The Presence of the Past

History is the process of the past negotiating its terms of surrender to the future.

Although the past cannot defeat the future, it will do, and is currently doing, all it can, to break as many hearts as possible in the present. Cruelty seems to be the guiding principle of those in power, in the USA and across the globe, as they confront the horror of knowing that their power will soon be gone forever.

church

This is nothing new. In 19th Century Europe, monarchies crumbled under a rising tide of democracy. In the 21st, with a little courage and devotion to honesty and justice, we might see white male privilege go the way of kings, kaisers, and czars.

See if you recognize our current situation in these words that Victor Hugo wrote in 1862:

The past, it is true, is very strong right now. It is reviving. This revivification of a corpse is surprising. Here it is walking and advancing. It seems victorious; this dead man is a conqueror. He comes with his legion, superstitions, with his sword, despotism, with his banner, ignorance; within a little time he has won ten battles. He advances, he threatens, he laughs, he is at our doors. As for us, we will not despair.

We who believe, what can we fear?

There is no backward flow of ideas any more than of rivers.

But those who do not want the future should think it over. In saying no to progress, it is not the future they condemn, but themselves…There is only one way of refusing tomorrow and that is to die.

He concludes that chapter of Les Miserables with this observation of the relative powers of the hopes of the future and the fears of the past:

The ideal…thus lost in the depths – minute, isolated, imperceptible, shining, but surrounded by all those great black menaces monstrously amassed around it, yet no more in danger than a star in the jaws of the clouds.

Temple of Hera2

Notre Dame

I have thought for a long time that what we think of as American culture is in a lot of ways the heritage of the indigenous people of this continent. It’s not just that we use their names to call our rivers, our mountains, and our towns. Their spirituality has permeated all religions and philosophies that have taken root in this fertile land. Whether we came from Europe, or Africa, or Asia, the people whose home this was first are part of our history and destiny.

Another indelible part of our history and our destiny comes from Paris. Voltaire and Rousseau, L’Enfant and Lafayette, are also founding fathers of Les États Unis.

aa

I first saw the spire of Notre Dame cathedral on my honeymoon, 29 years ago this June. Today I saw it go down in flames and while I know there were no lives lost, and any life means more than an inanimate object, no matter how iconic, it feels like what we lost today is not inanimate. What we lost today was a piece of something we can’t afford to lose.

CCF04152019_00000 (3)
Me and a bell that probably melted today

The Impermanence of Human Life

We are helpless in this world.
The years and months slip past
Like a swift stream, which grasps and drags us down.
A hundred pains pursue us, one by one.

Girls, with the wrists clasped round
With Chinese jewels, join hands
And play their youth away.
But time cannot be stopped,
And when their youth is gone
Their jet-black hair – black as fish’s bowels –
Turns white, like a hard frost.
On their sun-browned, glowing faces,
Wrinkles are etched – by whom?

Boys, with their swords at their waists,
aaaClutching the hunting bow,
Mount their chestnut horses
On saddles linen-spun,
And ride on in their pride.
But is their world eternal?
He pushes back the door
Where a girl sleeps within,
Gropes to her side and lies
Arm on her jewel arm.
But how few are those nights
Before, with stick at waist,
He goes shunned and detested
The old are always so.

We grudge life moving on
But we have no redress.
I would become as those
Firm rocks that see no change.
But I am a man in time
And time must have no stop.

Yamanoue Okura
Circa 700, Japan

Veteran’s Day – More than fighting

This Veteran’s Day I am thinking about the legacy of veterans that goes beyond wars and weapons, to the ideas that compel people to take up arms, and to the wisdom that is gained through experience, especially such transforming experience as war.

Germany, in the early 1930s, was a shithole country. Not that our current president would categorize it that way – most of its residents being white – but it had debts that it could not pay. It rang up those debts in the first World War and thought it might be better to commit further atrocities than to pay off those debts. It was correct. Germany was allowed to prosper after the second World War, regardless of its offenses against the human race, in part because of the Marshall Plan.

General_George_C._Marshall,_official_military_photo,_1946.JPEG
George Marshall

 

Unlike the behavior after previous wars, the Allies did not confiscate the land and property of the Axis powers, or subjugate their people. Instead, the United States government from 1948-1952 gave roughly $100 billion in today’s dollars to rebuild their economies.

 

On June 5, 1947, US Secretary of State George Marshall spoke these words to the graduating class of Harvard University:

 

The modern system of the division of labor upon which the exchange of products is based is in danger of breaking down. … Aside from the demoralizing effect on the world at large and the possibilities of disturbances arising as a result of the desperation of the people concerned, the consequences to the economy of the United States should be apparent to all. It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health to the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace. Our policy is not directed against any country, but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos. Any government that is willing to assist in recovery will find full co-operation on the part of the United States. Its purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist.

The plan had bipartisan support from the Republican Congress and Democratic White House.

From the early 16th Century until the end of World War II, Europe’s militaries conquered or subjugated almost every other country on Earth and fought continuously against each other. Other than the warfare that accompanied the collapse of Yugoslavia, and Russian invasions of Crimea and Ukraine, Europe has known peace for seven decades.

The changes in America were profound as well. Before the second World War most Americans were isolationist but as we learned the interconnected nature of human society in the 20th Century, we developed more globalist views. The realization that all the people of the world have more in common that opposition has brought peace and prosperity that the world never knew during millennia of nationalism. The wave of nationalist movements in the US and across the globe today pose a threat to the internationalist policies that we pioneered and whose value have been proven by experience.

earthspace_featuredart-85757273

On This Day – The Sutton Hoo Helmet



On this day in 1939, over 500 fragments of a helmet were discovered on the property of an English woman named Edith Pretty who had hired archeologists to excavate 18 burial mounds located on her property.

 

The pieces were originally reconstructed in 1946 and put on display in the British Museum. In recognition of this find, Winston Churchill offered Ms. Pretty the “Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.” She declined.


A further excavation in 1967 unearthed more pieces and in 1971 the current reconstruction was put on display.

From Wikipedia:


“The Sutton Hoo helmet is a decorated Anglo-Saxon helmet discovered during the 1939 excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship-burial. Buried around 625, it is widely believed to have been the helmet of King Rædwald; for whom its elaborate decoration may have given it a secondary function almost akin to a crown. The helmet is “the most iconic object” from one “of the most spectacular archaeological discoveries ever made,” and one of the most important Anglo-Saxon artefacts ever found. Its visage, with eyebrows, nose and moustache creating the image of a man who is then joined by a dragon’s head to become a soaring dragon with outstretched wings, has become a symbol not only of the Dark Ages, but also “of Archaeology in general.” Excavated as hundreds of rusted fragments, the helmet was first displayed following an initial reconstruction in 1945–46, and then again, in its present form, after a second reconstruction in 1970–71. Along with all the other finds from Sutton Hoo, the helmet was determined by a treasure trove inquest to be the property of the landowner of the site of the ship-burial, Edith May Pretty. She subsequently donated all the objects to the British Museum, where they were conserved and put on display; in 2017 the helmet was on view in Room 41.”

Independence Day

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another
and to assume among the powers of the earth, 
the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, 
a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident,
that all men are created equal, 
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,
that among these are 
Life, 
Liberty 
and the pursuit of Happiness. 

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men,
deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends,
it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, 
and to institute new Government, 
laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, 
as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. 
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for 
light and transient causes; 
and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, 
while evils are sufferable 
than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. 
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, 
pursuing invariably the same Object 
evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, 
it is their right, 
it is their duty, 
to throw off such Government, 
and to provide new Guards for their future security.

And for the support of this Declaration, 
with a firm reliance on the 
protection of divine Providence, 
we mutually pledge 
to each other 
our Lives, 
our Fortunes 
and our sacred Honor.