The Weight of History a blast from the past from February 2018
I realized the other day that I was born the same distance from the end of World War II as we are now from 9/11.
It seems like a weird idea. After all, 9/11 happened yesterday, just about. I remember the shock, and worrying about Dan (he was working in DC at the time) and bringing out the bourbon and frying doughnuts. I remember months of not being able to think straight.
But WWII was ancient history when I was born, a thing of the past done and over with. It helps process things like the holocaust when you feel as though they happened in the unimaginably distant past.
Yeah I grew up watching WWII movies, which were all in black and white, and where the decisions seemed obvious and simple. I grew up in the sixties, with the idea of hallucinogenic drugs if not the reality (sure they existed in Portugal. Heck, they probably existed in my circles, but I turned 8 in 1970 and if those existed in the playground, it was more than I could guess) the idea of space travel and a bunch of truly bad ideas that were all about overturning centuries old practices and ideas with the new shiny of what boiled down to a few really dumb syllogisms (we’re all naked under our clothes, man) and a lot of also very old, never worked anywhere, and dressing them up in new psychology won’t help (free love, man.)
I literally did not realize how close I was born to WWII because it was old history to me. Dead and gone. The harrowing uncertainty of the past had become history, written, cut, dried, judged, finished. I was so uninterested in it I never opened my dad’s multi volume history of WWII.
And thinking back, it’s no wonder I viewed it that way. Sure, my parents remembered WWII, but they were kids then. (And since Portugal, which was even more broke than usual, and also really couldn’t go in on any side except the Axis without prompting an invasion by its old enemy, Spain, [which btw tells you that Portugal, national socialist though it was, didn’t align with the Axis intellectually, because otherwise it would have gone in, easily enough. These things are way more complicated than we tend to think. I mean FDR was also largely national socialist. It was the spirit of the time.] was neutral, my parents memories were mostly rationing, and that time that people came around to glue film on the windows, to minimize the risk in case of bombing. And they didn’t even know what kind of political brinksmanship led to that, except that the bombing expected was German.] My grandparents were the ones of age to have fought in WWII, had the country not been neutral. My grandfather did tell a story about a trip from Brazil when his boat was boarded by a German submarine crew, looking for someone or something, and if I got the gist of the story right, they really had a (British or American) spy hiding among them, whom they didn’t turn in. (Grandad spoke English, and also he really didn’t have a fiction-writer bone in his body. He couldn’t have embellished any story to save his life. That comes from his wife, the storyteller.) But I don’t remember the details very well, because I was very young and most of the referents he was using made no sense to me. There was a type of coat my mom wouldn’t let me wear, because it reminded her of the emaciated Jewish refugees arriving in the train stations in Portugal during and after the war. Not that she was hostile to them, but as she put it, the coat made her think of “famine and desperation.”
Sure the rationing made the country very poor. National socialism did too. (And you know, Bernie might be truthful about his national socialism, though I’d doubt the national part of it, because I remember he honeymooned in the Soviet Union, the weasel. His hatred of “corporations” matches the regime I grew up under, and mind you, that kept us d*mn poor. Particularly the insistence on keeping out multinational trade.) My mom was one of those children who walked along the train line, picking up bits of fallen coal to use to cook with at home. Being older and Portuguese, she wasn’t one of the children John Ringo saw, but she was their spiritual sister. And she and her siblings gleaned the fields, after the farmers were done, to get potatoes, to supplement the household food. (And grapes, and whatever.) My dad came from a more stable/better off family, though the country itself was so broke that his father worked abroad for 30 years of his life, to send money home to keep them so. But when dad got a scholarship to high school (at the time a paying thing,) his mom made him a book bag out of old cloth, because they couldn’t afford to buy him the normal leather ones.
But all these hardships were far in the past when I was born. It never occurred to me how close they were, or that my brother, himself, was born only 9 years after the end — and the horrors — of World War II.
I was a child of the cold war. We grew up knowing we were all going to be blown up, at any minute, by a dispute in which neither us nor our rather tiny country had any say. Always, from earliest understanding in the world, I ran through plans to survive nuclear war, because I knew this would come in my lifetime. (Yeah, I do know it might still, but it’s different, isn’t it?) I grew up jaundiced and cynical, looking at the “Soviet Life” magazines and snorting, and passing the Gulag Archipelago under the desk to classmates, because it wasn’t legally forbidden, but heaven help us if our teachers found out we were reading it. Say goodbye to that A and be harangued forever about buying into propaganda.
I grew up knowing that all the intellectuals thought communism was cool, that leftism was a positional good, that being patriotic was gauche, and that, nuclear war or not, communism would eventually win out. Even those who hated it believed so. It was so efficient after all. Inhuman, but efficient.
And then the Soviet Union fell, and the sheer inefficiency misery and stupid of the regime leaked out.
And yet I remember, in my thirties, after the fall of the wall, reading my first Reason magazine and realizing with a shock that overpopulation and pollution, let alone the exhaustion of natural fuels, were nowhere near as close as I’d been taught to believe, that the end of the world in my time or even my grandchildren’s time, wasn’t inevitable, that there was hope. It was both a shock and a breath of fresh air.
Why am I bringing all this up?
We all grow up caught in the tidal wave of history, only the wave is made of amber. It pins us in place. We carry with us a set of beliefs, thoughts, feelings, that are completely transitory, but feel like they’ll last forever, like they are eternal verities.
I was born in the after-shock of World War II, which was itself, and aftershock of World War I. I grew up suspicious of nationalism, because people were suspicious of nationalism after World War I. I grew up with leftism being a positional good, because communist (mostly Soviet) propaganda during and after WWII made it so. FDR let the soviets cast themselves as the alternative to fascism, when they were no such thing, all to secure the cooperation of good old uncle Joe. Sometimes you make pacts with the devil. I’m not sure that one was needed or worth it, but then I wasn’t there, and for all FDR was a bastard I don’t think he hated America. We had to wait a while for presidents who did hate America. So he did what he thought he had to do, and I can’t judge it.
And the patina of leftism as a social good hasn’t worn off yet. All our intellectuals think that it’s inevitable some form of socialism will win out. Except that Europe is choking on socialism and dying, and if it saves itself it will by renouncing it. (And no, I don’t know if that’s possible.) And the poverty and misery of leftism keeps pouring out, every chance, leaking, guttering, seeping through, becoming obvious despite their domination of the media that does its best to keep all that hidden. It’s becoming very obvious.
We’re on the crest of yet another wave of history, where it turns, and curls under.
Go easy on the millenials, particularly the young ones. They were taught to believe in a senescent philosophy that never worked anywhere. They suffered the shock of 9/11 but no one at all helped them process it. They were taught to hate their country by the people who think that removing nationalism will remove war (“nothing to kill or die for” — I’m spitting on you John Lennon.) They are taught to hate corporations by people who are as economically naive as the national socialists I was born under. And no one has taught them the horrors of communism, everywhere it was tired.
Well, we’re on the turning of the wave. And part of it is the leftist boomers getting old/losing their grip on the institutions they so carefully crawled through. And part of it is the new media, and unbelievably dirt, vast, unimaginable secrets leaking out.
The kids will be all right. It’s only about 100 years since Europe tore itself apart psychologically and Western civ decided that the way to stop this was to destroy itself. And we’re already turning away from that. We’re rebuilding.
Grandma’s grandmother was born just after the Napoleonic wars. A hundred years and change isn’t much in human history. It is much for HUMANS because we’re caught in our little bit of amber, and only see so far. But human history, human ideas move slower. They do move, though. No movement, no trend — particularly dysfunctional ones — lasts forever. Things self-correct. Maybe it’s too late for Europe. And maybe not. Sure, there’s a lot of Arabs around, but a lot of them converted and became part of the weave of Europe before. It’s not the genes, it’s the culture. It could still turn around.
In biographies of Englishmen who fought the peninsular wars, I read how devastated the country was, till there was not a work-cow to eat, till fields were ruined, great houses and families destroyed. After it came a time of lawlessness and fear, the tall stone walls of the village topped by broken glass, in a more or less vain attempt to keep thieves at bay. Grandma’s house was built around that time, and so designed there was only one window in the lower floor, and it had a huge board that went over it at night, to prevent break ins.
Yet I grew up in a poor country, but one in which food was plentiful and where walls were decorative, and maybe five feet high. Now mom and dad have raised the walls, and have security bars on all the lower floor windows. And steel shutters that shut the house tight at night.
No trend is forever. There is nothing as stupid as extrapolating present trends to infinity. And none of us is given to see more than a little bit of the great waves of human history that come from an unimaginable, not-remembered time and carry on to a future none of us will see.
When you’re inclined to despair, remember, most of us were born very soon after World War II, after the two conflicts that ripped Europe’s heart out and ate it. We’re still in the shock wave, in the concussion. Even our kids and grand-kids will still be affected by that great explosion.
But nothing lasts forever. Even the most grievously maleducated generation in the history of the west will have events that change their mind, discover ideas and secrets that transform all.
And our function is to snatch brands from the fire, to take these great grandchildren of World War II and the fall of Europe, and teach them that yeah, their history is not immaculate, their country not without flaw.
But in the long march of history, the United States might be the last great hope of mankind, and Europe itself, ragged and soaked in blood is no more so than other continents, other cultures, and is perhaps better in, for the first time, having raised a lot of people above the poverty line.
The flag of personal freedom will rise and fall, as will the idea. But respect and freedom for the individual are the only thing we found that breaks, for at least a short time, the cycle of “bad luck” and evil that afflicts humanity.
Carry it proudly, and give copies to your children or to young people whom you can reach.
It’s a long, long road. None of us will see the end of it. Battle on.