Thursday, March 30, 2006

History reasserts itself, in rhyme

Gerard Van der Leun has written a rumination on the return of history, post-9/11.

I offer a few excerpts here, although they don't really capture the full flavor of the thing (to do that, it needs to be read as a whole):

The History of Me was huge in the 90s and rolled right through the millennium. It even had a Customized President to preside over those years; the Most Me President ever...It was better when we lived in The History of Me...The meaning of this history was not deep but was to be found in the world "fun."...

Now we find ourselves back in history as it has always been and it is not fun. Not fun at all. The history of history has little to do with fun, almost nothing at all.

Should the nation choose to continue in the elections of this year to move forward, to stay the course and continue the offensive, our encounter with history will move forward at much the same pace as it has these past four years, perhaps a bit accelerated. Should the nation choose to step back, to retreat, it will simply retard the process that grips it a bit more than otherwise might be the case. Neither result wil place us back in the History of Me no matter how many yearn for it.

History, having returned, will continue to happen, not to Me, but to Us.

We will have war whether we wish it or not...


Personally, I wasn't too much a part of the 90's "Me" movement, although I remember noticing it. I was too busy raising a child and going to graduate school, and listening to the personal histories of my clients.

But during that decade I definitely relaxed my grip on the notion of being part of a larger history that was frightening; with the end of the Cold War I thought history had turned out to be a paper tiger, a pussycat compared to what we had expected during the 50s and 60s. This perception was a big relief to me (which I've written about here).

Call me naive--and you would be correct to do so--but those were the years in which pears loomed much larger than tanks, in Milan Kundera's image, and I was happy to see those pears. Who wouldn't have been? Yes, there were rumblings that not all was well--many rumblings, if I look back and see with different eyes--but somehow the haze of optimism continued to obscure where this was all heading.

I think a good analogy to those years was the era shortly before WWI, when people thought mankind was progressing almost inevitably to a better and better future. There had been a long time of relative peace, and then "poof!", it all blew up in their faces in a way they hadn't ever imagined, barbaric and bloody and seemingly endless. As the British poet Philip Larkin, quoted in Paul Fussell's wonderful book The Great War and Modern Memory, wrote: "never such innocence again."

Well, I guess one should never say "never"--since it turns out that many (although not all) of us were so innocent once again. And many still remain so, despite 9/11.

That is, almost so innocent; the innocence of those pre-WWI Europeans seems to have been even more profound, as Fussell describes it:

Out of the world of summer, 1914, marched a unique generation. It believed in Progress and Art and in no way doubted even the benignity of technology. The word machine was not yet invariably coupled with the word gun.

As Henry James, spokesman for the disillusionment of the era, wrote to a friend on the day afer the British entered the war:

The plunge of civilization into this abyss of blood and darkness...is a thing that so gives away the whole long age during which we have supposed the world to be, with whatever abatement, gradually bettering, that to have to take it all now for what the treacherous years were all the while really making for and meaning is too tragic for any words.

I've written at some length here about my own 90s version of the glorious prewar summer of 1914, in which I'd imagined that we'd somehow escaped the horrific apocalypse envisioned in the '50s--in other words, that we'd escaped history. I, much like James, had lacked a sense of what those years were "making for and meaning."

But on 9/11 I had an almost instantaneous perception that this threat was more serious than anything that had come before, at least in my lifetime, because this opponent had revealed itself to be unusually implacable, determined, and vicious; and was quite unconcerned with such mundane affairs as living. The latter represented the unique thing about this particular enemy; the Dark Ages had somehow merged with the Quantum Age, and it was not a good combination.

But one thing I never envisioned on 9/11 was the fact that, despite my sense that we could be successful in beating back these destructive forces if we ourselves had some unity of purpose and resolve, many people would be only too eager to go right back to their sweet dreamy repose (what Gerard Van der Leun calls "fun") and to think that it was Bush who was the real bogeyman--that he's the one spoiling all the fun, for his own nefarious purposes.

So history is indeed--to paraphrase another writer, James Joyce--a nightmare from which many of us try to awake. But try as we may, it reasserts itself into our lives, not with a whimper but with a bang.

This page of history quotations contains quite a few gems, such as one from the much-maligned Machiavelli:

Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.

And one of my favorites, from Mark Twain:

The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.

And how about this, by Anonymous (not the same "anonymous" who posts here, I'm afraid):

We cannot escape history and neither can we escape a desire to understand it.

And I didn't realize Harry Truman was this much of a philosopher:

The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know.

And then there's an observation by Cicero that seems apropos:

To be ignorant of the past is to remain a child.

I will close with a simple statement by Lincoln, from his message to Congress of Dec. 1, 1862,

We cannot escape history.

But that sure doesn't stop us from trying, does it?

28 Comments:

At 3:58 PM, March 30, 2006, Anonymous SB said...

Good ones.

Here's another that certainly applies to our current situation:

History teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.
-- Abba Eban

At the moment, I'd say we're busy trying all the other alternatives.

Ever thought of writing about the Ship of Fools motif in medieval art?

 
At 4:03 PM, March 30, 2006, Anonymous Vanderleun said...

As we learn in the Sacred and Holy Book of "The Godfather:"

"Just when you think you're out, they pull you back in."

(And, oh yes, that you for the very kind words.)

 
At 4:16 PM, March 30, 2006, Blogger Steve said...

Just a few brief comments, maybe more later.

I basically liked the Vanderleun piece and I also liked another piece he has on illegal immigration. In a nutshell, I would say that if we win the WOT and we don't control the latter, we still lose. I could say more about the columns, but I won't.

The Lincoln quote is also found in a piece of music by Aaron Copland, "A Lincoln Portrait", written 1942, I think, and built on a theme for woodwind and trumpet based on an old Massachusetts folk song, "Springfield Mountain", telling the story of a fine young man killed by a snake. Of course, there's more than one pun going on here. For those of you who are looking for a flag-waving rush, but don't really know the classical music scene, I would strong recommend this piece. It's really a mind-blower if you are in a patriotic frame of mind and haven't heard it before.

As you probably know, "The Hollow Men" is a riff on Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" (actually, I think it was an obit piece for Conrad) as well as Guy Fawkes Day (whose effigies are the original "Hollow Men"), which underlies the "V for Vendetta" schtick. Good to read in that light.

Now I see your version of the poem omits the two original epigraphs:

"Mistah Kurtz, he dead" and
"A Penny for the Old Guy"

As I also recall, the "not with a bang, etc." ending is the epigraph for Nevil Shute's nuclear holocaust novel, "On the Beach" which of course references a line in the poem also ("Gathered on this beach of the tumid river.")

Anyway, lots of associations to build on.

 
At 4:36 PM, March 30, 2006, Blogger neo-neocon said...

Steve--I was thinking of that "On the Beach" reference, too. Most of us who saw it when it first came out tend to remember it quite well; it definitely made an impact. I was such a literary sort that I read the book at the time, too, although I was awfully young. It scared me terribly in 1959, when I read it--it posited the end of the world as 1963 or 1964, as best I can remember.

 
At 4:39 PM, March 30, 2006, Blogger neo-neocon said...

vanderleun: History as the Mafia? Hmmm. Works for me.

 
At 5:00 PM, March 30, 2006, Anonymous hgwells said...

Living in history rather than reading about it later is how I explain to my anti-war friends the nature of our current dilemma and how it is that we can disagree so completely and vehemently.

Here's more from that Lincoln quote (one of my favorites) that neo concluded with:

Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We -- even we here -- hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free -- honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth....

--Abraham Lincoln, Annual Message to Congress, 1862

 
At 5:56 PM, March 30, 2006, Blogger jlbussey said...

"We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth...."

What is it about Lincoln that aways brings a tear to my eye?

 
At 6:06 PM, March 30, 2006, Blogger neo-neocon said...

How apropos that Lincoln quote is.

 
At 7:06 PM, March 30, 2006, Anonymous Richard Aubrey said...

I wish Lincoln's sentiment about the last best hope of earth didn't generate scornful laughter in so many places today.

 
At 7:21 PM, March 30, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

It's cause Lincoln kicks ass, that's why.

A very model of a not so modern, Babylon 5 general.

It's all about power, Richard. People laugh cause we're still stuck debating whether killing a few people in GitMo through military tribunals is "legal". That's real funny, in a war to the knife.

About as funny as 9/11 was to Muslims.

Read the entire post before reading Neo's post, and I liked the lyrical rhythmn of the piece. The Mini-Me was pretty funny. Pop culture enthusiasts would recognize that instantaneously.

There's a note of playfull satire in his work, ending with quite a bit of seriousness interlaced just when the satire becomes tired and old.

We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We -- even we here -- hold the power, and bear the responsibility.

We know how to defeat terrorism and Islamic jihad. The world knows that we know how to defeat them. The question is, are you going to unleash the full power of this battlestation?

 
At 8:29 PM, March 30, 2006, Blogger snowonpine said...

I once read a definition of Liberal and Conservative that went something like this--Liberals as those who think humans are basically good and that any problems with their behavior are the fault of their economic, social and political situations--change these situations and bad behavior will lessen (and, I guess, eventually cease)--human beings are perfectable. Conservatives believe that humans, left to their own devices, have a propensity for bad behavior which has not changed since time out of mind. Humans are not perfectable and, therefore, society should be arranged to minimize chances for bad behavior and to protect the sheep from the wolves.

Seems to me how you view humans might have a lot to do with the lenses through which you view history and what your expectations are.

 
At 8:30 PM, March 30, 2006, Anonymous Mike said...

In twenty years you will be able to tell how the current war went based on how people remember Clinton. If they talk about blowjobs then the war(s) went well and if they talk about him asking the Saudi's for money after the Kobar bombing you will know the wars ended badly or were extremely difficult.

 
At 9:28 PM, March 30, 2006, Blogger Ray Jenkins said...

Dont be in the dark any more. Find out the truth, or at least lets discuss the truth.

http://www.loosechange911.com/

 
At 9:33 PM, March 30, 2006, Anonymous Patrick Henry said...

For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.

I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past...

...The war is inevitable and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.

It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

 
At 11:28 PM, March 30, 2006, Blogger gcotharn said...

Confidence.... Confidence. Confidence. Confidence. Confidence. Confidence. Confidence in our principles and values.

I was a good athlete when I was in school. Most every year, as I stepped up to the next levels of competition, I would tell my Dad that I wasn't sure I was good enough. He would say "If you think you cannot, you cannot." That helped me grasp that I may as well have confidence, for I had nothing to lose. Without confidence, the battle was lost anyway. It is the same with the West, and with America. We may as well have confidence in our principles and values, for we have nothing to lose. Without confidence, America and the West are lost anyway.

The "last best hope" was incorporated by retired blogger Mrs. Du Toit. Summarizing from my memory, she said - when she felt overwhelmed and frustrated at the goings on of the world - one thing brought her back to center:
"This is the last best place: Texas. And the USA. There is no where better to live in freedom. There is nowhere better to run to. There is nowhere left to go. This is the last best place. This is where my family and our neighbors make our stand."

Addendum
Since the subject of liberals/conservatives came up, Mrs. Du Toit also famously said this(summarizing from memory):
"If I hire a liberal to build my house, they might begin to attach everything with straw instead of nails. I would see them and ask:
'Do you know of any science, or any hands-on experience, which indicates straw works better than nails?'
They would reply:
'No. We just feel very strongly that straw will work better than nails.'
And thats the best way I know to explain liberals."


Lastly - sublime post, Vanderluen!

 
At 11:57 PM, March 30, 2006, Anonymous Mike said...

Ray you are a stupid mother fucker. Seriously, "Loose change is a terrifiying masterful, well paced 9/11 conspiracy documentary that puts Michael Moore's fahrenhiet 9/11 to absolute shame." are you unable to see why the person who made this "documentary" might not care about facts. Bonus points for the Tom Flocco review, because anything endorsed by Tom Flocco is worth its weight in gold.

 
At 12:36 AM, March 31, 2006, Blogger Robert Schwartz said...

NN: Thanks for the link to Van der Leun, that was excellent.

My history quote:

"History doesn't repeat itself, but it stutters."

Steve: Good take. The V problem is that Fawkes wanted to destroy parliament and restore Catholicism and absolute monarchy. Here is my riff on Elliot and John Kerry.

 
At 5:18 AM, March 31, 2006, Blogger Sissy Willis said...

David McCullough:

An old friend, the late Daniel Boorstin, who was a very good historian and Librarian of Congress, said that trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers. We’re raising a lot of cut flowers and trying to plant them.

Oriana Fallaci:

You cannot survive if you do not know the past.

 
At 9:32 AM, March 31, 2006, Anonymous Ben-David said...

In 1990 my wife and I extracted ourselves from the America of "Dynasty" and "Greed Is Good" and moved to Israel - smack into the teeth of the Oslo piece/peace process.

By 1992 we were in a West Bank settlement, and spent the next decade passionately trying to get Israeli flower children with grey hair to see what was coming down the pike.

Kinda missed the "Me" decade. And the condescension and aimless, brittle shallowness of our interlocutors over this past decade - Israelis, leftie American Jews, know-it-all Europeans - has left me with nothing but bitter repulsion and distaste for the notion of climbing backing into the "Me" mindset.

Here's the secret: hard times deepen the human soul. They make you real - and then the smallness of the "fun" life is, as we say in Hebrew, "katan alai" - literally "it's too small for me" but meaning "pick up your head and look around - you're missing not just one point, but a whole dimension".

This is the secret sense of self that the boomers are trying to figure out when they get curious about "the greatest generation". But they can't touch it, because they haven't put in the work.

 
At 11:08 AM, March 31, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

It's hard to ace the test if you're clinically retarded and haven't done your homework, you know.

 
At 11:43 AM, March 31, 2006, Anonymous SB said...

It's hard to ace the test if you're clinically retarded and haven't done your homework, you know.

I really resent Ymarsakar prying into my high school transcripts.

 
At 3:55 PM, March 31, 2006, Blogger Daniel in Brookline said...

Good stuff, Neo!

Along the way, you've provided the best, most concise explanation for Bush Derangement Syndrome that I've ever seen.

Why do so many people froth at the mouth and abandon all reason when they discuss George W. Bush? Because he ruined their fun. They thought they could be kids forever, without the responsibilities of previous generations... and along came Bush to wake them up.

If they could, they would pull the covers back over their heads, screaming "No! NO!! I don't want to go to school today! I don't want to be responsible! Do something about that Bin Laden meanie and then leave me alone!!"

But Bush won't let us keep our eyes closed, will he?

And so every insult in the book is thrown at him... just as parents can expect from frustrated teenagers. He's evil for spoiling our fun, and he's stupid for not understanding how good things were before he ruined everything. If we could only get rid of him, everything would go back to the way it was, and we wouldn't have to worry about terrorists anymore. And so on.

I am reluctant, extremely reluctant, to brand hard-left ideologues as being equivalent to spoiled children. But the similarities are striking, aren't they?

respectfully,
Daniel in Brookline

 
At 4:39 PM, March 31, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Why are you reluctant to brand a group of people that believe humanity is evil but that government is good, a bunch of children?

As Victor Davis Hanson argued, sexual harassment Political Correctness induced scenarios are themselves reducing women to children. Individual people need the government to take care of them and pay for their healthcare, because individuals can't take care of themselves. Why is that individual, not a child?

 
At 3:44 PM, April 01, 2006, Blogger Bezuhov said...

"I wish Lincoln's sentiment about the last best hope of earth didn't generate scornful laughter in so many places today."

As if it didn't in his day too. Only takes a few to set the tone one way or the other...

 
At 8:03 PM, April 01, 2006, Anonymous triticale said...

How about:

Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it - in summer school.

 
At 2:47 AM, April 02, 2006, Anonymous douglas said...

such as one from the much-maligned Machiavelli:

Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.

Ahhh, Machiavelli. Perhaps the most misunderstood and misrepresented figure in western civilization. I'll never forget when my English lit 101 teacher, who was a communist, had us read 'the prince'. He thought he was showing us the secret book of tactics for the evil capitalist imperialists to rule the earth by. I made a point of pointing out that Machiavelli endorsed nothing in the pamphlet, he simply discussed cause and effect. He also was specifically against oppression... he warned how it inevitably resulted in revolt, or lack of motivation to protect the prince, and thus his downfall. I don't understand how someone who osstensibly taught English lit could be so obtuse in his reading of Machiavelli.

 
At 10:08 AM, April 02, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Anyone interested in political theory, manipulation, and the health of the city-state must read Machiavelli. Or if not, they can pick it up second hand by studying Saddam and the other dictators. Police states, and apparati.

I hesitate to call him a genius, but he was a very clear thinker. If Bush had a Machiavelli advising him, Bush would be Golden. Or should I say, Bolden.

Besides, most communists actually use Machiavelli's dark tactics themselves. It is no coincidence that the Soviets are masters of partisan warfare and propaganda. They are masters at double think. Anyone who can't adapt their thinking, disappears. Like, Russia is at war with Germany, Russian has always been at war with Germany. The German fascistic forces will be pressed into the mud under our glorious Russian partisans.

Fast forward a couple of years and.

Russia is not at war with Germany, Russia has never been at war with Germany. The Germans are our allies, against the Imperialistic polities of Britain and France.

Fast forward another year.

Russia is at war with Germany. The fascist Germans with their traitorous Hitlerites, shall be extinguished from the Earth, with the help of our Comrades, the English and the American.

Machiavelli who?

 
At 2:11 AM, April 05, 2006, Anonymous douglas said...

"Anyone interested in political theory, manipulation, and the health of the city-state must read Machiavelli. Or if not, they can pick it up second hand by studying Saddam and the other dictators."

Whoa, Ymark, you sound like my old prof. Saddam, Stalin etc. wouldn't have been given passing grades by Nicola. They violated half the rules. Machiavelli is all about balance- not at all about sheer brutality. Now purposeful, well thought out, carefully applied brutality, he was all for.

 

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