History 2

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Burke said that those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Marx added that all history happens twice: first as tragedy, the second as farce.

I’m in the midst of reading about the history of France between the wars. Well, actually this book spends most of its time on the period before World War I – laying the groundwork for the madness that gripped all of Europe in the thirties.

It is hard to read about Barrès – one of the intellectual leaders of the right in France during the Belle Époque – without seeing his echo in the intellectual right of modern America. The appeal to instinct over reason, the hatred of the Semites (Jews then, Muslims, now), the belief that war and armed conflict bring out the best in a nation. All of these commonalities make it quite spooky. Oh, yeah, they clutched the mystical to their breast as well. In France it was a primitive form of Catholicism while in America it is an even more primitive Christian fundamentalism. I have to admit it is deliciously ironic to think of the Tea Party as descended from the thinking of a French essayist.

But it is the attack on reason that I find most sensational. The utter dismissal of rational thought during an era when France was leading the world in technology and scientific research. Yet, often that technology was used for the most interesting purposes. France was so far ahead in personal surveillance of both criminals and the immigrant populations that Britain and American sent their own police agents there to learn at the feet of the masters. The modern surveillance state owes much to the ideas of late 19th Century France. (As does Times Square since the French invented the neon light.)

Sometimes reading history can be terrifying – especially when you see it all being repeated in modern times. One might take some relief in knowing that we survived it all and now, generally, live in more advanced and progressive societies than our distant ancestors (well 120 years is not exactly distant but it is outside living memory).

But the cost! Two devastating world wars, dozens of totalitarian regimes, the Holocaust, the Cold War and its proxy battles that ripped apart South America and Africa and so much more. All so we can do it again.

I hope that when some other blogger looks back a hundred years from now, he or she might say that we did a better job during the current embrace of unreason. Not that I’m sure we will. But I hope at least that there is enough of the world left over that someone will still be around to look back in shock and awe at what we threw away.

But that’s ten minutes.

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