Only the end of the world again

Has there ever been anyone who couldn’t say, with at least some degree of accuracy, “we live in uncertain times?”

I mean, I guess we didn’t think nuclear annihilation was uncertain.

And, sure, we do live in uncertain times. I’ve written before about the terrible feeling of history happening, about the idea that Europe is sliding into bad old habits, America is teetering on the brink of large-scale crazy at worst and bad old habits at best, and I personally am never going to have the kind of career stability that results in not being painfully nuts at least some of the time. And that’s without taking into account the environmental questions, which are the ones that really keep me awake at night. But what does that mean in terms of what we’re supposed to do? Like, Viktor Orban gives me the willies, but it’s not like we can sit down and have a chat and he’ll change his mind. So what does the stirring of the old enemy mean for me personally?

The other day, a friend sent me a link to this article by a historian who clearly shares some of my fears. And I agree with some of it. I’m not sure about the cycles per se — I think that historical cycles are what you get when you decide to focus on the similarities between events and ignore the differences. I do think there are ways in which we can use our knowledge of history to illuminate the situation we’re in, but I don’t think that makes it predictable (which, in fairness, is not quite what he’s saying). I’m also not sure I agree with that thing about how liberal intellectuals have the right idea and if only everyone else would just listen to them, but that is, again, a slightly different point.

Some of this particularly connects to the way I feel as a person who came of age during the 90s. At that time, it seemed … not that, in Francis Fukuyama’s terms, history had ended, but at least that things were, for the west, entering a period of essentially stable, somewhat boring normality. I remember being disappointed by the 2000 election results, but thinking “ah well, it’s not like anything important is going to happen.” In those exact words. I like to think my knowledge and understanding have changed since then — I don’t expect that everything has quieted down now. But I feel like, perhaps, my instincts and reactions evolved during that period, so I sort of … react as if I still thought that way, even though I don’t. I don’t think that way, but I feel as shocked by what goes on around me as if I did.

Life’s unpredictable; no big insight there.

Any, a lot of westerners have begun to feel that we live in a fundamentally unstable and insecure world. Sometimes I get so sick with worry that I don’t know what to do; it seems like any action is pointless and that life is just a track that leads us all into a poison cloud of a future.

But that’s very much just a consequence specifically of my brain chemistry and more generally of my personal position. Consider:

  • my background and education make me think of history primarily in terms of nations and wars and foreign policy; that’s just where my mind goes first.
  • and in that sense perhaps we could say that I grew up in an idyllic period — a very long age of relative prosperity and really quite remarkable peace in my part of the world.
  • but what if I were, say, an LGBT person? I wouldn’t look at the late 1980s and 1990s in America with such fondness then, would I? Instead, I would think that, while obviously much remains to be done, at least today there were more countries in the world with fewer ways to discriminate against me.
  • or what if I lived in, I dunno, Iraq? I certainly wouldn’t see the 1980s and 1990s as a time of idyllic peace and plenty. Maybe by comparison to the 2000s, I guess.
  • so if we look at the world we see that the divisions between stability and chaos, or between good times and bad, aren’t permanent. Like everything else, they come and go and they depend on your perspective. What I remember as times of peace and stability might be times another person thinks of as really bad, and vice versa.

I guess what I’m saying is that big-issue unpredictability is a thing that happens. History is a moving target, and no society is a finished product. This isn’t a thing that inevitably leads to chaos and Europe’s cities aflame or whatever, but it is a thing that leads to chaos sometimes, and there may not be anything we can do about it as individuals. Indeed, I think our reaction to the threat of chaos is often not to practice the tolerant, pragmatic virtues that respond well to it but to tighten up and fight back, even against things that don’t need fighting back against — but that might be a story for another time.

Again, I’m not claiming that as any great insight. I’m just trying to work out how I, in particular, stop myself from going crazy in the face of things that will not be improved by me losing my damn mind. So it is not a question of fixing chaos — I can’t fix chaos. That’s a job for, I dunno, Marduk. Instead, it’s a question of changing my attitude toward chaos and focusing on doing what I can, both for myself and those around me and for the world in general, rather than fretting that I can’t fix everything.

I can’t influence history in the kind of way that history records, I don’t think. But in the day after that horrid panic attack, I asked myself what I could do, and I basically thought: “well, I should probably teach history.”

So there’s that.

Only the end of the world again

2 thoughts on “Only the end of the world again

  1. Interesting article, one I braodly agree with too. Although I would be quite envious of his level of academic detachment if his nuclear war scenario became true. One thing that historians need is the distancing that he talks about to see the macro patterns but at the same time to have the empathy to see things (or at least try to) from the perspective of those who were caught up in the moment at the time. Studying as I do modern history I tend to look at smaller duration cycles rather than century plus ones that a medievalist may do.

    Also, Iraq had an 8 year war with Iran in the 1980s that saw human wave attacks, chemical weapons employed against soldiers and civilians alike as well as strategic atacks against cities. Not really a decade of peace and security.



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