Gut feeling -- the look of the future
The future will not be homogenous. To people who recoil from pluralism, people who want everything to be the same as themselves and the same as it always was, the future just viscerally looks wrong, and deep down the future is what they're struggling to prevent.
Reading conservative websites as much as I do, it's impossible to avoid noticing a pervasive resistance to change and difference. Conservatism is saturated with anxiety about the growing acceptance and visibility of gays, about the declining dominance of religion (by which they mean Christianity), about the millions who find that marriage and reproduction do not suit them, about the growing numbers and confidence of non-white and racially-mixed people, about technology that makes information and communication too hard to control, about the prospect of socialist (I use the honest word) reforms that will liberate the poor from the raw struggle for survival and ultimately undermine the dominance of wealth.
It's not exactly fear of the different, it's more an endless stream of half-stated objections and pearl-clutching disapproval, and it isn't the wave of the future. Race-consciousness and religious fervor and befuddled anxiety about gay marriage just don't go with the world of the internet and nanotechnology and stem cells; they belong to the world of outhouses and megachurches and unbathed hillbillies swigging corn mash out of jugs with XXX on them. There are reasons why places like this are built in New York and Massachusetts and California rather than in states that keep trying to put creationism in the schools; on a broader scale, there are reasons why they're built in the US and Europe and Japan rather than in Pakistan or North Korea or Saudi Arabia.
Airplanes are hijacked by those who fear pluralism, but designed and manufactured by those who embrace it.
Take the most insular and conservative major culture in the world today -- Islam. Wherever hard-line Islam has triumphed, it has driven away (or scared into silence) non-Muslim minorities, struggled against non-Muslim influences from the outside or from the past, and enforced conformity of behavior and expression. Even where Islam has taken root in new soil, as in Europe, it seeks to isolate its carriers from the ideas and ways of the higher secular pluralistic civilization around it, for those ideas and ways will seduce them away from it. And Islam will clearly have no role in shaping the future, unless it turns out that there is no real future and the world sinks back into the Dark Ages. Islam can only "stand athwart history, yelling Stop" -- in vain -- as more and more of the millions in whose brains it is rooted slowly begin to cast it off.
This, too, is why I can't see China dominating the future, not unless it gets rid of both its current form of government and its current attitude toward the outside world. A regime obsessed with controlling flows of information, and a "redneck" (in American terms) prickliness toward foreign influences, are crippling handicaps in today's world. There are good reasons why Japan, with its long history of receptivity to outside ideas, was the first non-Western country to modernize and remains the most advanced. The insularity of the samurai era was the exception that proves the rule -- if Japan had stayed like that, rejecting the Meiji transformation, it would be a Third World country today.
The future won't be a retreat into the small and slow and traditional. It won't be about limits and lowered expectations. It will be bigger and faster and smarter, and more and more and more.
The future does not belong to people who feel viscerally uncomfortable when they see a different skin color or a sign in an unfamiliar alphabet or two men holding hands or a new breakthrough in artificial intelligence. I'm sorry, it just doesn't. If we want the United States to lead, we need to make sure that those people aren't the ones setting the pace.