For the Week of September 4, 2006
My recent work on historical cycles has convinced me that those who say we should not judge people by the standards of our time have a point.
In Ken Burns' 1990 classic The Civil War , historian Barbara Fields makes this point most forcefully. Excusing the actions of slave-holders excuses slave-holding.
By the standards of our time, for instance, Thomas Jefferson was pure evil. He enslaved people, he forced at least one to bear his children, then he denied those children. He was a wastrel, vain, self-centered. He squandered an inherited fortune and died penniless, consumed by his continual search for gratification. In comparison George W. Bush looks like a saint.
But we know that's not true. By the standards of his own time Jefferson was a great revolutionary. He helped create the very idea of freedom, and in his Declaration he extended this ideal to all men. He founded a great college, helped midwife the French Revolution, and set America on its course to the Pacific Ocean. He deserves his monument.
Fact is we are all prisoners of our time, held in amber by the prejudices and reality that is all around us. We are prisoners of what we're taught, not just in school, but in life. Those who escape the prejudices of their times – people like Ben Franklin – are truly extraordinary. And whether we succeed or fail in our efforts to transcend is only seen in retrospect. Through much of his own life, even to the end, Franklin was seen by many as a failure.
I wonder how historians a century from now might judge those in the "mushy middle" over Iraq, for instance, those who call Afghanistan a "good war" and who voted for the Iraq adventure in the first place. Will they be seen as courageous, as men and women preserving their "political viability," or will they be seen as cowards?
Fact is the Afghan adventure has gone on too long, and has had the wrong aim nearly from the start. Hundreds of lives and billions of dollars have been wasted in a fruitless attempt to impose democracy, when we could have, should have, concentrated all our force on the limited goal of securing Bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, a cohort of their henchmen, conducting real justice (not just murder) on them.
One can no more force people to be democrats than to be communists. You can only prove to them in practice how your system works better, how it brings ease and peace to those who practice it, while all -isms – regardless of their source – lead only to pain and misery. Americans live nearly twice as long as Afghans – that should be proof enough of our system. When we kill in order to prove it we do the work of our enemies.
I believe that is how history will see the matter, as a grand distraction from what should have been the real business of our time, namely the effort to slow global warming, to save the planet, and to seek the stars. Our technology had reached the point in the year 2001 where these were in our grasp when we were brutally struck down – all 6 billion of us – by the events of September 11.
But I haven't read that anywhere, frankly. I haven't read it because we are all trapped in our own time, as Jefferson was, as Lincoln was. Transcending the mundane and seeing The Long View is very, very hard. It can also be painful. Abolitionists, Populists, New Deal Socialists, and Far Right theorists all got it in the neck, in the end, even if in the context of their time they were calling for the right remedies.
The work I'm doing on historical cycles shows this clearly. Prophets are always condemned in their time. Real change is made by those who moderate the forces demanding action against reality, who lean into the next Thesis as a sailor leans into the wind, going sideways in order to move forward.
- Lincoln did this. He did not win nomination as an abolitionist, and said early in the war he would gladly free no slaves if it would preserve the Union.
- Theodore Roosevelt did this, constantly leaning against progressives and populists both as he changed the country in their direction.
- FDR didn't build big deficits until World War II had begun, and his "recovery" was modest as a result, yet in the end he had put us on the path toward big government we still walk.
- Nixon was, in retrospect, an apotheosis of liberalism, creating agencies like the EPA, opening China, nominating Harry Blackmun. Yet he set the course for a conservative generation, in his rhetoric, in his paranoia, in his ideology.
What I'm expecting in the next government, then, is someone who will represent the new Thesis, the Open Source Thesis, in their rhetoric, but who will actually act more like the Anti-Thesis politician they were. This will set the stage for a later embrace of the Thesis, and the true accomplishment of Open Source goals, which are environmental, energy, financial, legal and social moderation.
What might change this expectation is a total collapse of the Thesis, which is what we were looking at as this was written. The acknowledged failure of Iraq, the gathering storm clouds on the economy, the reality of the long, hot summer, all are combining into what looks like a perfect electoral storm.
But as I've noted often, such storms are just precursors to real change. Republicans became a viable party in 1858. Populists rose to real power in 1894. Democrats made historic gains in 1930. Republicans made big gains in 1966.
History says the real battle is yet to come, and it hints loudly of the outcome. But real history is only written day-by-day, by journalists. We write it, by our actions and our words. And nearly all of us, even you and I, are still locked, as we will always be, in the Amber of Time.
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Best of the Week
Yesterday's housing numbers may have the same impact as Time-Warner's purchase of AOL did in January 2000.
Most of the time the economy is OK.
Newspapers are horrible for public companies, but they can still make great private investments.
Remember, the big enemy this time is inflation, caused by an enormous number of "Eurodollars" and bonds held in foreign hands. You don't solve that problem by printing money. You solve it by convincing people you will, given time, make good on your debts, by getting them to hold on to the money they have.
That is the inability of American technology companies to show stock market leadership.
What we're really looking for here is a signature race, one where the Democrat is given no chance, even now, but triumphs anyway.
We could be getting screwed right now and not know it.
It's news porn
At a time of political excess, when a crisis is coming fast, government tends to do things that are so jaw-droppingly dumb it's almost impossible for historians to believe them in retrospect.
Politics is the way to fight this.
ZDNet Open Source
Clued-in is CrooksandLiars. Great site.
Clueless is Georgia Democrat Mark Taylor who virtually closed down his campaign for August and lost any hope of victory.
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