2012 election: Time-out from history definitively over

It’s baa-aack.

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.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.

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15 thoughts on “2012 election: Time-out from history definitively over”

  1. “history’s father is the human heart”

    Beautfiul essay and wonderful phrase. I look forward to the part II you referenced above.

  2. Your Greco-Roman perspective is essential: It is, after all, one of the two great cultural streams preserved through the Dark Ages to come to flower in the European rebirth of Western civilization. The other is the Judeo-Christian stream, which provided the enabling principle of that flowering – that we are children of the same God – and its corollary commandment: To love the truth, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. If history moved us beyond the Rome and the Jerusalem of 2000 years ago, it is because we are the descendants of both cultural streams. The New World recognized those two streams of our heritage more consciously, and conscientiously, than did the Old World, paving the way for America’s ascendance — until, ironically, the presumption of inevitable ascendance weakened recognition of those roots.

    In this election cycle I attended a rally for three candidates at which the first, an evangelical Christian, invoked Cincinnatus, and the others took up his theme. It is encouraging that the tea party movement has resurrected awareness of our history and America’s special place in that river. It is discouraging that the recognition is so far confined to a minority. The task is to change that.

      1. Thanks, dumb0x. It will be interesting to see in the coming years whether history has, in fact, moved us beyond the “Rome and Jerusalem” of 2000 years ago. I suspect the same dynamic is at work today, it’s just that one of the names has changed.

        But the other hasn’t. Well, interesting times are upon us.

  3. “History never did end; history’s father is the human heart.”

    You have summed up what our Founders knew and what we have forgotten. I have thought for quite a while that in our country we have a crisis of character and faith in God. Russell Kirk said, “At heart, all political problems are moral and religious problems.” We have to understand that to understand where we are.

  4. Just a point of correction. Fukuyama’s article was in “The National Interest” and not the “National Journal”.

  5. Maybe the Mayan calendar was right, 25 days too early. The pestilence of the blue hole cities sucking away prosperity and draining it into indolence and dependence will end our particular good history. History ends, it begins, it ebbs and it flows.

    We are at an end. We will see the collision with the ground… slow motion… scrambling for some form of safety as the hooptie disintegrates around us. The cities will get theirs. The taste was Sandy. The power will stop, the water will dry up, The food will stop being delivered…Not out of (very justifiable) complicity of the surrounding countryside; but because there won’t be anyone left there to earn enough to pay for the cities’ unsustainable debts.

    The United States of America ended in January 2007 when the Democrats took control of both the House and the Senate, and returned to destroying the economy with a vengeance. It’s aim was to destroy GOP prospects for a third win at the White House. What it did, was light the fuse on a powder keg that it could not put out.

    Of course the House GOP is extending a hand of conciliation which will promptly be lopped off by Harry, and eaten with relish by Nancy. Of course that should be historical knowledge. The Dems always lie. They always negotiate in bad faith, and the always play dirty. It’s how they win. The GOP should have learned that lesson by now… Nancy has a recipe book for Republican hands. Harry is Sweeny Todd… singing love songs to his razor.

    I am glad that I am getting old. When the kids leave, if the ever can, I am selling this place.. moving to the far end of the valley and working a pop stand. With a minimal apartment, minimal expenses, and no income to overtax. I’m not going to be a host for an increasingly huge parasite.

  6. Well J.E. the problem those examples don’t lead to encouraging prospects,
    Athens had it’s Golden Age of Pericles, some of which is dramatized in the novels of Gary Corby, and then came the era of Cleon and Alcibiades, the
    former was presented by Thucydides, who as Donald Knox has pointed out, was not an impartial bystander, this led to the Rule of 30, and ultimately the extinguishing of their true nature,

    Sallust, another chronicler, in Roman times, also not without his perspective.
    narrated the Jugurthan War, a somewhat analogy to the ‘war on terror’ and
    the subsequent role of it’s commanders Marius and Sulla, in the Social War

  7. Speaking of Jerusalem and Athens, Optcon….Off topic, in an attempt to break the cycle of bad domestic news….some positive news out of the most unlikely places. Cheer up. we’re not about to call it quits 🙂

    It’s not as sexy as a joint military exercise, but more significant in the long term.


    Only good can come out of this, History in the (re)making? 🙂

  8. Thanks, J.E, for articulating what so much of us believe. Unfortunately, the darks nights after the fall always last longer than the bright days they replace.
    The Greeks and Romans are not the only historical references relevant here; the ancient cultures of Asia and the Americas had different governments and social values, but the same human wave-forms.
    I agree with INC above, who echoes commentary in many quarters on the right. Character counts, and the Left’s rhetoric is a glittering garment thrown over a shabby form.
    The Old Testament recites a sorrowful cycle of a people broken on the wheel they chose themselves by disobedience and rebellion against their primal covenants with God.
    Indeed, the primary temporal message of the Book of Mormon (a peculiar curiosity, no longer in focus after Romney’s defeat) is the same repetitive surge and ebb, of freedom and prosperity thrown away by its beneficiaries by their refusal to acknowledge God’s gracious generosity and listen to His counsel.
    The decline of American culture into atheism and destruction is no trivial correlation.
    I think you would appreciate this commentary by Dafydd ap Huw (the Big Lizard) and his readers:

  9. As Rush is so fond of saying, “history begins with the day you are born”. So true, there is nothing new under the sun but people fail to reflect and learn from history.

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