Monday, July 24, 2017

"Real evil still haunts the world..."

The importance of reading history is an emphasis of several posts I've come across today. A film reviewer suggests that many of those viewing Dunkirk probably had no idea it was about an actual event. Myron Magnet at age nineteen learned for the first time about the Holocaust — "I never dreamed it possible, and learning that it had actually happened, in my own lifetime and to my own kinsmen, turned my worldview upside-down." In "See No Evil?" he worries:
Why am I telling you all this? Because I fear that, except for a few of us remaining graybeards and some immigrants from the world’s manifold tyrannies and anarchies, most Americans are too young to remember, even vicariously, the ills that the world can inflict and the effort it takes to withstand and restrain them. They have studied no history, so not only can they not distinguish Napoleon from Hitler, but also they have no conception of how many ills mankind has suffered or inflicted on itself and how heroic has been the effort of the great, the wise, and the good over the centuries to advance the world’s enlightenment and civilization—efforts that the young have learned to scorn as the self-interested machinations of dead white men to maintain their dominance. While young people are examining their belly buttons for micro-aggressions, real evil still haunts the world, still inheres in human nature; and those who don’t know this are at risk of being ambushed and crushed by it.

Slogans, placards, and chants won’t stop it: the world is not a campus, Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler, the Israelis are not Nazis. Moreover, it is disgracefully, cloyingly naive to think—as the professor hurt in the melee to keep Charles Murray from addressing a Middlebury College audience recently put it in the New York Times—that “All violence is a breakdown of communication.” An hour’s talk over a nice cup of tea would not have kept Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine, or persuaded an Islamist terrorist not to explode his bomb. Misunderstanding does not cause murder, and reasoned conversation does not penetrate the heart of darkness.

Much as I revere Yeats, I do not share his theory that history is cyclical, with civilizations rising and decaying, until something new arises from the ashes. Perhaps it’s the ember of mid-century optimism still alive in me, but I can’t believe that “All things fall and are built again.” I don’t want to believe, with Conrad in his darkest moods, that “we live in the flicker,” that moments of enlightenment shine but briefly between the eras of ignorance and barbarism.

But who can deny that there are some truths that history has taught—the Copybook Headings, Rudyard Kipling calls them—that we ignore at our peril? Has not history’s recurring tale been, as Kipling cautions, that “a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome?” So beware of UN-style promises of perpetual peace through disarmament, which you’ll find will have “sold us and delivered us bound to our foe.” Beware of a sexual freedom that will end when “our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith.” Don’t believe that you can achieve “abundance for all,/ By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul,” because the eternal truth is, “If you don’t work you die.” And the truth that history teaches is that when
the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!
Man is a believing animal. We live by some of those beliefs, made plausible by the labors of the good and the great to embody them, and of the wise to explain how they have created a freer, more prosperous, more just, and more fulfilling life for mankind. But other beliefs, the stock-in-trade of the world’s deluded or power-hungry demagogues and charlatans, will kill us. Our nation’s fate depends on relearning the difference. [more]