Contrary to those who claim to know the arc of history or declare themselves on the right side of history, it is more wise than foolish to acknowledge the ambiguities of the present in these troubled times. If the study of the past teaches us anything, it’s that ideas and movements wax and wane, twist and turn. Predicting the future is as dubious as it is interesting. While certain trends seem set, the future, simply put, is wide-open and progress is as common as regression (leaving aside the lofty standards by which we judge such things).
Two poems highlight this dual reality of trends and surprises.
Seamus Heaney on the surprises:
“Anything Can Happen”
after Horace, Odes, I, 34
Anything can happen. You know how Jupiter
Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head
Before he hurls the lightening? Well, just now
He galloped his thunder cart and his Horses
Across a clear blue sky. It shook the earth
And the clogged underearth, the River Styx,
The winding streams, the Atlantic shore itself.
Anything can happen, the tallest towers
Be overturned, those in high places daunted,
Those overlooked regarded. Stropped-beak Fortune
Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing the rest off one,
Setting it down bleeding on the next.
Ground gives. The heaven’s weight
Lifts up off Atlas like a kettle-lid.
Capstones shift, nothing resettles right.
Telluric ash and fire-spores boil away.
Trends: we identify patterns in reality and these help us comprehend our world. Revolutions of grand proportions do occur. There is always the potential for the wonderfully unexpected. The progressive revels in this seeing direction in the pattern. The conservative sees ambiguity. In either case the unexpected haunts the order but this is where the conservative is uniquely positioned to handle the unexpectedly awful: they don’t believe in a trajectory, an arch; if the surprisingly wonderful is possible, the same is true of the horrible. If we have learned anything about the revolutions of the 20th century, they are not always for the best. The gulags, extermination camps, killing fields, and organized mass starvation (either on purpose or because of human folly), were all perpetrated by those with fervent conviction: race or class, blood must be shed for the redemption of mankind.
We should eschew claims to be on the right side of history. History doesn’t care. History is neutral. We have all witnessed those who believed they were ushering in a bright future only to find the devil in our midst. Being at front edge of history (where everyone resides at some point) is no affirmation for the correctness of one’s cause.
But Jupiter galloping across a clear sky would have no significance if the trend didn’t exist in the first place. As B.H. Fairchild puts it:
We will have a continuation of today tomorrow.
Clouds will form those ragged gloves
in which the hands of God make giant fists
as He grits His teeth against the slaves
of time. And the sun and moon will never rest
from the boring grind of dark and light:
subway tokens glittering the ground,
dogs in their habits, the hours soon or late,
nuns and assassins in their daily round.
The divorcee coming from the landromat
knows the cycles of laundry and despair:
back then, the towels they shared, but now a basket
filled with someone else’s underwear.
Eichmann lies in bed and reads a novel;
a Holocaust survivor sets himself on fire.
The thief’s in church, the priest in the brothel;
the sky is clear, the weatherman’s a liar.
God shakes his fists eternally to say,
we’re having more of yesterday today.
As the apocryphal Chinese curse goes, “May you live in interesting times.” Whether its foreign or domestic affairs, the world seems to be spinning (out of control?) in an unusual way. But despite the twists and turns, people are people. There will always be a priest in a brothel, another woman’s underwear, the sun and moon circling. Time is a flat circle and God shakes his fists. Slaves of time. As much as things change, they stay the same.
To use one example, I tell my students that the causes of war always come down to the same things: fear, interest, and honor (nod to Thucydides). Are there surprises (Pearl Harbor)? Yep, but the underlying characteristics that drive conflict remain constant.
We will have a continuation of yesterday today. Hopefully Jupiter’s thunder cart isn’t too fatal.