In three months, America has undergone tragedies larger than any three months of American involvement in World War II. True, it’s mostly not the young who are dying, but the casualty figures do not lie. 100,000 people in three months is a larger portion of Americans than have died at any point since the Civil War a hundred fifty-five years ago. And the sad fact is, very few civilizations go from zero to sixty as we have without going to a hundred next.
On the one hand, the American fixation on previous history not applying to them is deserving of contempt. I’ve said this before in these posts, but ‘both sides’ of the American political spectrum are deeply guilty of this. And, so, believe it or not, is the American ‘center.’ The ‘right’ always thinks of American exceptionalism as meaning that America ‘got it right’ as no other country ever has, and history as it’s occurred until now does not apply now and here. To anyone remotely in touch with reality, the last three months should bury that notion int he ground forever.
Unfortunately, lots of people divorced reality decades ago and have no interest in remarrying. The ‘left’, more than ever now, believes that history is a false construct, written by white men to portray themselves in the most flattering possible light – I really don’t understand what was ever flattering about the light in which most historical figures were ever portrayed: history is almost a gallery of the effect which murderous psychopaths, corrupt narcissists, and spoiled monsters, have on us until the present day. But both of those notions are ultimately beside the point.
The point is that America has always been a country where history mostly doesn’t happen. Until now, the American ethos was always ‘of the future,’ and it could afford to be of the future because, at least in comparison to 99% of the world’s other countries, what we’ve experienced is rather trivial. Don’t misunderstand, African-Americans have had it as horribly as anyone for centuries, but elsewhere in the world, whether in how whole continents were abused by white capitalists, or how native peasants all around the globe were exploited by their aristocracies, or religions both clerical and secular sacrificed millions to their cults of death, what we think of as the minority experience in America was the experience of the overwhelming majority in human history.
Until so recently, the African-American experience was history’s norm, not its exception. So in that sense, the left is absolutely right, and mainstream moderates and even liberals of the type that read David McCollough and Stephen Ambrose that flatter American sensibilities are deserving of some very real contempt, because they’ve willfully conditioned themselves to believe in stories with happy endings that trivialize global events of the most massive casualty statistics that only came to our shores in how we sentenced a whole community to centuries of horror for the crime of a differently hewed pigmentation. It is long past time that we pay in blood for this sin whose reckoning so many generations have forestalled. We, the most powerful country in the history of the world, are tearing ourselves apart from the inside, drawing ever closer to the kind of instability that befell Ancient Rome – our only true precedent in world history – so many times, no longer able to sustain a Republic but rather lurching back and forth between chaos, tyranny, and massacre.
But even as all this horrific potential keeps growing, the future insists upon itself. New generations are sprouting up. Babies are born into this maelstrom whom all too soon will render judgement on our lives just as we render judgement on those before us, and tell our stories to their own children. And perhaps their judgements will be even harsher than ours. The world is coming apart on our watch, and here are so many of us blaming those who came before when our biggest obligation is to leave enough behind for the next generation that their lives are worth living.
Everyone of course believes that what they’re doing is for the benefit of the next generation. Everybody thinks that their point of view is is the correct point of view, how can any of us do otherwise? But what if we’re all wrong? What if by doing everything we do to save what we value, we further entangle it in destruction? It would seem, at least from my point of view, that caution, not action, is the best way to preserve what we value for the next generation. There is no true change without a payment in blood, and that blood is not just our own that’s spilled, it’s potentially the blood of our direct descendants. Once upon a time, protests not unlike these occurred all the time in the socialist/progressive whirlwind of the years around 1900.
The result was that the grip of right-wing authoritarians grew ever tighter, and tighter, and tighter, until so out of touch did the governments become from the extent of their power that their incompetence couldn’t help but cause a generation-long series of world wars. The European socialists eventually effected much of the change they wanted to see, but the price was at the cost of their own children’s generation: decimated by machine guns, aerial bombs, pandemics, and poisoned gas. The true benefits of their actions were not in Europe, but here in America, where liberalism evolved under Franklin Roosevelt to incorporate the best of socialism and filter the worst. Eventually America brought the seed of social democracy back to Western Europe, but the price for them getting it was more than fifty million lives in Europe alone, and a hundred to two hundred million lives across the world.
Roughly once a century, this friction grows so unbearable that all that remains is the incinerated husks of entire countries, continents, hemispheres, and whomever is left standing has to pick it all up together, working and living with all the very same people who once killed our family members as though none of it ever happened.
So however justifiable the grievances, it can get oh so much worse, and it very much does. The future is watching, and the future never judges us in the way we think they will. There is no simple binary metric of right and wrong, there is only life and death, and the objective of living is life. Our responsibility is to bring and preserve as much life into the world as possible. What is the point of bringing a system down if the price tag is sacrificing the lives of all the people we’re trying to help?
The new generation is coming. We don’t know how they will judge us. It’s in the nature of things for future generations to judge their ancestors harshly, and often judge from the exact opposite point of view that we take. But we do have one advantage of perception they don’t yet: we have connection to the past. We’ve now lived it, we’ve talked to those who’ve lived still more, and through reading we’re connected to much much further into the past. We are just one generation, one connecting fibre, in an eternally unfolding story. The present is only one small instant that connects past to future, and our job is not just to rush into visions of a better future heedless of how the past will hit back at us, but also to understand past precedents of how so many better possible futures resulted in worse ones. Better things are possible, but it takes not just the demands of our moral compasses, it takes the practical sense of knowing when and where and how to make the demands, particularly because there’s no convenient time to make them, and therefore all the odds are stacked against their implementation.
I really wish I knew what to say to people at the forefront of the present’s struggles, telling them that I’m fully behind what they do, that I think they’re enabling a better future rather than unleashing a worse one. But we’re all prisoners of what our minds tell us is true, and my mind is screaming that we are entangling the next generation in a mess that dwarves our own, and that silence about it equals consent. As always, I could of course be wrong, but that will be for the next generation to judge.