How, in assessing the dangers that a society faces, does one avoid the Scylla of an undue alarm and the Charybdis of a paralytic complacency? Is intelligence, knowledge, character, temperament or luck more important in being able to distinguish what is important and lasting from what is trivial and fleeting? Is it more important to see the details or the gestalts, or (very difficult to achieve) some combination of the two? Why is it that those who are the most knowledgeable about a society are not always the best judges of its future?
A story is told by the British writer Christopher Booker in his account of the Moscow Olympics of 1980. A sports journalist of one of Britain’s less cerebral newspapers, than which no newspapers in the world are less cerebral, took one look around the Moscow airport on arrival, never having given the matter a moment’s thought before, and said something to the effect that ‘This system can’t last.’ This was not the opinion of almost all the learned Sovietologists of the day; but he had grasped in a matter of seconds a reality that they had not perceived in many years of close and devoted study.