It was a brilliant summer day in a world at peace. The world’s superpowers, once locked into conflict by irreconcilable ideologies, were now alike committed to stable, prosperous co-existence. Their vast military establishments, they said, existed solely for self-defense. Except in a few backward lands, horsetrading had replaced brinksmanship.
New industrial and information technologies were annihilating distance, uniting mankind and globalizing the world economy. The English language had leaped far beyond its island home, and now knit together hundreds of millions of people on four continents. Medical advances were rapidly stretching the human lifespan, while new agricultural methods offered hope of eradicating hunger. Research, science, and philosophies of progress had weakened the hold of religion in countries that once had fought bloody doctrinal conflicts and persecuted dissenters. Transnational organizations in defense of human rights were striving with rising success to eliminate evils like forced labor and torture, and reform movements in once-tyrannical countries promised to gradually introduce democracy. Man had become, more than ever before, the measure of all things, and political philosophers predicted with confidence that mankind’s self-destructive history was drawing to an end; we had entered a new and perhaps the final phase of human development, an age of reason. The sun that dawned that morning shone bright as all our hopes in a sky almost clear of clouds.
So it was on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand came to visit. So also on September 11, 2001, in Manhattan, as millions of New Yorkers made their way to work. Those of us who remember what occurred just ten years ago should know that all of it happened once before: an act of political terror committed by a small band of conspirators plunged the world into a conflict that would take on a life and logic of its own—claiming countless lives, causing undreamt-of destruction, consuming vast resources, making mincemeat of ancient liberties, reviving bloodthirsty fanaticisms that enlightened people had thought long-dead, toppling governments, causing ethnic cleansing that displaced millions of civilians, and plunging the wealthiest part of the world into economic stagnation and crippling debt. The fact that history grimly repeats itself should only surprise those who do not believe in original sin—which means that it surprises almost everybody.
What can we learn from reading these two great signposts of disillusion? Perhaps there is no useful lesson we may draw beyond a bitter irony, a grim smile of agreement with Rudyard Kipling:
As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!
But that is too easy, isn’t it?
It might do, for those who plan to have no children, to leave behind no hostages to fortune. For anyone else, what is needed is more than cynicism, or stoic acceptance of what Freud called the “thanatos principle,” man’s inborn compulsion to build, tear down, then re-build the Tower of Babel. We want more than insight. What we crave, more than bread, is hope.
Hope is radically different from optimism. Stock analysts and campaign managers are optimistic—even when caution is called for. Optimism is the fragile dream that pervaded the West in 1914 and 2001. It was shattered by just one attack. Hope can survive in cancer wards and even concentration camps—as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Victor Frankl have testified. Hope exists, if you will, in a fourth dimension that cuts across the world we can see at an angle we cannot imagine. It rises from secret places in the heart where the torturers cannot find it, and spreads through quiet gestures or silent prayers they cannot quash. Hope is what Winston Smith hungered for in 1984, but all he knew how to look for was optimism—a plausible prospect for social change. And so he cursed God and died.
If we in our darkening times would not learn to love Big Brother, we need a higher, indestructible Love. To find it, we must claw our way through the detritus that blocks our path. Much of the rubbish consists of the empty boxes that held our optimism, the wrapping paper from the gifts we gave ourselves. We must realize, deep in the bone, that there is no salvation in a cargo cult, that we can place no faith in princes, or in whispered, promised knowledge that will help us be “as gods.”
The centuries-long effort to place man at creation’s apex, which our ancestors hailed as “humanism,” ended by goading men to sterilize, butcher and bomb their brothers. The adventure of secular science led by a straight, steady path from Galileo’s ebullient, “Eppur si muove!” to Robert Oppenheimer’s epiphany: “I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Without renouncing the wondrous powers to improve man’s life that come with scientific discipline, we urgently need to rediscover what too many humanists and scientists impatiently set aside. We must rummage through their libraries and labs to find the questions they suppressed, the data they fudged. We have spent five centuries asking only “How?” We must step back and ask again, “Why?” The answer will help us resist many temptations, of the sort our race falls into so very easily—to use the superhuman powers we gain in inhuman ways, to treat the weak, the “other,” the Enemy, as subhumans, as flies we can kill for sport. (King Lear)
To restrain ourselves and each other, to prepare a liveable future, there are certain fundamental axioms we need to accept as the bedrock of human rights and lasting peace. We do not need an infallible authority to reveal them; any honest student of twentieth century history could piece them together by looking at which perennial truths totalitarian movements systematically sought to deny:
I) The unique and absolute value of every human person, at each stage of life, who must be treated not as a means but an end in him or herself.
II) The transcendent moral order against which every law, custom, or policy must be judged, regardless of culture or government.
III) The duty of governments to serve the governed and defend—not replace or control—the free institutions of civil society.
IV) The priority of certain core humane values over economic or political expediency.
In the next several articles in this series, I will unfold the implications of each of these “inconvenient truths”—so styled because they stand in the way of every “pure” ideology that has emerged in the course of modernity, each partial truth about man that claims his absolute loyalty. They are speed bumps, if you will, on the road to any bruited utopia.
By slowing or even stopping us short of choosing “easy” shortcuts that render us less human, these “gods of the copybook headings” may well be thought of as commandments—or if you prefer, the wisdom of history, for which our parents and grandparents paid such a very high price in past hundred bloody years.
This is the first installment of a four-part series that will appear here. This essay originally appeared at Biggovernment.com on Sept. 11, 2011.