Thursday, April 17, 2008

Dodging Icebergs

Over the years, David Brooks has expended a great deal of editorial ink gently -- and at times not so gently -- satirizing the baby boom generation, of which he is a card carrying member. Last week, in The New York Times, he pointed out how we, who used to insist that the world was our oyster, are becoming "hippocampically challenged." Citing a common experience of those of us on the other side of sixty -- not being able to remember the name of an old acquaintance -- he detailed the "evasive vagueness" we employ to save face.

He then suggested that what happens to individuals also happens to countries. He wrote that "great powers can be defined by their national forgetting styles. Americans forget their sins. Russians forget their weaknesses. The French forget they've forgotten God. And, in the Middle East, they forget everything but their resentments."

All true in a tongue-in-cheek way. But in an article for the May 1st edition of The New York Review of Books, British historian Tony Judt claims that we in North America have not learned the lessons of the century we have just left behind. "In the West," he writes, "we have made haste to dispense whenever possible with the economic, intellectual and institutional baggage of the twentieth century and encouraged others to do likewise."

Not that we haven't built memorials to twentieth century history. But, says Judt, "the twentieth century we have chosen to commemorate is curiously out of focus. The overwhelming majority of places of official twentieth-century memory are either avowedly nastalgo-triumphalist -- praising famous men and celebrating famous victories -- or else, and increasingly -- they are opportunities for the recollection of collective suffering."

This is particularly true in the United States, he writes, where "we have forgotten the meaning of war. There is a reason for this. In much of continental Europe, Asia and Africa, the twentieth century was experienced as a cycle of wars. War in the last century signified invasion, occupation, displacement, deprivation, destruction and mass murder." In contrast, "the United States avoided almost all of that. . . . The U.S. was not invaded. It did not lose vast numbers of citizens, or huge swaths of territory as a result of occupation or dismemberment."

But, he says, those who have experienced war know that it touches everyone and everything. Even among the victorious "the very structures of civilized life -- regulations, laws, teachers, policemen, judges -- disappear(s) or [takes] on sinister significance: far from guaranteeing security, the state itself become(s) the leading source of insecurity. . . . Behaviour that would be aberrant in conventional circumstances -- theft, dishonesty, dissemblance, indifference to the misfortune of others, and the opportunistic exploitation of others' suffering -- become not just normal but sometimes the only way to save your family and yourself." War leaves the battlefield a no man's land. But it also eats away at the social fabric of the home front. And, in the end, it dissolves the bonds which hold a nation together.

We have forgotten what the twentieth century should have taught us about war; but we have also forgotten what it taught us about the economy. For the last twenty-five years, the best and the brightest have told us we live in a "new economy," where the old rules don't apply. But, as the tech and housing bubbles burst, wealth was increasingly concentrated at the top of society; and now the world financial system hangs in the balance. At the same time, we have -- in Pat Moynihan's words, "defined deviancy down;" and the institutions we relied on -- schools, the health care system and the family -- have buckled under the strain.

We have chosen to live in a state of willful ignorance. How else to explain -- in Richard Reeves apt phrase -- the "high I.Q. fools" who predicted a brave new world of peace and prosperity? One thinks particularly of Paul Wolfowitz (former Deputy Secretary of Defense and former President of the World Bank) who confidently predicted that, after an American victory in Iraq, oil would sell for $20 a barrel. This week oil hit $115 a barrel. Wolfowitz was trained as a mathematician. Clearly, he missed something.

This was also the week when we memorialized one of the first significant events of the last century -- the sinking of the Titanic. Equipped with the latest technology and piloted by a superbly experienced crew, it was said to be invulnerable to the elements.

History is a social science, not an exact one. So its predictive powers are not always reliable. At the very least, though, history helps us dodge big obstacles, like icebergs. Try as we might to forget them, they are still out there -- floating in the North Atlantic.

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