally true or of value when one side is not telling the truth. But it does mean we have to hold the line on our values, even when other people don’t think it’s fashionable, even when people might think it’s corny, even when people might think that we’re sort of out of step. Because it starts with words. It starts with all of our words.

The arc of the moral universe may bend to justice, but that arc seems really long right now, which is all the more reason why those of us who believe in these values of truth cannot rest and cannot relax. We have to hold the line on decency. We have to hold the line on truth, and we have to hold the line on science. And we have to hold the line on facts because if we don’t, well, that future is just too bleak to contemplate.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of NPR’s All Things Considered. She is the recipient of Moment’s 2020 Robert S. Greenberger Journalism Award. 

Emily Haber 

We Will Fight Racism & Anti-Semitism Tooth & Nail

Courtesy of Emily Haber

After liberation from Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel became one of the most powerful and charismatic voices against forgetting. He kept speaking about the unspoken truth, the painful truth, about the suppression of memories. He would go on to cofound Moment Magazine in 1975, and a decade later to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Remembrance requires education. No one knew this better than Elie Wiesel. He was a master educator and spared no effort to meet with students to share his story. Educating the younger generation is key. It needs to be center stage in all remembrance efforts.

Much has been done in education, remembrance and reconciliation. And yet, for all our vigilance, it’s clear we must do more. There’s still a wide knowledge gap about the Holocaust that we need to fill. Jews in Germany and elsewhere do not feel safe or respected. Anti-Semitism and racism are on the rise. This is unacceptable, and Germany has taken action. Last year, my country put forth a whole set of new measures to combat anti-Semitism and hatred. Speaking at a celebration marking the 70th anniversary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany this September, the chancellor made clear that criminal law is on the table. We will fight anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia tooth and nail. They have no place in our societies.

Emily Haber has served as the German Ambassador to the United States since June 2018. She is the recipient of Moment’s 2020 Human Rights Award. 

These remarks are adapted from Moment’s 45th anniversary gala and can be viewed in full at momentmag.com/gala.




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