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02/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Inaugurating a New Century?

According to the British historian Eric Hobsbawm in The Age of Extremes, the 20th century didn't truly begin until 1914. World War I, with its new technologies of violence and its effective termination of several empires, brought what Hobsbawm called the "long 19th century" to a close. Those with a more scientific bent might date the beginning of the 20th century to the first flight of the Wright brothers (1903) or the first transatlantic phone call (1915). If you prefer to think of the last 100 years as dominated by Hollywood and the global image factory, the 20th century began prematurely in 1896 when the first movie premiered in New York.

The profound changes that mark an era rarely correspond to a calendar's shifts. Even Jesus Christ came into this world several years before the millennial turning point to which he gave his name. In other words, an era dawns two ways, chronologically and metaphorically.

Our choices for the metaphorical dawn of the 21st century are rather bleak. Here are a few possibilities: the outbreak of fighting in Yugoslavia in 1991, the election of George W. Bush in 2000, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2001 report on the incontrovertible evidence for global warming, the attacks of September 11, the Iraq War, and last year's dizzying stock market crash.

If these events set the tone for this century, we are in deep trouble. We face a long economic decline, a slowly increasing heat wave, growing anarchy and violence, and lousy governance. As these trends converge, we face not the "perfect storm" but the "last storm." We're all living on borrowed time (which gives us the name of our epoch, according to a recent contest in The Nation).

But let's pretend that we've simply gotten off on the wrong foot with this century. In a friendly round of golf, if you make a lousy tee shot, you can declare a "mulligan" and do the shot over. We've certainly sent the ball into the woods this time around. So let's call a "mulligan" and start over.

And what better time for a new start than Inauguration Day 2009? Millions have descended on Washington, DC to witness something they didn't think they'd see in their lifetimes: an African-American president, a moment to be a proud American, or simply a measure of hope for the future.

In this excerpt from her poem Inaugural, part of the latest selection of Fiesta! pieces on the intersection of the culture and global issues, Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Kathy Engel captures the hopeful moment:

this is a time to intervene in matters

of bureaucratic pain and idiocy

and not accept the appropriate

a time to make small things matter

and imagine big things

this is a time to turn the faucet off

and rain poems

In an interview with fellow poet and Fiesta! regular E. Ethelbert Miller, Engel talks more about the inspiration behind her poem. "There are times, and perhaps this is one of them historically, when crisis leads to greatness," she says. "Perhaps these challenging economic times, along with the layers of possibility signified by Obama's leadership, will lead to rounder thinking. We live in abundance and act out of a sense of scarcity. Even in this crisis we are surrounded by abundance, just not shared abundance. At the same time, there is famine in Zimbabwe, occupation in Iraq and Palestine, chaos and uprootedness, unhealed wounds, displacement, and poverty in the Gulf Coast. Generosity can become pragmatic and be implemented by programs and policies. But it is a way of walking into the day. Fundamentally, the politics of generosity can't be separated from the politics of listening and empathy."

Much of the focus of Inauguration Day will naturally be on Barack Obama. He has become a symbol of a new beginning. And he is a remarkable person. But as environmental justice activist Van Jones points out in a recent New Yorker profile, we need to take another leap of imagination and perspective.

"I love Barack Obama," Jones told a group of high-school dropouts in New Bedford, Massachusetts. "I'd pay money just to shine the brother's shoes. But I'll tell you this. Do you hear me? One man is not going to save us. I don't care who that man is. He's not going to save us. And, in fact, if you want to be real about this -- can y'all take it? I'm going to be real with y'all. Not only is Barack Obama not going to be able to save you -- you are going to have to save Barack Obama."

What does it mean to "save" Barack Obama? At a basic level, this is a call for individual responsibility and accountability. Everyone must pitch in to pull the world back from catastrophe: participate in rebuilding communities, reduce energy consumption, engage in the democratic life of the country. This spirit of voluntarism draws on what Lincoln, in his first inaugural, called "the better angels of our nature."

But if we are truly going to make this Inauguration Day the defining moment of this century - and make a mulligan out of the horrors that have come before -- it requires something more. We have responded to calls for change. To "save" Obama, we must sustain these calls for change even as they are diluted into marketing jingles like IKEA's dispiriting Embrace Change campaign. We must gird ourselves for authentic transformation.

Closing Guantánamo, cutting a few nukes, withdrawing some troops from Iraq: these are important steps for America to take, but they are not enough. On this Inauguration Day of hope and inspiration, let's inaugurate not only a new president but something more profound: a new way of living on this earth. Only then can we save the 21st century from the shadows cast by September 11, global warming, and the economic crisis and make it truly a "people's century."

Crossposted from Foreign Policy In Focus.

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