Wednesday, October 10, 2007

War and continuity

WENT TO A TALK last night in town. Christopher O'Sullivan, a historian, spoke easily and interestingly about the presidential candidacies as they seem to be developing, along the way referring to yesterday's "debate" in whicn all but one of the Republican candidates agreed that President Bush is able to go to war in Iran without Congressional consent.

It's striking but understandable, I think, that most of the "front-running" Democratic candidates agree that there will be an American "presence" in Iraq for a number of years. For one thing, they have to present themselves as realists, not ideologues; and no one has come up with a credible methodology for a quick American disengagement.

Last night's talk was a meeting of local Democrats and sympathizers (like me) who are generally interested in what can actually be done, on a grassroots level, to affect the current political situation. My own tendency is to believe that the situation is so complex, fluid, and unstable that such strategic thinking, however attractive, is ultimately unreliable.

I think there are historical moments when social processes have accelerated beyond comprehension, when political, economic, and cultural dynamics develop life and energy and inevitability of their own, so to speak, and spin into events whose nature can only be examined (and perhaps ultimately "understood") after the fact.

Several recent observations come to mind:
  • A few minutes of the Vincente Fox-Larry King interview, seen between innings the other night: Asked about Mexican participation in Iraq, Fox pointed out that the Mexican army is constitutionally prevented from engaging in foreign war, from wars of agression. Imagine that!

  • The Ken Burns documentary The War, which we watched from beginning to end, and which succeeded, I think, in presenting that experience as it confronted those who fought it, disengaged from global politics, faced only with its alternations of random technological impersonality and immediate human cruelty.

  • Geert Mak's book In Europe, just out in English, with its fascinating portraits of the insane illusions of the "leaders" who precipitated World War I, Versailles, the Bolshevik revolution, the mass exterminations of the 1930s and '40s, and I suppose beyond: I've only got through the first three sections of the book so far, and will no doubt return to commenting on it here in the days to come.

  • Always, at the back of my mind when thinking about these things, Paul Fussell's book The Great War and Modern Memory; and William Everding's The First Moderns, and Matt Matsuda's The Memory of the Modern.
  • O'Sullivan pointed out, in an aside, that history never repeats itself, but that's true I think only in details. It's true only in the sense that every day is a new day.

    In the meantime the sun comes up every morning just as it did the morning before. Yesterday we had rain, the first real rain of the season, over an inch of it; then the night was clear and beautiful, the stars brilliant just as they were to the Greek shepherds three thousand years ago
    Look, how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold;
There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings ...
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But, whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
    and this morning there were heavy mists as the damp earth returned the excess moisture to the skies.

    History does not repeat itself, since it is after all imperfect, a human creation. But our earth and everything in it wallows along in self-correcting cycles of varying lengths and paces, and a question formed in my mind last night, and I asked it this morning of Dr. O'Sullivan:
    Many issues barely emerged in the discussion: the precipitous decline of the dollar, which amounts to huge inflation in the American economy; the issues of immigration and racial oppression; the disaffection of youth and the feeling of powerlessness of the older generations; the belligerence of the industrial sector (increasingly invested in war materiel); the general assumption of national superiority (this was touched on at the end, thanks very much); the feeble press; the increasing mindlessness of the popular culture; the glorification of violence and violent athleticism; the increasing disapproval of the rest of the world...

    The question is: how could the intelligent and good-thinking citizen have influenced a better national political outcome in the Weimar Republic?

    1 comment:

    John Whiting said...

    I feel increasingly fortunate to have lived in one of those rare times and places when it was possible to behave rationally and generously on the assumption that the world about me would allow it.