Friday, September 2, 2011
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Random and not necessarily coherent thoughts:
I dwell on history. Someone famous once said something like, "I don't read history any more because I pretty much know what happened." But that isn't what it's all about. It's about why it happened and what people were thinking when it did and how they processed it afterwards. The changes in the things they emphasize in the study of U.S. history just during my lifetime tell me that history isn't a collection of facts, any more than philosophy is a collection of ideas about existence. It's facts laid over a system of thinking. Or maybe it's a system of thinking formed to fit a set of facts. Sometimes, as with religions and political ideals, the system overshadows the facts so much that the basic occurrences are either ignored, denied, or entirely misshapen, all to fit the religion or politics. Once something has happened it's no longer the event that matters much, but the way people think about it. There is no way to predict what people will think even about a purely objective natural fact, such as a hurricane. They might see it as a manifestation of the wrath of God or a failure of the government to be there to fix it--the same God they praise for his loving kindness and the same government they resent for its intrusion into their lives. Apart from being the study of "what happened," in any absolute sense, history is the study of what people decide those happenings mean. Usually historians are the scriveners of the dominant elements of a society but sometimes, when those dominant elements are feeling guilty about being dominant, the scriveners put on hair shirts and take the side of those they dominated. So it is, for example, that the story of the "taming of the West" can become, inside of a generation, the story of the shameful displacement and extermination of the noble original occupants of the West.
My understanding of the present tells me that people rarely think about history as it is being made, and only in hindsight are they able to put together a coherent narrative of history. And the very act of making a coherent historical narrative goes contrary to the inherent chaos and randomness of things. Historians understand this, no doubt, while the rest of us tend to want to make sense of things in a broader context. The most reliable history might seem at first blush to be the basic fact of what happened, but that isn't what anyone cares about to any great extent. On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. Except to the most freaked-out conspiracy theorist, that is an indisputable fact. But of course that's not what people spend most of their time talking about. They want to know who killed him, with how many bullets, from which direction or directions, at whose behest, and all that. Books are written, movies made, and an entire industry rises up around these peripheral questions. Indeed all murder stories focus on these elements: the death itself is rarely worth spending much time on, even though it is the one event of the drama without which nothing else can happen. Despite our urge to turn all of history into a series of mysteries, ultimately solvable, and despite the best efforts of conspiracy theorists to put the event into a more compelling narrative, the facts of the JFK assassination have ultimately proven to be pretty pedestrian and straightforward: a guy got a rifle, sat at an open window, and fired several shots. Actually, the more our technology in reconstructing the events improves, the more likely it becomes that that is exactly what happened. But even if all the many ideas of all the conspiracy theorists are correct, virtually none of them have had any effect on the event itself or on its predictable and ordinary aftermath. A family lost a husband and father. The vice president was sworn in as president, just as had happened on the seven previous occasions when a president died in office. The nation mourned and there was a big funeral. The U.S. government, to whose ongoing existence John Kennedy had dedicated and subordinated himself, went on without him.
Now let's look at a more recent major event, the bombings of the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon, which happened by means of individuals crashing jet airplanes loaded with fuel and people into those buildings. This took place on September 11, 2001. Four planes were hijacked by a total of nineteen men. Three of them hit targets, and the fourth crashed in a field. All the passengers, crew, hijackers, and many people in the buildings were killed. The World Trade Towers were completely destroyed. The Pentagon was repaired and restored. Can anyone seriously dispute these facts as I have just related them?
In this case, as with the Kennedy assassination, conspiracy theories swirl around the quite well-known facts. The attacks on September 11, 2001 were the result of a conspiracy, and a well-executed one at that. But that still doesn't satisfy anyone. In the JFK assassination people looked for a conspiracy, thinking that would lead somewhere, and after several decades they began to give up the search. The event became emblematic, correctly or not, of the deeply sinister and unknown and unknowable power of people to do things we can't control until it's too late. People want to make sense, in some larger context, of an event such as an assassination, but in the end it often just means that obscure people can kill famous people if they wish to, at pretty much any time. Famous people continue to be assassinated regularly. We're comfortable with the idea that individuals or small groups of individuals can make a difference in the world, except when it comes to bad things like assassinations and suicide bombings. And what makes us most uncomfortable is that we have no way of knowing when something bad will happen again.
Except to the families of the dead, the aftermath of 9/11 turned out to be far more important than the event itself, just the same as with the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. The victory has been entirely on the side of the original perpetrators of the events and their fellow conspirators. In one efficient, well-coordinated morning's work a small group brought an entire country to its knees and plunged it into a multi-billion dollar decade-long punitive war against Arabs everywhere in which several times as many U.S. citizens have died as died on the day of the original attacks, and the country has been reduced to bragging about its use of torture and the suspension of habeas corpus, not to mention its slaughter of nearly a million Iraqis and Afghanis. What cadre wouldn't gladly sacrifice nineteen soldiers to create such havoc?
I have a fearless prediction, one that you may have already thought of yourself. Given the fact that organized labor counts for practically nothing in this country any more, and also given the fact that we're approaching the 10th anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001, Labor Day will soon morph into a 9/11 Memorial or Remembrance Day, dedicated not to working men and women but rather to OURSELVES generally as a country. In that way we can feel solemnly sorry for ourselves and victimized all over again each year, most likely forgetting or ignoring several key things:
(1) the western economic imperialism that fostered the hatred that led to the event;
(2) the religious fundamentalism that fueled it and which we have answered in kind with the growth of our own religious fundamentalism; and
(3) the incredible strategic economy with which a self-deluded few can bring down the self-deluded many.
Fiscal economy at the national and state levels will preclude an extra holiday in September, so we'll continue to use the first Monday in September for this purpose. Could it be that congressmen from NY or the hinterlands have already suggested this holiday shift?
Someone else famous said something like, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." By this measure we are all perpetually condemned, in large part because we rarely remember the past the same way from day to day, let alone from year to year or generation to generation. Perhaps a more useful if less aphoristic way to think about it is that we should be careful which version of the past we choose, because that is probably the one we are condemned to repeat.