Monday, March 24, 2008

Study History or Be Doomed To Repeat It, Yadda Yadda Yadda

I decided to make this week’s column about the reaction to the previous week’s. There are people out there, as readers of this blog know, who are perfectly willing to give up their rights for security – and to demonize those who disagree. As a
number of commentators have noted before me, the passage from Thucydides is pretty compelling for its modernity. But lots of people would rather be Spartans than Athenians (but even those who want to be Athenians want to be the right kind of Athenians—not the slaves, for example.)

East Valley Tribune, Mar. 23. 2008

You know what’s scary? Many people, emailing angrily in response to last week’s column, actually do believe that we face a greater danger today than during World War II or the Cold War. One actually wrote that today’s dangers aren’t “a small threat like Nazi Germany or the USSR.”

A “small threat”? Sure, some “Greatest Generation” stuff may be overdone, but calling Hitler “a small threat”? There’s a difference between glossing over uncomfortable history, like the Tom Brokaw book, and turning history on its head, like these Iraq war supporters.

Calling Nazi Germany “a small threat” is pretty absurd. And notice the logical inconsistency. Every new threat is the “next Hitler” -- and so dangerous that the original Hitler really isn’t that big a deal? It’s like a fun-house mirror that makes today’s dangers seem huge and the past’s microscopic. Today’s “next Hitler” is the greatest threat ever. The actual Hitler just can’t compete with his successors.

Of course, hyperbole is pretty much standard in the ‘winger mindset. America once was perfect, then the liberals/women’s libbers/homosexuals/foreigners ruined it. You can located the precise point of decline because everybody claims they supported Dr. King through the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but that by 1965 (the War on Poverty, King turning against the Vietnam War) the “golden age” had ended. Thus, we need to turn the clock back at least 44 years, but 45 is too much. To restore America to its past greatness, we need a really accurate time machine.

And if the USSR also was only “a small threat,” then Ronald Reagan apparently didn’t accomplish much in staring down the “Evil Empire.” Why bother naming everything after somebody who only faced “a small threat,” not like the he-man dangers faced by George W. Bush?

Thucydides understood these Chicken Littles, having seen them in action in ancient Athens:

To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual
meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was
now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think
of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any
idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character;
ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally
unfitted for action. (The Peloponnesian War
III, 82)

One email claimed that, through a series of mathematical assumptions (1 billion Muslims, some small percentage hate the U.S., do the math) a million “virgin-seeking suicide bombers [are] anxious to blow me and my family to Hades.” Because the fate of Western Civilization depends on some guy in Mesa with an email account. It must be nice to be that important.

Then there are the correspondents who ferociously objected to noting that when the U.S. uses waterboarding and other techniques that used to be called torture, we’re no better than Shia or Janjaweed militias. That’s outrageous, say these emailers, because we’re using “enhanced interrogation techniques” to defend ourselves from attack, but those bad guys use those techniques, and worse, because they are “senseless, brutal, cold killers [who] hate.”

But that’s why the U.N. Convention Against Torture -- which the U.S. once proudly joined -- exists, because it doesn’t take much for any country or ethnic group to start justifying almost anything from the lack of decency or humanity of their opponents. We use “enhanced interrogation techniques”; they torture. We are good and decent, and you must trust us; they are evil, brutal, and do not play by our rules.

So the rules against torture are designed not to be relativistic, but absolute. You don’t get to start torturing if you decide your heart is pure -- because who ever doubts that their own heart is pure, or at least purer than their enemies’’?

I find the idea that “Islamists” are “among us everywhere” more laughable than frightening. But that so many Americans eagerly accept torture, government surveillance, and suspicion of anyone who looks different out of fear -- now, that’s scary.

1 comment:

Vern D. said...

Hi Sam:

I couldn't read this post without passing on a link. This is from a historian in summer, 2002, commenting on a similar case of revisionist history. His terms are a bit more blunt....