In 1989, Francis Fukuyama wrote an essay for the National Journal entitled “The End of History?” The essay became the foundation of his 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man. I read the book at the time – and disagreed at the time with its quintessentially-20th-century thesis that mankind had evolved firmly into Western liberal democracy, and that the social and cultural pressures that had hitherto created “history” would no longer be doing so.
That’s the 20th century in a nutshell: the ascendance of a shallow, even sophomoric belief that men had somehow transcended the benighted tomfoolery of the past, while at the same time mankind was whacked repeatedly with the bloodiest and most terrible wars ever fought, alongside the Holocaust of the Jews, and the expansion of a statist-collectivist ideology that by itself slaughtered, conservatively, 100 million people.
By the end of this remarkable century, too few in the West had any idea what our past actually consisted of. Only a minority of Americans – and perhaps a small minority, at that – are able to see the strong parallels of Barack Obama with the demagogues of ancient Athens from whose cynical political rhetoric we derive the word “demagogue.” Few Americans know that the world has been through the whole rob-the-middle-class-to-keep-the-poor-on-your-side dynamic many times before, or that every time it’s been tried, it ends in disaster: the collapse of order, the state reduced to impotence and importunity, foreign powers dictating to it. Modern socialists were by no means the first rulers to run out of other people’s money.
There was a time not so long ago when every American high school student could define common expressions like “Athenian mob,” or “bread and circuses,” the Roman answer to discontent in the people. Athenian mobs were hysterical; rule by them was brief and catastrophic for civil life. Then dictators – autocrats, another word we derive from the political history of ancient Athens – took over.
“Bread and circuses” were a cynical attempt to keep the Roman poor quiet so the rulers wouldn’t be inconvenienced. Seeking to keep society in stasis by this method produced a people variously cynical, feckless, and out for itself. It also denuded the treasury, and effectively severed the Romans’ patriotic, republican-era attachment to “Rome” – defined, for America’s own Founders, in the legacy of Cincinnatus – which had once been a political wonder of the world.
Nothing bad that America has gone through has lacked a precedent in history. People keep doing the same old things, no matter what we call them or how many times they end in sorrow. History never did end; history’s father is the human heart. And with all our technological advances, America hasn’t been able to stave off the march of history for longer than any other great nation ever has.
The idea of even a time-out from history was a chimera briefly popular after the Soviet Union collapsed. The concept’s tacit assumption was that the stand-off between predatory Marxism and the liberal West was the greatest and final paroxysm of a history that moved on a vector, away from one state of humanity and towards another.
This idea of history was popularized in the 19th and early 20th centuries; Woodrow Wilson was deeply invested in it. Over the last century, most of the West has come to think this way, even if we couldn’t articulate the underlying premise about history like a 19th-century German. Our idea of ourselves is tied up with a dense network of external or systematic factors, from “class” differences to government to technology, economy, and entertainment. In losing a sense of personal motivation and accountability – something Friederich Hayek wrote about extensively – we have come, without planning on it, to see society and history as artifacts of impersonal systems and influences, rather than as what they are: artifacts of us.
We must learn from the past, because each one of us, when he is born, is the finger of the past pointed at the world we happen to be alive in. We are no better today, and no worse, than our most distant ancestors were. We behave with exactly the same motivations and fears, aspirations and evil. History was there all along, and it has settled on us with a vengeance.
America is much bigger than Athens was, but in comparison to the rest of the world, in the terms of our age, we are not so much better armed. For all our modern scientific knowledge, we probably have more complacency and ignorance about the human heart than the Athenians had.
But in one thing we are exactly the same. Most people will not acknowledge that some types of political choices are, in fact, calamitous. Plenty of citizens will insist to the last that we, in whatever time “we” inhabit, can get away with making the same bad choices that undid others in other times. We don’t see that the “systems” we rely on depend for their success almost entirely on the character of the individuals who make them up. No matter what clues we get about the character of those around us, or of those in authority, we assume the “system” will survive. It’s hard to imagine life without it, after all. We can’t see what else there is to do.
And that makes us just like everyone else who ever lived. History is alive and well. America has just reelected a figure out of history, and we can expect the consequences history indicates.
Note: Treasured readers, it is necessary to spoon out the medicine first. We have to face up to where we are. But that doesn’t mean there is no hope. Seriously. I will be writing about that in the next day or so.
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