James Carroll

A new year of pluralism

As the worldwide celebrations attest, a world of unity seems possible

A dancer performs in a New Year’s Eve celebration in Bali Monday.
A dancer performs in a New Year’s Eve celebration in Bali Monday.

During the recent celebrations of Tip O’Neill’s centenary, the late House speaker’s famous maxim was much repeated: All politics is local. In his day, O’Neill had wisely countered the elected big shot’s temptation to replace neighborhood concerns with national issues. But is O’Neill still right? What happens when the affairs even of a nation come to seem smaller, against an incipient commonwealth of the planet? We are crossing into a realm where the deepest meaning of civic connection is no longer defined by national citizenship. The dawning of this new year suggests the coming of a new maxim: All politics is global.

For most of a century, idealistic visions of international order have periodically seized the imagination — going back to the League of Nations after World War I. The League failed, and subsequent structures of transnational governance have met resistance. The United Nations has kept its footing, but barely. It remains contested even within the United States, its main sponsor; last month, fearing an infringement of sovereignty, Congressional Republicans successfully defeated a UN treaty protecting the rights of the disabled, despite its American provenance — and the advocacy of Republican icon Bob Dole. The transnational European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this past fall, but economic stresses have revived regional resentments of the kind that often sparked war.

It was almost half a century ago the planet Earth was first seen from the moon as a fragile blue sphere devoid of national boundary markers. Hope dawned for an unprecedented political solidarity. It did not happen.


But politics follows culture. Government structures follow the way people live. This New Year’s offers an instance of a profound change in the human situation. At the turn of the millennium more than a decade ago, television redefined the annual spectacle, transforming the turning of the calendar into a universally shared experience. Now, far flung images of the midnight celebration are broadcast in sync with the planet’s rotation, from Sydney to Singapore to Moscow to Madrid to London — and only then to New York.

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For America, New Year’s has become an unmistakeable reminder that Times Square is no more the center of the world than Tiananmen Square or Red Square or Tahrir Square — or, for that matter, the Gangnam district of Seoul. Just as Guy Lombardo gave way to the recently deceased Dick Clark, that perennial teenager gave way this year to the South Korean phenom named PSY. His “Gangnam Style” music video just topped a billion YouTube views — making it, in effect, the most resounding New Year’s anthem of all time.

That South Korea (which just elected its first woman president) is the epicenter of this cultural tsunami is telling. The received division between “the West and the rest” no longer applies. Because of revolutions in communication, technology, and transportation, the primal experience of place has changed. Smartphones mean that borders between “here” and “there” have become porous. Social networks have left nation-states behind in a way that the space-age fantasy of One Earth did not. People everywhere are beginning to experience people from everywhere else as neighbors — with startling immediacy and intimacy.

This is not diversity (which means allowing individuals into a collective whose center they may not share) but pluralism (in which every person is an autonomous center, respecting every other as such). When wired pluralism reaches critical mass, a new kind of energy is released, and traditional structures of organization (governments, but also religions, and systems of economic exchange) are rendered obsolete in a flash. That is happening.

There is danger here. A broader solidarity can spark local fragmentation, just as smartphones can condemn screen addicts to high-tech solipsism. If a transnational human commonwealth is indeed being born, it must be nurtured to protect hard-won democratic values, like minority rights. Economic justice must inform purpose more than ever. And while it’s great to think of folks in Seoul (and soon, one hopes, Pyongyang) as neighbors, what good is that unless the people right next door remain neighbors of the first order? All politics are local and global both.


But the human future is full of possibility — because wondrous, once unimagined possibilities have already been realized. Happy New Year’s.

James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.