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You are by nature an optimist, a happy idiot. No personal disaster or run of bad luck has ever shaken your faith that the march of time brings progress. You believe the wicked eventually get their due. You’re confident that truth will come to light. You’ve never doubted that a hundred years hence, the world will be a better place.
Until lately. Lately you’ve found yourself wondering if the end of civilization might be at hand, and you are not alone in your apprehension. Pessimism drifts in the air like a virulent pathogen, infecting multitudes. The media deliver daily reports of contemptible politicians and enraged mobs, religious fanatics and failed states, widespread unemployment and ecological catastrophe. A friend has been goading you to buy a gun and plenty of ammunition “before it’s too late.” (He owns more than thirty weapons himself: shotguns, hunting rifles, semi-automatic assault rifles, and an astonishing variety of pistols.) However you parse it, the future looks increasingly grim and Malthusian.
What happened? How did this collective despair displace the easy confidence of recent memory? The technological miracles of our enlightened age were supposed to banish ignorance and alleviate human suffering. It was only two decades ago that the Berlin Wall came down, prompting Francis Fukuyama to announce the triumph of Western ideals over the forces of tyranny, and proclaim that war had become obsolete. “What we may be witnessing,” Fukuyama famously gushed, “is no...