James and Deborah Fallows have always moved to where history is being made. In the 1980s, when the Japanese economic model seemed like the wave of the future, the husband-wife team moved to Japan with their school-age children. Then, after 9/11, they were back in Washington, D.C., with James writing a series of essays for The Atlantic about what might go wrong if the U.S. invaded Iraq.
In 2006, they moved to China and both wrote books about China’s re-emergence. Over the past few years they have been flying around the U.S. (James is a pilot), writing about the American social fabric – where it’s in tatters and where it’s in renewal. That was pretty prescient in the lead-up to the age of Trump.
James and Deb have an excellent sense of where world-shaping events are taking place at any moment – and a fervent commitment to be there to see it happen.
Their example has prompted what I call the Fallows Question, which I unfurl at dinner parties: If you could move to the place on earth where history is most importantly being made right now, where would you go?
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Let’s start with a little historical perspective.
If you had responded to the Fallows Question in 1968 you would have moved to California, both to the Bay Area and to Orange County. That would have put you at the epicenter of the ’60s counterculture, and also at the center of the Reaganite conservatism that arose in response.
By 1974, the most important place to be was the offices of the magazine Ms. For all its excesses, feminism has been the most important and the most salutary change of our lifetimes.
By the 1980s, the big historical changes had to do with capitalism and finance, so either Japan or Wall Street was the place to be. In the early 1990s, Europe was the place to witness the end of communism and the false dawn of global peace. By ’90s, Silicon Valley was the most important driver of world historical change.
The Fallowses were clearly right to go witness the rise of China, but by 2006 I could also argue that equally important events were happening in Baghdad, Tehran and Damascus, with the crumbling of the modern Middle East.
By 2010, the Fallows Question would have taken you to the neuroscience departments at universities like NYU, Harvard and USC, where cognitive scientists were rewriting our understanding of the human mind. By 2015, it would have taken you to working-class Ohio to witness the populist upheaval that is driving global politics.
Today, I’d say the most pivotal spot on earth is Washington, D.C. The crucial questions will be settled there: Can President Donald Trump be induced to govern in some rational manner or will he blow up the world? Does he represent a populist tide that will only grow or is some other set of ideas building for his overthrow? Are the leading institutions – everything from the Civil Service to the news media to the political parties – resilient enough to correct for the Trumpian chaos?
Washington will either preserve the world order or destroy it.
I sent the Fallows Question to the Fallowses themselves, and they agreed in part with my Washington answer. But they also said that the most important place to be now might be places like Erie, Pa., Columbus, Ohio and Fresno.
Trump’s presence in the White House may push change to the local levels. In these cities, the Fallowses argue, citizen participants are coping with declining industries, creating new civic cultures, assimilating waves of immigration, collaborating across party lines to revive everything from arts programs to tech seedbeds.
If you want to “observe” history, the Fallowses say, go to Washington. If you want to “participate,” go elsewhere.
That’s a good argument, but I suppose I should close by widening the possibilities. After all, few knew about Martin Luther in 1517 or what Deng Xiaoping would unleash in 1977. So maybe the most important spot on earth right now is to be found at:
▪ An evangelical church in Brooklyn, N.Y., that has come up with a style of faith that satisfies the spiritual needs of blue America.
▪ A National Front office in Paris where a French Stephen Bannon is plotting the final destruction of the European Union.
▪ A bio lab somewhere where researchers are finding ways to tailor cancer treatment to each patient’s particular genetic makeup, thus lengthening lives and restructuring the phases of the typical human life.
▪ A set of universities, headquartered in Mauritius and spread throughout Africa, that will unleash the human potential of that continent at exactly the moment when the African future, in many places, is most promising.
Most people can’t up and move in search of history. They’re tied down by work, family and spiritual commitments. But you only go around once in life, so if you can swing it, you might as well be where the action is.
David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.