Wednesday, December 31, 2008

We Must Remember This

Lately I don't seem to care to read anything but History, likely in part to be a sign of a stubborn perversity of character, for I am an American, and it has long been observed, by ourselves and others, that Americans are more interested in what comes next than in how we got here in the first place. History, after all, is bunk.

At first we literally had no recorded past--no institutions, no traditions--except those we brought as European immigrants; it was in freeing ourselves from the oppressive weight of that past that we transformed a mixed body of captives, immigrants, and despised survivors into something that had never been known before--a New Order of the Ages: Americans. Moreover, this successful rebellion against the past promised an ever richer and brighter future; the untapped wealth of the new continent, technological innovation, and the genius of a free people combined to insure that, no matter how much the present was better than the past, the future would be better still. The Neo-Conservative insistence that they make history rather than subject themselves to it exemplifies a rich vein deep at the core of being American.

My generation felt a widespread suspicion of this assumption of Progress, though it was not the first to feel it threatened; the "Lost Generation" of post-WWI intellectual modernists, those who got through the Great Depression--other generations of Americans had gravely considered if "progress" could, or should continue, only to emerge with the triumph of the Grand Alliance over the Axis Powers in WWII and the New Deal repairs to Capitalism , which continued for two more decades until questions re-emerged about inclusion into the brighter world--minorities, women, the poor; what we have come to call "identity politics"--and the wisdom of including unwilling peasants around the world at the point of our guns.

In my Sophomore year of high school--1961--the U S moved from being a Creditor to a Debtor nation, a condition which has persisted and accelerated. Also in that year, the U S began to apply its new strategic doctrine of "Flexible Response", as opposed to the "Massive Retaliation" of the Fifties under Eisenhower, to Southeast Asia: opposing what was seen as Soviet expansion in the Post-Colonial world with ground troops rather than atomic bombs. And in Albany. a county seat town in SW Georgia, local Black people were demanding the rights of U S citizens.

It has, at best, not been Progress, but more the opposite, ever since; the size of the U S foreign debt is perhaps the single most salient economic fact of our lifetime, it is still heresy to ask if the U S must continue to spend hundreds of billions to police an increasingly resentful world, often through the most brutal and unpopular of local, Westernized surrogates. There has been some advancement towards a more inclusive society, but even here, failure is pervasive. There has been no victory--no triumph over evil--since these questions were raised nearly fifty years ago. Instead, we has been presented, since at least 1980, with repeated policy errors compounded by the need, popular and elite, to deny that these facts exist.

Obama's election is widely hailed as a sign that these trends may finally be reversed, and that we may, for he first time in decades, be part of the solution rather than the problem. Maybe, but I do not see Obama nor the associates he has chosen so far, to be leading the way, especially in foreign policy; at best, he may provide an opening for us to point the way we want to go, which I believe he will then follow, but he is far too shrewd a politician to stick his neck out that far ahead. The more significant question is whether or not we have become so degraded by our experience in this new world so as to prefer willful ignorance. If not, we may indeed take a step towards being a city, if not that example for all others of Winthrop's sermon aboard the Arabella, one ready to take its place among others.


fleurmagnifique said...

Nice essay. Happy New Year! Americans as a whole may not be backward looking, but there are still plenty of historians running about! Your current reading list looks interesting btw.

Fran said...

Mmmm- lots to think about here, really good.

Happy and blessed new year to you Johnieb!

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Very wise essay!

johnieb said...

Thank you all; I'm flattered.