Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Rhyme of History

Once again, I am teaching Modernity in Literature.  At this point, our class is learning about World War I  by reading the World War I poets and also some very good essays about the time of the war.

We just considered Philip Larkin's 1960 poem "MCMXIV" in which he describes the line of young men waiting to sign up to fight in the war.  That's where the photo comes in.  No one then had a clue that the war would last four terrible years, would kill 10 million British soldiers, and would change everyone's view of the world.

One of the essays I assigned was written one hundred years after the beginning of World War I, in 2013,   by Margaret Macmillan. She called her essay "The Rhyme of History"  after an observation by Mark Twain:

History never repeats itself, but it rhymes.


That really struck me.  She goes on to comment:

The past cannot provide us with clear blueprints for how to act, for it offers such a multitude of lessons that it leaves us free to pick and choose among them to suit our own political and ideological inclinations. Still, if we can see past our blinders and take note of the telling parallels between then and now, the ways in which our world resembles that of a hundred years ago, history does give us valuable warnings.

Much of what she says about the first seven months of 1914 made me think about our present situation.   It's certainly not the same, but I think it does rhyme:
More quotes from her essay:

...The decades leading up to 1914 were, like our own time, a period of dramatic shifts and upheavals, which those who experienced them thought of as unprecedented in speed and scale.


...Then, as now, there was a huge expansion in global trade and investment. And then as now waves of immigrants were finding their way to foreign lands—Indians to the Caribbean and Africa, Japanese and Chinese to North America, and millions of Europeans to the New World and the Antipodes.


...What they failed to see was the downside of interdependence. In Europe a hundred years ago the landowning classes saw their prosperity undermined by cheap agricultural imports from abroad and their dominance over much of society undercut by a rising middle class and a new urban plutocracy. As a result, many of the old upper classes flocked to conservative, even reactionary, political movements. In the cities, artisans and small shopkeepers whose services were no longer needed were also drawn to radical right-wing movements. Anti-Semitism flourished as Jews were made the scapegoat for the march of capitalism and the modern world.

The world is witnessing unsettling parallels today. Across Europe and North America, radical right-wing movements like the British National Party and the Tea Party provide outlets for the frustration and fears that many feel as the world changes around them and the jobs and security they had counted on disappear. Certain immigrants—such as Muslims—come to stand in as the enemy in some communities.


...Globalization can also have the paradoxical effect of fostering intense localism and nativism, frightening people into taking refuge in the comfort of small, like-minded groups. One of the unexpected results of the Internet, for example, is how it can narrow horizons so that users seek out only those whose views echo their own and avoid websites that might challenge their assumptions.

Globalization also makes possible the widespread transmission of radical ideologies and the bringing together of fanatics who will stop at nothing in their quest for the perfect society. In the period before World War I, anarchists and revolutionary socialists across Europe and North America read the same works and had the same aim: to overthrow the existing social order.

I could go on.  The essay is complex and thought-provoking.  She's concerned about the tense relationship between the US and China, but in the four years since the essay was written, it is Russia and Putin who have emerged as more of a threat... not to mention ISIS . And, of course,
Donald Trump.

Mikhail Gorbachev: 'It All Looks as if the World Is Preparing for War'

That headline appeared in Time Magazine over a January 26 essay by the former leader of the Soviet Union. 
While I am teaching about Great Britain and Europe in the first three decades of the twentieth century, I can't help wondering if the citizens of our own country ( myself included) are blithely bumbling along in our comfort zone, unaware of what could be looming ahead.


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