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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Lights Blink Out One By One

On trying to see history from the perspective of a participant.

I do not get writer’s block, in the sense of not knowing what to say. I get what I call writer’s paralysis, which is rather the opposite, which is where there are so many things to say that it is impossible to know where to start and I get overwhelmed by the size of the task and just want to go to sleep and never have to think about writing again.

I am daunted by the number of things I feel the need to say, not because I consider myself some sort of uniquely insightful mind whose every thought is a precious pearl, but because I am conscious of myself as a person-in-historical-time. There are a thousand things I need to write because there are a thousand things that need to be said over and over that are not being said and I am somebody with a keyboard and the clock is ticking.

You have perhaps asked yourself some variation on the famous thought experiment: what would you do if you were transported back in time to the year 1940, or 1930, or 1920, knowing what horrors were slowly being built towards, and having a responsibility to do something to stop them? The usual answer is “kill Hitler” because this seems as if it would be a uniquely effective way to assist humanity. But while it is enjoyable to fantasize about an alternate, Hitler-free 20th century, the specific hypothetical is not particularly instructive for our own time. More interesting, perhaps, is to think about what we’d do if set down in 1900, and tasked with the prevention of the pointless bloodbath that was the First World War. How, as a small person of limited talents, but with “free will” (or whatever the thing we call free will is; if you don’t like term, call it our ability to consciously make choices), some foreknowledge of what will take place, and a bit of time on our hands—how would we act in order to try to keep civilization from collapsing into unnecessary slaughter? 

I do not especially recommend spending time coming up with an elaborate 14-year strategy to prevent the First World War, since it is unlikely at this point that such a plan can be implemented. However, what we should realize is that we have found ourselves in exactly the same imaginary situation: we are people plopped down in history, which is going somewhere, and we do not know if we can alter its direction, but we know that we have a responsibility to try. Unfortunately, we are not actually granted foreknowledge of what horrible things may happen in the future if nobody tries to stop them. But we do have a series of examples of the sorts of things that could happen, because they have happened before.

I am a tiny and mostly ineffectual person, a speck on a speck in the middle of an unfathomably large, cold void. But looking at the past, and becoming aware that you yourself are part of one of those groups that appear in history books, it’s just that your book hasn’t been written yet—this gives a deep feeling of responsibility. I know that if I woke up tomorrow in 1950 it would be my job to try to stop the bloody American invasion of Vietnam from beginning. But I’ve woken up here, in 2020, so when our page is written, what do I want it to say that I did? 

Not that I, an individual, can really matter too much. But we can certainly look at those who passively accepted the injustices in their societies and think: my God, I don’t want to be among the “Those People” of my own generation. But how do you know what is about to happen? How do you know where to act, what to do? The paralysis can come because there is so much going on around you at any one time, and everything feels beyond our control, that we just feel we are barely staying afloat while being carried by a gigantic tidal wave, and it is as futile to try to turn the course of history as it is to try to stop a tsunami. But the most unsettling thing is that this is the reassuring lie. Being certain of your powerlessness lets you get away with quietism; I can do nothing so I do not need to try. The truth is far worse: there might be a way to stop the wave, and it might be our job to figure it out.

I think about the Holocaust far more than is psychologically healthy. But it’s important to think about the Holocaust, because we have to understand how such things can happen if we’re not going to be doomed to repeat them. It was perhaps “the most fantastic outburst of collective insanity in human history.” Perfectly “ordinary” people, who loved their families and went to the movies, constructed an industrial-scale system of extermination designed to wipe out millions of other perfectly ordinary people’s lives as efficiently as possible. They would have continued to diligently operate this giant killing machine indefinitely if it had not been seized and destroyed. How can such a thing happen? Racism, it is easy to say. Anti-Semitism had been a constant presence in Europe for a thousand years and in some ways the Holocaust was simply a more high-tech, ruthless, and bureaucraticized approach to old persecution. But I guarantee you that there were plenty of Nazi death camp guards who would have objected to being told they hated Jews. “I don’t hate anybody,” they’d tell you. “It’s just a job.” They would likely have held horrific racist opinions on a subconscious level. But they wouldn’t have noticed that their opinions were horrific. Indeed, Himmler believed the “Nazi Final solution [was] a righteous act, committed out of necessity, idealism, and ‘love of our people.’” The banality of evil is what makes it so frightening: it is often not “monsters” who do terrible things, but people disconcertingly similar to ourselves, whose prejudices were just different than our own. 

One of the most distressing experiences I’ve had was looking through the New York Times archive for the 20s and 30s and watching the rise of Hitler be treated with detachment and disinterest rather than outright alarm. While his beliefs were clear at the outset, he was treated as harmless until it was too late, and the world plunged into the abyss of death and mayhem that was the Second World War. I do not want to be the equivalent of the New York Times in the 1920s. I do not want anything terrible to happen that I stood passively by and watched unfold without trying to stop. 

A problem, however, is that without the ability to predict the future, you don’t know if you’re crazy or alarmist. Take, for example, QAnon. It is a wacky conspiracy theory alleging that Donald Trump is fighting against a group of Satanist pedophiles who run a child sex-trafficking ring. It is the sort of thing I feel like I can dismiss, because it is marginal. But there is some polling to suggest that a large number of Republicans, or perhaps even most of them, now believe in this. One of its believers is set to be a Congressperson next year. What do we do with this information? Is this dangerous? If so, how dangerous? How do we stop it? Is this theory/movement creeping into the mainstream or is its support being blown out of proportion by journalists who find it fascinating?  

 It is very difficult to establish actual trends with certainty. If you look at a skyline full of blinking lights, and some are popping off and some are popping on, it may be hard for a while to tell whether there are becoming gradually more lights or gradually fewer lights. You will know only when it has crossed a threshold of extremity that makes it plainly noticeable to the naked eye. For example, have a look at a typical scatter plot. I don’t know what the context of this particular graph is, but that doesn’t matter:

The line is tracking an overall trend. The higher the quantity on the X axis, the higher the quantity on the Y axis. But that is on average. If all we see are the dots, without the line, it can be difficult to know whether there even is a trend line, whether some kind of correlation actually exists or is illusory and the product of our biases.

Take, for example, the question of cruelty. Are we becoming a more cruel society? It feels that way, and one can cite instances of horrible cruelty that seem to validate that feeling. But how do we know which direction the trend is actually running? I have a suspicion that Donald Trump’s presence in the White House makes people less empathetic, that he emboldens bosses and cops to be nastier. But perhaps everything is actually mostly the same at a person-to-person level, and Trump simply puts an uglier, more direct and less hypocritical face on the same injustices as have been happening for a long time. 

If things are in fact getting worse, where will they stop? Is Trump a potential dictator in the making? He certainly doesn’t want to leave office. It’s deeply disturbing to me that Trump’s agents recently killed a protester accused of a crime, and Trump defended it as a form of “retribution.” Extrajudicial killings are about the most authoritarian move imaginable. Would this get worse in a second term? How much worse? I recently had an argument with political scientist Benjamin Studebaker about what the respective victories of Trump or Biden would mean for the country. Studebaker thinks Trump will be ineffectual and unpopular, and that little will happen. I worry that in a second term, Trump will be emboldened, and will escalate his efforts to dismantle all emissions regulation, destroy the asylum system, and will openly persecute dissidents. Which one of us is right? We are each looking at a chaotic array of dots and trying to discern a pattern. Personally, I do not want to find out what a second Trump term entails. It scares the hell out of me. Perhaps what I see in the dots is a function of my own bias rather than the facts. I hope it is.

Things change, but they do not change all at once and they do not change all in the same direction, which can make it difficult to know which way the wind is blowing. And sometimes you don’t notice a trend, because one new light is turning on while three are turning off, and you are distracted by the one and miss the three. Is the left growing stronger or weaker? My sense is stronger, but I also know, looking at history, that we can be wiped out very quickly. The American Socialist Party had 1,000 people in office during the first decade of the 20th century. By 1917, it was essentially irrelevant, and the country developed war fever. History’s turns happen rather quickly, and our assumption that things are permanent are often false. 

So does the assumption that everything will be put back to normal. I look at all the boarded-up businesses in my neighborhood, and I assume things will “come back eventually.” But I also know that for centuries, many people have probably told themselves something similar, only for it to turn out that the change they thought was temporary turns out to be permanent. One day, whether through an invasion or a natural disaster, what looked eternal turned out to be very delicate. The Library of Alexandria had been around for 700 years before it was destroyed. But once it was gone, it was gone. It did not come back. 

When you become conscious of yourself as a historical agent, as someone whose job is to do something to help keep things from veering suddenly down the path they did in 1914 and 1933 (and in the 60s and 2003, with Vietnam and Iraq), you feel simultaneously scared and empowered. Scared because you realize that everything good could go away, if certain historical trends were to be replicated in our own time. Empowered because you realize that you may—you do not know, but you may—have the capacity to help keep things from turning in the wrong direction. Certainly you have the responsibility. You look at those in the past and you think “Why didn’t they?” And then you realize that’s you, and that the same question is being asked of you. You realize to your horror that you matter, and that you want to have a damn good answer ready when you are asked what you did at the time. 

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