Saturday, February 27, 2016

Wars Cast Long Shadows (Part II: World War II)

As discussed in my previous post, it has taken well over a century to begin to address the shadows that continue to be cast by World War I:  the strangling of the dreams of indigenous peoples in Africa and the Middle East by the dead hands of colonial boundary-makers.  The war's direct offspring, World War II, casts giant shadows of its own, especially for the victims of the Holocaust. But America struggles with shadows of its own from "The Big One"--the shadows that come with victory.

As the war ended in 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union were the dominant military powers on Earth.  But, when economic prosperity was factored in, there was no question that America, quite literally, was Number One.  From the end of the war until well into the 1970s, the prosperity of the U.S. and its people were the envy of the world.  As a consequence, American culture began to ascend as the dominant culture in the world.  And, in many ways, it still is the dominant culture, even as other nations have replace our dominance in key areas.  Toyota may be bigger than General Motors, for example, but Hollywood is still synonymous with films and television.

I was born in 1956 (there, no lying about my age; I'll be 60 in September, G-d willing), so I remember what it felt like to live and to come of age in this era.  Most Americans felt like they had more than enough to not only survive, but to enjoy life.  And no one questioned whether this feeling would last indefinitely.  Somehow, to all of us, it seemed like it would.  And should.  And so, all of us, together, including those of us who should have known better, ignored the lessons of history that should teach us all about the precarious nature of life, and the position of nations in relation to each other.

Unfortunately, the post-war era, was also the beginning of what was called movement conservatism, best exemplifed by the beliefs of William F. Buckley as expressed in his syndicated column and the magazine he founded, National Review.  With NR in particular, Buckley's goal was twofold: to purge American conservatism of its racial, anti-intellectual tendencies (an admirable goal, then and now), but to otherwise freeze the cultural, social and economic development of the country at a point that Buckley and his followers could tolerate.  Or, as Buckley himself memorably put it, to stand athwart history and yell, "Halt!"

The ahistorical arrogance of that goal should tell you something about the giddy optimism of the post-war era.  Only people surrounded by an overpowering sense of success could conceive of a project that would actually freeze everything in the nation from developing, from improving, from changing in any way.  Or believe that such a project could ever be successful.  The ultimate irony, of course, is that conservatism is a political philosophy that is allegedly grounded in the need to learn the lessons of history.  One of the most important of those lessons was best summed up by someone a Wall Street-centric type like Buckley should have admired:  T. Rowe Price, a pioneer in the world of mutual funds:  "Change is the investor's only certainty."*

History is not something that one can stand athwart; if one does so, one is more likely than not to be run over by it.  And no amount of economic prosperity can stop that, because history is affected by far more than the saving and spending of money.  It is ultimately affected by the changing needs of people, especially as those changes are expressed in the hopes and dreams of successive generations, and especially as each of these generations see what their predecessors have left undone.  For these reasons, it is not the business of a truly great nation to stop history, but to adapt to the changes brought about by each generation.  The narrative of history is filled with the stories of seemingly invincible empires and nations states that failed to survive because they failed to adapt.

Yet here we are, some sixty years after the founding of National Review, and conservatives are still trying to freeze history--or, in the words of Donald Trump, "make America great again."  Wrong, Mr. Trump:  America has never stopped being great, because America, however fitfully, has never failed to adapt to change.  Only movement conservatives, still wrapped up in a post-war mentality when it comes to American power and might, fail the need to do so.

For the sake of the nation, and the human race, I hope and pray that their view of history and American power does not prevail at the ballot box this fall.

*Full disclosure:  I was born in and live near Baltimore, where T. Rowe Price Associates is headquartered, and worked for the firm in the 1980s.

No comments: