In the introduction to What Hath God Wrought, his contribution to the Oxford History of the United States, Daniel Walker Howe quotes an 1850 Methodist women’s magazine’s ecstasies over the telegraph: “This noble invention is to be the means of extending civilization, republicanism, and Christianity over the earth. It must and will be extended to nations half-civilized, and thence to those now savage and barbarous. Our government will be the grand center of this might influence. . . .” The magazine continued:
The beneficial and harmonious operation of our institutions will be seen, and similar ones adopted. Christianity must speedily follow them, and we shall behold the grand spectacle of a whole world, civilized, republican, and Christian. . . . Wars will cease from the earth. . . . Then shall come to pass the millennium.
Americans never change. A century and a half from now, historians will be able to dredge up quotations very like this from our own day, banging the same drums: The conflation of Christianity with civilization, specifically American republican civilization, and the corresponding hint that the rest of the world is divided into barbarians and semi-barbarians; the enthusiasm for “spreading democracy” (here republicanism); the faith in technology, which could be a plug for the World Wide Web; the religious tenor of the whole statement, reminiscent of Bush’s abortive “Operation Absolute Justice” campaign or the Obamessianism of 2008; the prediction of a technology-driven American globalization.
With the distance of history, though, we can hear the discord that mars the triumphalism: The sadly ironic invocation of the “harmonious” working of American institutions, a mere decade before the civil war; the more tragically ironic reality of two world wars within the following century, wars that sometimes put technology — the very same technology celebrated here as the path to peace — to murderous uses.
What ironic discord will historians of the next century hear in our celebratory flourishes about the Internet or HDTV?