Wednesday, December 26, 2007

History as prophecy


Back when I could read fine print, I spent a winter reading the 1972 edition of "The Columbia History of the World," authored by the Columbia University history faculty. I slogged through all 1,165 pages of it. It was spring when I finished. I was glad the book hadn't been published in 2072, after a lot more wars, refugee migrations, currency collapses and epidemics.

Not that reading all the way to 2072 wouldn't have been worth my while. I would have invested in Microsoft and Yahoo and Google. I wouldn't have hiked to the base of Mount St. Helens in early May of 1980. I would have written a heartfelt letter to George W. Bush, begging him to stop his drinking before it caused irreparable brain damage.

But maybe it's better that history appears to end with this morning's cup of coffee and this edition of the paper. We wouldn't want to know next year's gas prices, or who will knock the Yankees out of the playoffs next October, or if the weddings we attend are the opening acts of bitter divorces. Knowing where and what the next terrorist attack would be, for example, would start a desperate attempt to stop tragedy, with new tragedy coming out of the effort. A struggle with fate would replace freedom in our lives, and you don't have to be Oedipus to know that's a lousy trade-off.

Of course, the people with starring roles in "The Columbia History of the World" saw themselves free of fate, too, when in fact they were trapped within it. It's the way you and I are going to appear to any historian of 2072. We could all be in the position of a Jewish physician with a loving family, a flourishing practice, a fine home—in Prague in 1933.

A more recent book is relevant here: Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel, "Oryx and Crake," shows a near future when biotechnology underwrites the world economy, when health and truth are sold to the highest bidder and when as soon as a technology is developed, it is immediately indentured to commerce. But Atwood is no prophet. The time she's writing about is our own, unexaggerated, because there's no way to exaggerate what drug companies, life-extension researchers and bioweaponeers are doing right now. There is no way to exaggerate the commodification of the world, no way to pretend that uncontrolled technology isn't making us its slaves. Watch a kid playing a video game, and you'll see what I mean.

Atwood writes in the grand tradition of dystopian novelists. George Orwell's "1984" was about its year of publication, 1948. Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" incarnated the dreams of 1930s eugenicists. H.G. Wells wrote "The Time Machine" as a satire on the class system in Edwardian England. Hailed as prophets of what would be, these writers just saw the implications of what was.

There are, however, legitimate prophets out there, some of them Columbia emeriti. Read "The Columbia History of the World" over the next 10 weeks and note the following: 1) None of the empires mentioned in the book endured beyond the book. 2) No military campaign ever gained its objective without horrific unintended consequences. 3) Families of the rich and powerful fall to decadence and sloth within three generations. 4) An uncorrupted system of finance and law is always more important to a nation's security than a large military. 5) Technology never is implemented without destroying whole regions and cultures. 6) Populations increase until they outrun their food supply. 7) Old men want to be remembered, even if it's for the evil they do. 8) The further you go back in history, the more important artists become.

Those are all generalizations, but are as likely to be true in 2072 as they were in 1972.

Another generalization is that Americans get the government they deserve. Half the voters of the United States opted for George W. Bush, and the other half couldn't find an effective argument against his re-election. But he isn't a good thinker, and we need a good thinker leading us if we're not going to repeat history, much less become it.

Of course, the Columbia historians argue that it doesn't matter who's in charge. At the tipping point of empire, any leader will be the wrong one. Any good intention will go awry. Every truth will spawn its falsehood.

I hope they're wrong. At issue is whether we'll write our history in 2072, or if someone else will write it for us.

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