I was driving around yesterday, running some errands. The radio was on. The program was a talk show with three voices chatting about the pending US elections and their probable outcome, each offering opinions as to the key issues and the like. I wasn’t really paying attention, not that I am uninterested in the elections (far from it), but I had other things on my mind. To me it was all so much background noise.
Then I heard something. What did he say? One of the voices had referred to something or other as embodying “the Zeitgeist of the day.”
Huh? Zeitgeist of the day?
Growing up on a college campus, where my father taught, was great. All the amenities were open to “faculty brats,” the ice rink, tennis courts, pool, golf course, library, and most college events. On Friday nights movies would be shown in one of the large classrooms. This was a big deal as the campus was “out in the country.” There was no “theater near you!” Two groups hosted these movie nights, alternating Friday nights. One, whose name I have forgotten, featured “recent releases.” The other, which I enjoyed far more, showed classic black and white films, and many, though not all, “international.” The group hosting this type of film was the Kinokunstgesellschaft. I would study German years later, but at the time the professor of German, a native speaker and good friend of our family, explained this name to me, introducing me to the German penchant for creating new nouns by heaping one upon another to coin a new word. Thus Kino “cinema” plus Kunst “art” plus Gesellschaft “a voluntary society/club.”
Back to my radio voice.
Zeitgeist is a combo noun. Zeit means “time” and Geist (think ghost or gust) means “spirit.” The Zeitgeist is the spirit of the time or the spirit of the day.
But, my voice said, “the Zeitgeist of the day.” Huh?
I could say, and guess I will, that part of our Zeitgeist is epidemic verbal carelessness and imprecision to the point of permitting pretentious obfuscation to pass as wisdom, but that would be churlish. More important is the point that possibly the voice meant something like this: our Zeitgeist today is novel, the axis is turning, we are at the dawn of a new day, new glimpses and intonations of this new Zeitgeist are there to be picked up if only we pay close attention. Maybe so.
If the Zeitgeist of the day is vaguely true then it might have to be detected in our Ebola confusion. The US government has announced that all military personnel returning from Africa, none of whom have been in direct contact with the disease, are to be quarantined while simultaneously insisting that nobody else returning from the disease areas should be. Nurse Kaci Hickox has announced that she is no threat to the American people and will not stay in her house for the requisite number of days, but the Maine authorities have announced a plan to enforce her quarantine. The University of Texas has produced a study (thrown together rapidly?) that claims quarantines are not effective in controlling the spread of disease.
Ebola is very much an issue of “the day.” The “spirit” of dealing with it? Utter confusion and probable massive incompetence.
Welcome the new Zeitgeist of the day? I hope not. Let me recommend a window into an alternative.
It’s long, running for about an hour and twenty-five minutes, but watching and listening will do you a world of good … literally. It will make you feel better about our world. It is a Q&A session at the end of a conference at MIT with Elon Musk. He is more than a brilliant engineer and entrepreneur. He is an evangelist for the human spirit and boundless optimism.
Do yourself a favor. Watch this.
Elon Musk captures the true Zeitgeist.