Arts event review

Fareed Zakaria discusses revolutions from the 1600 to the present

A fascinating book talk about major movements that shaped the world

Fareed Zakaria

Age of Revolutions 

First Parish Church, Cambridge

April 5, 2024 


On April 5th, Fareed Zakaria gave a talk for his new book, Age of Revolutions, to a packed audience in First Parish Church at Harvard Square. Harvard Book Store hosted the event and Harvard Psychology Professor Steven Pinker was the moderator for the talk. Zakaria is the host of Fareed Zakaria GPS on CNN, a widely known global affairs TV program, and a columnist for The Washington Post. Age of Revolutions is his sixth book. In Age of Revolutions, Zakaria covers major revolutions that changed the world, from the French Revolution to the Industrial Revolution. Besides analyzing past movements, Zakaria discusses current revolutions happening domestically and internationally, such as geopolitics and globalization. From these revolutions, Zakaria considers what these changes entail for the future of the 21st century. 

At the start of the talk, Pinker asked Zakaria about his conception of revolution. Zakaria’s response was that a revolution is an era in which “deep, structural changes” happen in a society. He used the Dutch Golden Age as an example of a revolution because the Dutch underwent an “Economic Revolution,” where a new economy was based on entities like the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century. Following this, a domino effect led the Dutch from becoming a merchant republic, to advancing in global navigation, to "inventing the modern world."

Although the Dutch Golden Age may seem to simply serve as a case study, Zakaria didn’t stop there. Instead, he effectively drew parallels between the Dutch Golden Age and modern America, discussing the political revolution in the Netherlands in which progressive and conservative factions formed. He indirectly referenced Trump’s 2016 campaign, highlighting the coexistence of both progress (technological modernization) and backlash (anti-immigrant sentiment) in society. By doing so, Zakaria finely underscores that history is not simply a sequence of independent events, but rather ones with many intersections, patterns that reappear throughout centuries. 

Pinker commented on Zakaria’s response as “fascinating” for its “antithesis” between progress and backlash, a concept that exists throughout the talk. Pinker then asked Zakaria an interesting question, using his hands to draw a rough chart measuring world progress over time. Pinker started the graph with exponential growth, but then ended the graph with a plateau for the “last ten years.” He asked Zakaria, “How do we interpret the leveling off and decrease in progress?” Afterward, Pinker asked what he predicted the trend would look like for the uncertain future.

Zakaria agreed with Pinker’s graph, sharing his observations of trends that reverse some aspects of progress, in particular a “decrease in intellectual consensus.” He started by discussing issues in the U.S., citing the Tea Party movement in 2009 as the start of “insurgency in the Republican Party” because of its focus on culture and identity. On a global scale, he pointed out how much backlash can “consume society and politics,” notably the recent uprisings in Iran. He further said that although the U.S. made some good progress, like with Barack Obama during 2008 and 2009, such times did not take the U.S. back to the 1940s and 1950s, economy-wise.

In regards to Pinker’s question, Zakaria responded with some uncertainty, jokingly calling it the “billion dollar question” because of inflation. He said that there are “many possible futures depending on people’s actions and reactions,” but was confident that progress made in some areas would be hard to reverse. Despite this, Zakaria said the future could be complicated like a “rollercoaster ride.”

Going off of human progress made over time, Pinker presented Zakaria with the following modern paradox: although people are living richer and longer lives, people are struggling to find meaning and purpose in life. Zakaria said that unlike in the past, humans nowadays have more choices in determining their purpose in life. He opined that “there’s something human beings love about devoting themselves to a cause greater than their own,” whether it be religion or some other avenue. Zakaria asked the audience to think about “the cathedrals, symphonies, and all the great art” in history, and how all of it was done in service of an “awesome god.”

While more choice may appear “liberating,” Zakaria masterfully argued that liberation can also be “anxiety-producing” because of the “burden” that comes with deciding one’s challenge instead of “consulting the familiar and rooted.” Ultimately, Zakaria believes that a major problem society faces is the “lost customs, traditions, and communities,” which give rise to loneliness and religious revival. The rhetoric behind this is about taking a person back into a world “where we can all be one.”

Continuing on the paradox of progress and the lack thereof, Pinker transitioned into the topic of how the U.S. compares to the rest of the world — the U.S. is one of the wealthiest and most technologically advanced countries, but lags behind others in terms of health and happiness. Zakaria attributed the U.S.’s global presence to the results of the U.S. being a victor in WWII, allowing the U.S. to create the international order “de novo.” Zakaria emphasized that such an opportunity would “not happen again to the U.S.”. 

But Pinker asserted that the happiness issue can be traced back to the many freedoms U.S. citizens were given. He used the example of how in the past, many couples met each other through their family or churches, until the 1920s, when many other people had the economic freedom to move into cities. In the past, arranged marriages were ubiquitous, but today, not many people would be willing to exchange their freedom for the perceived security of greater happiness. Although some people bemoan U.S. secularization, this is only happening in response to greater economic freedom as churches are becoming more and more obsolete. Pinker further explained that “the aspiration for a perfect society is what leads to dystopian nightmares.”

Pinker is also skeptical of American-led initiatives around the globe. He cited how two decades ago, the U.S. invaded Iraq without the permission of the United Nations Security Council, and that there are many international treaties that the U.S. has ignored because it benefited them. He asked Zakaria why the U.S. is “punching below these measures” if “we are the most advanced scientifically.”

Zakaria explained that this is because the U.S. plays an unusual role in the world — they are its creators. Without the U.S. having the advantage it had back in 1945, then the world would be radically different because the European nations at the time were more focused on preserving their empires. Through Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s careful machinations as the “great liberal who presided over the U.S.,” the U.S. became the world’s premiere peacekeeper, so it did not have to abide by its rules. He acknowledged that although the U.S. “has been a terrible global hegemon,” the alternatives, like North Korea or the Soviet Union, would not have been better.

The book talk ended with Pinker selecting a couple of questions from the audience, the first one being, “What does the future of the climate crisis look like?” Zakaria responded frankly, saying that he was “not perfectly equipped to answer this question,” which elicited some laughs from the audience. Despite this, Zakaria shared his thoughts that were on the more pessimistic end, arguing that various factors such as the rise in nationalism and challenges in finding a cheap, zero-emission energy source are preventing countries from globally cooperating. 

Pinker concluded the talk with a question from the audience about whether Zakaria’s outlook on the future was hopeful. Although the talk’s environment was primarily formal and intellectual, Zakaria lightened the mood with his effective sense of humor. He said, “I am an immigrant, so I have to be optimistic.” Jokes aside, Zakaria finished the talk on an inspirational note, saying that a better future can happen, but requires people to “fight for a better future.” He closed off strongly by stressing the amount of progress humans have made in the past hundred or so years, which in the long run, “will make us win.” 

Overall, Zakaria’s discussion about Age of Revolutions was insightful and informative, as he swiftly moved between arguments, skillfully breaking down complex trends and issues that may have initially puzzled the audience. He succinctly summarized the major revolutions that occurred in the past four hundred years, identifying major themes and takeaways that are relevant to recent trends in the world. It is without a doubt that Zakaria’s keen understanding of politics and history makes Age of Revolutions a worthwhile read for those wanting to make sense of this complicated, interconnected world.