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De ratificatie van de Vrede van MunsterOver several years in the 1870s, composer Bedrich Smetana wrote a series of six tone poems for orchestra that he titled Ma Vlast, or “My Country.” Although the patriotism explicit in Smetana’s music is genuine, the fact is Smetana was a citizen of the Habsburg Empire and grew up speaking German. His most popular piece of music is “Vlatva,” a glorification of the river that runs through what is now the Czech Republic, but is almost universally known by its German name, “Die Moldau.”

It is one of the stranger and unremarked oddnesses of history that most of those Nationalist composers of the 19th century had no nation to call home. Dvorak had no Czechoslovakia, Liszt had no Hungary, Edvard Grieg’s Norway was ruled by a Swedish king, and despite all the mazurkas and polonaises that Chopin wrote, there was no Poland on the face of the earth. Even the Germany extolled in Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger” was only a gleam in the eye of Otto von Bismarck.

In truth, they were not so much “nationalist” composers as composers of ethnic awareness. Which brings up an important point. What we mean by a “nation” is a fairly recent concoction, and although we tend nowadays to assume that a map divided into colors bounded by border lines is a natural and inevitable reality, history tells us otherwise.

We hear politicians and demagogues harangue us about national sovereignty and the threat of immigrants diluting our national character, and we tend to regard our country — regardless of whether it is the United States, Germany, China or Iraq — as a fixed and permanent “thing” consecrated by history and natural law. But a closer look tells us otherwise. Our idea of a nation-state is rather new in history, and may have been merely a temporary thing. To take it as unchanging and unchangeable is a serious miscalculation.

Going back before reliable history, kingdoms were just areas successfully defended by military leaders who demanded taxes in a kind of protection racket. No one spent much fret over what languages the subjugated people spoke, or what their ethnic descent might be.

Through the Middle Ages, when we speak of Henry V at Agincourt what we are talking about is real estate. Henry ruled land, not people. He owned most of the British Isle and a good chunk of the Continent. The people living on his land owed him taxes and fealty — meaning a term in the army when needed. There was no legal construct known as England or France or Germany, but feudal cross-relations and family ties securing deeds of title to chunks of real estate. The idea of a nation as we know it didn’t exist.

1492

It wasn’t until 1648 and the Peace of Westphalia that the concept of the nation-state emerged, and we developed a sense that France exists whether or not a Bourbon sat on the throne, and that national borders were somehow permanentized — although, of course, they weren’t. Wars — now between nations instead of between kings — kept those boundary lines in flux.

Later ideas gave us different concept of nationhood, often in conflict with the Westphalian ideal. Ethnicity gave many people a different sense of identity, even though ethnicity itself is a slippery thing, and can swell and shrink through time, including and excluding various groups and subgroups. Are you European? Are you Polish? Are you a Slav or a German?

Ethnicity sometimes falters in face of language identity. We talk of “Russian speakers” in Ukraine. Are they Ukrainian or Russian? Certainly they are Slavs. Where do we draw the line?

The historical result of all these shifting ambiguities can be seen in the unstable borders seen on maps. Let’s take Poland as an example. If we think of the country as it exists currently, stuck between Germany and Ukraine, we might assume this was somehow the true and ultimately proper place for Poland. But the country has rolled around the map of Europe like a bead of mercury on a plate. At times it reached the Black Sea, at times it vanished from the face of the earth. You can see this in a clever You Tube video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=66y49BnxLfQ

Poland pre-war outlined in blue; postwar outlined in red.

Poland pre-war outlined in blue; postwar outlined in red.

At times Poland expanded, at times, joined with the kingdom of Lithuania, after it was split into pieces and annexed by Prussia, Russia and Austria in 1795 it ceased to exist as a nation, until it was reconstituted in 1918 at the end of the First World War. It was invaded in 1939 by both Germany and the Soviet Union and essentially disappeared again. After World War II, because Stalin refused to give back his half, the entire country lifted up its skirts and moved some 200 miles to the west, where it set itself down again and became the Poland we have now — although that is no guarantee that it won’t move again sometime in the future. The eastern half of Poland became part of the Soviet Union until it split off and became Ukraine, while the eastern third of Germany, having lost the war, turned into the western half of Poland and millions of German-speaking inhabitants were politely asked to relocate in East Germany — which later reunited with West Germany to be the Germany we have today.

1918

You might consider Yugoslavia, which is now several different sovereign nations, or the “sovereignty” of Czechoslovakia, which finally gave Smetana and Dvorak their own nation, only to dissolve into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

These constantly unsteady borders should not be seen as anomalies, but rather the norm. You can find another entertaining video displaying the bubbling ferment of national border from roughly AD 1100 to now at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iha3OS8ShYs

(It should be noted that the dates in the animation are not terribly accurate, and should be taken as a general indication of the era demonstrated by the time-lapse maps rather than a precise year-by-year definition.)

1982

We have talked primarily about Europe, but the same sense of unstable borders and the comings and goings of nations can be seen worldwide. Another video worth watching: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6Wu0Q7x5D0

So when some knucklehead politician tells you that the U.S. should defend its “natural” borders, consider the phantom nature of nationhood and its outlines. The United States itself began as a group of 13 separate nation-states joining together for the common good and soon spread outward and westward, eating up other nations, evicting other peoples and other national authorities, stealing most of northern Mexico and reconstituting that nation’s “natural” borders.

1992

All across the world, there are people corralled inside those lines screaming to get out: Basques and Catalans in Spain, Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, Chechens in the Russian Federation, Russians in Ukraine, Scots from Great Britain, Quebecois from Canada, Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Flemish and Walloons in Belgium, Uighurs in China. Driving around southern France and the Camargue, you will come across angry graffiti demanding Occitan separatism

Nationhood is a dynamic; it is not permanent. Russia is altering the map around the Black Sea and globalization is destabilizing the Westphalian arrangement. Corporations are now transnational, the European Union is subverting ancient sovereignties (with considerable pushback from rising nationalisms) and the post-World War I national borders in the Middle East seem ever more tenuous and artificial. Can the Kurds create their own ethnic state? Can Shia and Sunni ever coexist in a multi-sectarian state?

Instead of assuming that the world cannot change and the Rand-McNally maps we grew up with are the way things should be from now into posterity, we should recognize nations as transient entities momentarily agreed to by whoever is powerful enough to maintain a stalemate.

12_angry_men_jury_table

I just got back from jury duty, and boy, are my arms tired.

It was my first jury duty summons since moving to North Carolina; it’s taken them four years to track me down. I must be a favorite of the legal system, because I’ve been on half a dozen juries in my life. Others in my recent panel said they have been on one or two, or none, over the course of their lives. But I am old and I’ve seen a lot.

Each time I serve, I get a lump in my throat because I see from the inside how seriously each of my fellow jurists takes the job. Only once in all those juries was there the stereotypical white businessman on a cellphone barely able to spare a moment to consider the case. He was roundly drummed by the rest of the members and eventually forced to put down the phone.

This case was both simple and dull. A man was charged with drunk driving. He was videotaped during the initial traffic stop and after the arrest, tested via the breathalyzer and shown to have double the legal limit of hooch in his veins. We were all charged by the judge in the case to maintain our presumption of innocence. The defendant sat quietly next to his lawyer and until we heard any evidence, I certainly had no trouble assuming he might be innocent.

If you have never had the pleasure of sitting in a jury box, you might not understand how slow and methodical a trial must be. You can’t ask a witness what someone’s blood alcohol might have been; first you must establish that the witness is qualified to testify and that the equipment used had been recently maintained and whether it was a test accepted by the state of residence and other states in the union. Then the district attorney will take us through the process of administering the test, step by slow, slow step. This simple process of asking the police officer in the witness box whether the defendant had a blood alcohol level above the prescribed point-zero-eight percent can easily fill up an hour, during which time we learn how long the officer has been with the force, what his previous jobs were, where he lives, whether he is married. They nearly asked him to empty his pockets to see what he carries.

During the entire trial, the defendant said nothing, either to the court or to his lawyer, sitting next to him at the table. He might as well have been a stuffed teddy bear. Meanwhile the two D.A.s spread out all the evidence, had us watch the dashboard camera videotape of the traffic stop — most of which was taken up by the man standing behind his car waiting for the police officer who was off-camera in the car filling out paper work.

There were frequent interruptions while the jury marched out of the courtroom into the holding cell while the lawyers conferred with the judge on some legal matter, after which we were marched back in to resume the glacial accumulation of damning evidence. We also learned the marital status of two more police officers. The first witness was the officer who pulled the defendant over at 2 p.m. on a Sunday morning after noticing that he was weaving back and forth in his car. But because that officer hadn’t yet earned the proper certification, he called in backup — an officer cleared to administer the field sobriety tests necessary to determine if an arrest was warranted. The second officer — married, by the way — then gave our borrachista three standard tests, whose scientific pedigrees were painfully explained in trial testimony. We saw on the video that the defendant had trouble with all of the tests — walking heel to toe down a straight line and stumbling on the way; following a pen the officer moved back and forth in front of the defendant’s eyes; and standing on one foot for a prescribed period of time while answering questions.

After a lunch break of an hour and a half — during which time, we are assured, the judge and lawyers were not just imbibing three martinis, but were continuing to conference and work while grabbing a quick bite of sandwich their wives must have packed them in the morning — we resumed. It was time for the defense. The defendant’s attorney stood up professorially and said with due gravity, “No witnesses, your honor.”

The judge turned to us and explained that we were now to hear the summations, which we were not to take as evidence, but purely as spin — although he did not use that precise characterization. The prosecuting attorney just rehearsed the evidence they had previously presented — the failed sobriety tests and the breathalyzer test showing a point-one-five.

He sat down.

The defense attorney got up, walked to the jury and reminded us that the machine that tests a driver’s breath for alcohol was a large, opaque box and we could not see into it, and so, could we really trust the numbers it spit out on a ribbon of paper? Clearly he was grasping at straws.

The judge then explained the law we were to apply and the questions we were to answer and the bailiff marched us back out into the jury room, where on a fast show of hands, we convicted the poor fellow. We were also supposed to decide on two aggravating conditions. The remaining time in the deliberations were spent on deciding if we thought the defendant had been “grossly impaired” while driving, and whether he had reached the aggravating limit of a point-one-five alcohol level. The machine answered the second charge, but we seriously considered the question of what was meant by “grossly.” We sent a note to the judge asking for guidance, and he sent back a not saying “It’s up to you.” We argued back and forth for maybe 10 minutes before we all agreed that we might be able to give him the benefit of a “reasonable doubt” about the word “grossly,” and let him off the hook on that one.

We marched back into the courtroom, went through the prescribed ritual of a jury poll and delivered the verdict and were released by the judge. Everyone else went home. I went back to the courtroom to hear the sentence. Our man was given 180 days in county jail, suspended; a year’s probation; a mandatory alcohol rehabilitation term; loss of driver’s license for two years and a $200 fine. No change of expression on his face.

As they were leaving the courtroom, I asked the prosecuting attorneys if it were not odd that a case with essentially no defense at all should make its way to a jury trial. It would have seemed to the defendant’s advantage to take a plea deal. Why did he insist on going the full monte? “From what I heard,” said the D.A., “pure spite.” He cost the county two days of court time (I haven’t mentioned the first day, which was spent entirely on jury selection. Most of those selected were eventually dismissed. After the panel was finalized with 12 men and women and my name had not been called, I felt something of a relief, until the judge announced, “Now we have choose an alternate.” Bingo. My name. In further news, the next morning when I arrived to be the alternate, one of the jury’s elect had been hospitalized overnight, and so I became Juror No. 6.)

I now am free from jury duty for the next two years, and pocketed a quick $24 for my service. But I have to say, I have never looked upon serving as something to be shunned. Not only is it a civic obligation, it is genuinely interesting. Especially now that I am retired, it provides a welcome break in routine, but even when I was working, it was something I felt was a meaningful look at a part of my humanity that I otherwise would not know, at least no more than what I had gleaned from watching old Perry Mason episodes.

The episode caused me to remember my previous trials, beginning with the first in the mid-1970s. It was for a man named “Babe” who had shot up a pizza parlor in Greensboro, N.C. Babe had come that night with his teenage daughter, who, we learned, was a regular, where she would leave each night with a different man. On the night in question, the comely daughter was approached by a potential suitor (if that is what we might call him) and the father took offense, especially over the haggling of a price for the evening. Apparently Babe didn’t know what line of business his daughter had adopted. Anyway, a fight broke out, beer pitchers were smashed and shards of glass proffered as weapons; Babe then took out his Second-Amendment argument and proceeded to use it to punctuate the ceiling of the establishment. Needless to say, the joint emptied out rapidly and eventually the police came and arrested Babe.

At the trial, Babe, a graduate of no known law school, decided he should be his own defense attorney. The judge asked him if he had ever been arrested before. Babe said yes. The judge asked, “What for?” And Babe said, “You name it.” Let’s just say the defense went downhill from there. Babe’s primary witness was a friend who had run from the pizza parlor the moment the fracas commenced, so he didn’t see anything, but offered himself as a character witness. The judge asked him “Have you ever been arrested?” “Yessir.” “What for?” “Assault on a woman.”

The next trial I was called for was in Arizona and left me with a bad taste in my mouth for civil trials. It was a case where one party claimed the other party had failed in its obligation to a contract. Let me say right now, that if you ever find yourself summoned to a jury, pray you get a criminal case and not a civil one. We in the jury sat through a week of financial statements, ledger books, fine print, receipts and transcribed telephone conversations. Day after day, the slow build up of numbers piled on top of numbers, witnesses claiming this fiduciary that and that binding word this. At the end of the week, we were called back from the jury room and told we were dismissed, as the parties had settled out of court. That is a week of stultifying boredom I will never have restored to my brief span on this earth.

On the other hand, a criminal trial can be unimaginably depressing. The next trial was one of domestic violence, and both the perpetrator and victim were such wretched specimens of my species that it was all I could do not to weep inconsolably at the sight of them both. Poor, unschooled, barely able to cover their hides with decent clothing, we first tore our hearts for the wife — barely skin and bones — who had been whipped by her man and left bruised and battered. We were ready to draw and quarter the villain. But then, he was himself so wretched, had been battered as a child by his father and was so inarticulate that we knew the only communication he knew was by knuckle and beltbuckle. He was guilty as hell, and we knew we had to convict him, but we also hoped that the judge would recognize the misery in front of him on both counts. Please, I thought, feed them a decent meal, send him to jail, and find someone to look after the battered waif.

On television, criminals all seem to be supervillains, drug lords or serial killers so clever they leave tantalizing clues written in ancient Greek scrawled on the bathroom mirror. But my experience with the court system tells me that the bulk of those hauled in to trial are no geniuses, but sorry specimens, usually poor and uneducated with few good options in the furtherance of their lives. They do stupid things and are caught because they are notably not clever. My heart goes out to them, while not excusing any crime they might have committed.

The final case I sat through in Arizona was a double homicide, in which some gang-members with a beef with some guy, blocked his car in a parking lot and went up to the side window and shot both driver and passenger. They didn’t seem to notice that there was a teenage boy in the back seat. During the trial, the boy was the chief eye-witness. The defense attorney attacked him mercilessly on the stand, but the kid was so honest and innocent, he didn’t notice he was being badgered, and just quietly answered each question with open-faced sincerity. If the kid had once weaseled or hesitated, the attorney would have pounced, but the kid was imperturbable. He simply sank any potential defense.

The district attorney laid out the details and evidence with such simple efficiency, one after another like pops from a machine gun, never for a moment making a simple rhetorical flourish or cheap aside. Just an accumulated pile of fact burying the defendant. The poor defense attorney had little choice but to pile the theatricality thick. Red herring was his primary weapon. Did the witness say it was a revolver or a semi-automatic pistol? Did he not contradict himself? The lawyer jumped and pounced and began to sound rather like Foghorn Leghorn. He had no real evidence to present, so all he could do was pretend the prosecution evidence was somehow a pile of beans. Several times he tried to make a point that depended solely on a bad translation from Spanish to English. There was no ambiguity in the Spanish. Living in Arizona, we, the jury, had no problem understanding the Spanish in question, so it only made the defense attorney look more desperate and hopeless. My heart goes out to any poor defense attorney with no legs to stand on. It’s a thankless job.

In several of the cases I observed, there was a highly educated lawyer in a good suit seated next to someone who could barely write his name, wearing a rumpled Goodwill suit and tie, probably bought for them just for the trial date, looking like a deer caught in a headlamp, never fully comprehending what was happening around him, and probably headed for his second or third stretch at the county jail. At the other table was the prosecuting attorney, in another good suit, with piles of condemnatory notes in front of her and both tables facing a superior court judge, also with a fancy law degree, a good house in a gated community, a second or third wife, and a BMW waiting in a parking spot with his name on it. Behind them, in the grandstands, sit those witnesses waiting to be called: prosecution witnesses often in police uniforms, or doctors called as expert witnesses; defense witnesses in Goodwill suits that don’t quite fit and sporting mullets and professional-wrestling mustaches, and maybe a tattoo or three.

Somehow, it hardly seems like a fair fight. The indictment says it all: “The State vs. so-and-so.” One cannot help but think of Franz Kafka. Perhaps that is why I feel so proud of the jury, which is made up of — in this most recent case — farmers, teachers, car mechanics, students, grocery-store clerks, and at least one retired art critic. The jury is notably more representative of the society we live in than the lawyers who run things. I hope it all serves to even the odds.

 

hitler stalin say hi

firesign theatreAll of us grow as we age; some more than others. Things we thought simple and obvious when we were children turn out to be infinitely complex. Judgments we handed down when we were innocent later turn out to be self-righteous piffle. Uncles we thought were hilarious when we were 6, when we are 15 turn out to be insufferable. If you live long enough, your life gives proof to the Firesign Theatre dictum: “Everything you know is wrong.”

This is the evolution of — what? Of an understanding. A widening of the historical record. I’m using the Second World War as my exemplar. I have been aware of it from my earliest childhood, but my understanding of it has changed radically over the decades.

I was born just after the war ended, and it was an immediate presence in those years. My childhood featured the shabby remainders of that war gotten from the proliferation of war surplus stores. We all played war, and the nerdier kids were condemned to play Japs and Krauts, while the alpha kids were Americans. I envied my friends who had helmet liners, machetes, canteens or drilled and emptied hand grenades to play with.

daggerMy father saw France and Czechoslovakia in that war, although he downplayed his part in it. He had several war souvenirs that were kept in the basement: a German helmet, an SS dagger, pair of binoculars, a Walther PPK pistol. I was fascinated by them, and pulled them out to play with. (When he found out I had been playing “war” with the PPK, he immediately took it and sold it to get it out of the house). These things were catnip to a little boy.

This was the early 1950s, and I learned about World War II through movies shown on television. This was the war of John Wayne and William Bendix. The Americans were the heroes; the Japanese and the Germans were the villains. It was an easy call; there were the good guys and the bad guys.

The version of Hitler that shows up in these films is insubstantial. When mentioned at all, he is satirized as a clown with a funny mustache, but most often the Nazis are an undifferentiated enemy with nefarious aims. Little distinction is made between Germans and Nazis. We argued over which way the swastika bent, and whether they were “knot-sees” or “nah-zees.”

guadalcanal diary bendix

When the German war aims are mentioned, it was that they sought “world domination.” When the movie is set in the Pacific, the Japanese war aims were never mentioned at all: They were just evil and our enemy.

There were documentaries, also. On TV, there was also the resonant voice of Leonard Graves and the music of Richard Rodgers on Victory at Sea, and a Saturday morning filler program produced by the Army called The Big Picture. Both fed a version of the war that was about the United States defeating its enemies.

dead bodies at Nordhausen

It was in those Army documentaries that I first saw images of the liberated concentration camps when I was a boy. I was horrified — and fascinated — by those piles of dead naked bodies bulldozed into mass graves by the American soldiers, and the spindly, glaze-eyed skeleton-survivors. I don’t know how these images affected others, but in my tiny 6-year-old brain, they were the fountainhead of moral development: Those images are indelible; I can draw them up in my mind anytime. Nothing from my childhood has such potent emotional power as the memory of those films. But the Holocaust was a separate issue, barely related in my boyish brain with the war my father had fought. Only later, did the Holocaust become central to my understanding of the war, of Nazism, of Hitler.

sgt rockBy the time I was in the seventh grade, my interest in the war had changed: In typical adolescent (male) fashion, I became hypnotized by the machinery and regalia of the war. I learned the names of each type of Panzer tank, fighter plane, each sort of submarine and corvette, destroyer and cruiser. I drew them endlessly in stereotyped scenes learned from primarily from Sergeant Rock comic books.

By then, I was also becoming aware of the centrality of Auschwitz. But German anti-semitism made no more emotional sense to me than the “world domination dictator” image of Hitler. I grew up in northern New Jersey and my Boy Scout troop leader was Mr. Weinstein. I knew many Jewish people and I could not see any difference between them and the Italians, Irish, Germans or South African families sprinkled through the suburban neighborhoods. Anti-semitism seemed no more possible than men in the moon.

The version of the war that persists in the American imagination is the one in which Americans, with a little help from England, beat back Hitler and won the war.  D-Day was the turning point. There was a niggling awareness that there might also be some fighting on the eastern front, and that somehow the Soviet Union was our ally in the war, despite their being “godless communists.”

belt buckleThis version was filled with stories of American heroism in the war. We won, it was implied, because democracy always wins. It was our system vs. their system, and ours was more virtuous. After all, God was on our side (despite the Wehrmacht beltbuckles that read “Gott mit uns.”)

I had read a good deal about the war and had finally come to the conclusion that perhaps D-Day was not the central turning point of the war and that perhaps the conflict with the Soviets was a bigger deal than the war in France. (This is not to diminish the efforts of the Allied soldiers in western Europe, but to recognize the balance of the death and fighting was in the east).

I began to see World War II as the “Great Patriotic War,” a war primarily between Germany and the Soviet Union, with the Western Allies as a sort of sideshow. All those riveting TV documentaries about D-Day and the retro-movie version of the war in Saving Private Ryan seemed like empty chauvinism. How many Americans died in the war? About 400,000, which is a staggering number until you compare it with the number of Soviet forces killed: 10 million. If you add in the civilian war deaths, the number rises to  27 million. That is nearly 14 percent of their total population. In the U.S., that percentage is less than one-third of one percent. (Again, I don’t mean to diminish the enormity of the American suffering or the part played by our soldiers, but to put it into the larger context of the war horror).

Kursk

Kursk

On D-Day, American deaths were about 2,500, roughly the same number as died in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 (and roughly the same number who were killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941), but consider the battle of Kursk in the Soviet Union, when some 10,000 Germans were killed and the Soviet deaths estimated at three times that. Or the Battle of Stalingrad, which admittedly continued over several months, but wound up with nearly 2 million casualties. If there was a turning point in the war, it was Stalingrad, not D-Day. Germany never recovered.

Stalingrad

Stalingrad

japanese stereotype 2Forgotten in all of this is Japan. When I was a child, it was clear that the Japanese were treacherous people who designed the deaths of Americans, presumably for irrational reasons. They were a crazed nation of  squint-eyed, buck-toothed people insanely loyal to an emperor.

World War II was in most books a single entity with combat theaters in Europe and in the Pacific. But at some point, I came to understand that there were really two unrelated wars being fought concurrently, or rather that the two wars overlapped. The European war began in 1939, if you were Polish, 1941 if you were Russian (June 22) or American (Dec. 7). But the Pacific war had begun in 1931 with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and turned into the so-called Second Sino-Japanese War beginning in 1937. Just as in Europe, where we glory over D-Day and forget the millions who died in Eastern Europe, so in the Pacific, we remember Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal and tend to forget that the real misery was felt in China, where the war death estimates run from 10 million to 25 million. (It should also be remembered that until Pearl Harbor, Germany and the Soviet Union both allied themselves with the Chinese against the Japanese.)

rape of nanking baby

But the one question I could never quite answer to my satisfaction, the issue I could not quite understand was: What were the goals of the Axis powers? What did they hope to accomplish?

warner bros hitlerThe standard answer was: World domination. Hitler wanted to invade Europe to achieve power. Why he might want to conquer France was a mystery. Why he bombed London never made sense. And that was just the Germans. The Italians hardly entered the equation. They were an afterthought. And finally, it was never clear what sort of domination the Japanese might be after.

In the Warner Brothers cartoons I was weened on, Hitler, Tojo and Mussolini were three comic villains with the same aim: world domination. (No one asked if they had accomplished this goal, whether they would turn their rifles on each other).

Ming the Merciless

Ming the Merciless

Hitler was, in this view, hardly different from the nefarious Fu Manchu or Dr. Mabuse or Ming the Merciless. Why any nation would bend to the will of such a madman was an enigma.

Wars are political and economic. We remember them militarily, but they are gestated through power and money. Now that I am an old man, I no longer see World War II as the “Good War” — the American version — or the “Great Patriotic War” — the Russian version — but rather as The War between Hitler and Stalin over Poland.

Poland has rolled around eastern Europe for centuries, expanding and shrinking, becoming an empire and disappearing altogether. You could make an animated map showing how over time Poland moved east, then north, then west like a ball of mercury on a plate, then evaporated like a dried-up puddle. In western Europe, nationality conveniently tends to follow ethnicity. France is filled with the French, the Netherlands are filled with the Dutch. But throughout eastern Europe, ethnicities are scattered like confetti. There were Germans in Poland, Poles in Ukraine, Lithuanians in Poland, Russians in Lithuania, and Jews all over. It made national borders more arbitrary than they are in the west. Much of Hitler’s plan before the war broke out in earnest concerned bringing ethnic Germans together under one nation-state. Hence the Anschluss and the annexation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. His ostensible aims were to “protect” the German people from persecution by non-Germans. The Nazi slogan was “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer” — One people, one country, one leader.einvolk einreich einfuhrer

Ein Volk” — this was a nearly mystical idea of race and genetics. Hitler believed in two things that were current in his age. One was Social Darwinism, that competition was not only between individuals, not only between species, but between “races,” or genetic bloodlines. His Germanic race was in competition with all other races, and only the strong would survive. Second, he believed in a neo-Malthusian sense that as population increased, food production would begin to fail. And, as Germany industrialized, fewer people were producing food, and less land was given to farming. These two things were behind his announced need for “Lebensraum” — living room. He proposed not only to aggregate the Deutsche Volk under one political system, but also to annex new farmland to Germany and repopulate that land with German farmers.

In this, one ventures to say, he was little different from American Manifest Destiny in the 19th century. As we proposed forced migration of Native Americans and to appropriate their lands, so Hitler proposed to move Poles and other non-German people out of his section of Poland and repatriate a growing population of Germans into it.

He faced two international political problems with this plan. The Soviet Union would likely object, and the allied forces of western Europe had a treaty to defend the independence of Poland.

Molotov and Ribbentrop

Molotov and Ribbentrop

To eliminate those problems, he made a pact with Stalin — the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact — which freed him up, he expected, to face the armies of France and England that intended to protect the sovereignty of Poland.

In reality, there was an unpublished portion of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that split Poland in two, with one half going to Hitler, and the remains going to Stalin.

So, when Hitler invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, he planned also to turn his Blitzkrieg on France, which he neutered in 1940, taking over most of western Europe save Great Britain and the neutral countries of Spain, Switzerland and Sweden. This meant he thought he no longer had to worry about a two-front war. In this sense, the whole war in western Europe was a sideshow to the real carnage.

When the forced immigration of Poles, Jews and other non-Germans proved problematic, and after Hitler decided Blitzkrieg could bring him not only Poland, but also most of the European territory of the Soviet Union, he invaded eastern Poland (by then, a part of the Soviet Union) and headed for Moscow.

A separate industry developed to deal with the displaced peoples, which, by Hitler’s racial thinking were Untermensch, or lesser humans, and with his own propaganda blaming Jews for the loss of the First World War, and the “Jewish Bolshevism” of Communist Russia, his Nazi planners came up with a “final solution” for what to do with all those unwanted people. Six million Jews were exterminated over the course of the war, mostly from 1942 to the end of the war. But also nearly 2 million ethnic Poles, 3 million Ukrainian and other non-Jewish victims.

liberated prisoners at Ebensee 1945
bloodlands cover(Timothy Snyder’s 2010 book, Bloodlands, covers all the deaths in the tragic lands between Germany and Russia from the 1930s through 1945, including the Holodomor — the deliberate starvation of between 3 and 7 million Ukrainians by Stalin’s order. In all, between Hitler and Stalin, Snyder estimates that some 14 million non-combatants were murdered for political reasons between 1933 and 1945. The numbers are all estimates; the death was so pervasive, accurate records for most deaths were impossible. And these 14 million were all separate from the military deaths of the war.)

What I have written here is an obviously very simplified version of things. Almost every sentence here could be expanded into a book. I have left out many important things (not the least of which is the bifurcation of Europe after World War I into camps espousing Communism and camps promoting Fascism. For a time in the 1930s, it even looked as if America was going to have to choose between them).

MBDRUOF EC010This is a lot of words, all to show the slow development of ideas about the war, from childish to mature, from simple and unexamined to complex and nuanced. The case I am trying to make is that this is true not simply for my pathetic little understanding of World War II, but that this kind of growing complexity is symptomatic of getting older, seeing more of the world, and tying it all together.

I could have chosen almost any subject and gone on at length about how my understanding has changed, widened, saddened. For, if there is anything that results from broader experience — which is what getting old gives you, want it nor not — is the sad truth expressed in Jean Renoir’s 1939 film, Rules of the Game, spoken by Octave (played by Renoir himself): “You see, in this world, there is one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons.”

giza view from cairo

We were watching a TV show about ancient Egypt and the voiceover told us the pyramids we were visiting were “35 centuries old,” and that phrase suddenly struck me in a new way.

I am now 68 years old, which is a bit more than two-thirds of a century, and I have a body-sense, a memory-sense — a conceptual awareness — of what a century feels like. I wrote for the newspaper for a quarter of a century. Four times that and Bingo! So, a century has a palpable meaning for me. I feel it in my bones. Hearing the TV presenter, then, made me react, “Thirty-five is not a very large number.” I can picture in my mind’s eye what 35 centuries might be, and it really doesn’t seem like all that long. The Viking Age ended only 10 of them ago.

Anton and Laura Nilsen

Anton and Laura Nilsen

After all, my grandfather, who I knew when I was a boy, was born in 1890, which was the year Vincent van Gogh died. It was also the year Sitting Bull died, and the Elephant Man (John Merrick), and Heinrich Schliemann — the man who discovered Troy. My grandfather was seven years old before Johannes Brahms died. These historical figures seem that much less remote when I think of it that way.

Rowan and Nancy Steele

Rowan and Nancy Steele

For my wife, it is even more present. When she was a girl, her great-grandmother lived with her family. Her great-grandmother, Nancy Jane Steele, was a Civil War widow. She married Rowan Steele after that war, but Rowan had been a cavalry soldier during the battle at Appomattox. That dumps the War Between the States right in my wife’s lap. History is not some remote collection of facts gathered from a book, it is family.

The word, “century,” has its roots in family. The Latin word was “saeculum,” which was an indistinct time period that measured, basically, the time from your grandfather to the time of your grandchild. Caesar Augustus regularized that time to be 110 years, but in effect it varied from 90 years to about 120 years. It was an “age.”

History, as a subject, is different if you think of it that way. It is not a set of facts for a trivia contest, but a continuity, of which we are each a knot along a string.

For many, these days, that continuity is found in genealogy: How far back can you trace your ancestors? With various DNA tests, you can discover ancestry beyond the civic records of the standard genealogy. A y-DNA test can follow the paternal haplogroup all the way back to Africa, with punctuated stops along the way. A maternal mitochondrial DNA test can do the same for the distaff side.

It means that you are very personally connected to the history you study in school. Somewhere among those pogroms, crusades, wars and massacres, your strands of DNA were either slaughtered or doing the slaughtering, and probably both at different times. Looked at through the small lens, genealogy is your story; looked at through the big lens, all of history is your story. How can one not be interested?

Carol Lily

Carol Lily

My granddaughter is now studying AP world history, and sometimes, she comes to me for help understanding the subject. I wish I could somehow inspire her to see it not as an impersonal school subject she has to be graded on, but the story of how she got here, what happened on the way to her creation, and how she fits into that grand, long picture. She makes good grades, but it would be more important to think of history as something personal, something that informs her life: She is Southern, so the slavery that ended 151 years ago colors her life every day; the arguments held in Philadelphia in 1787 affect what she can and cannot do today; that the battle of Plataea in 479 BC is part of the reason she speaks English today and not some descendant of Farsi.

The horsemen from Mongolia shaped what later became Russia, which became the Soviet Union, which defeated Nazi Germany, became our enemy in the Cold War, and led to Vladimir Putin today. It is not ancient history, it is merely the dangling end of a long cord: The same people who gave us Xanadu and Kublai Khan gave us the Silk Road and the Golden Horde, and is one of the reasons given for why Hungary is named HUN-gary, and, incidentally, gave their name to the tartar sauce you put on fried fish.

Know-Nothing poster

Know-Nothing poster

It is disappointing to see so many Americans with so little sense of history, of where we came from. We hear the resurrected Know-Nothing-ism of Donald Trump and too many of his followers hear no resonance of the anti-Catholic, anti-Irish sentiment of the earlier wave of xenophobia. The past, for them, is a black hole out of which no wisdom can emerge.

Presentism, as it is sometimes called, is rampant: the belief that what is now is somehow “true,” and the past was all a big mistake; it is the error that what we think and believe now is the “right” and “correct” version of the world, and those benighted people of old were merely beta-versions of humanity. We require more humility; history can provide that humility.

I can remember when the faces of Eisenhower and Stevenson on the tiny black and white television we had in the house when I was yet too young to go to school. I remember the Dodgers at Ebbets Field. I remember when they added the second deck to the George Washington Bridge. ike and adlai 1952These things are now history. They are ink on a page in the history book my granddaughter reads for class. But I was a real person who lived through them. My father lived through the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. My great-uncle wore puttees as a dough boy in the first War to End Wars. My wife’s great-grandfather fought in the Civil War. Somewhere, back before my genealogy became writ into the family bible, I surely had ancestors who went a-viking and worshipped the lord Odin.

I feel those connections, not as dry intellectual answers to history-class homework questions. History is not something merely read, it is red, it runs through our veins. It’s been there for 35 centuries, at least.

World Map 1689Stuart got a job recently. Well, a part-time job — as adjunct faculty teaching a history course. I’m not sure how he got it; he doesn’t have a degree in history. But he said he talked the department head into it by describing his take on world civilizations. He did his Stuart dance for his dinner.

“Well, I said I wanted to teach world history a different way,” he said to me over lunch the other day. “I wanted to look at it through the lens of geography. It explains so much.”

Mostly, he said, he just wanted to try organizing the Big Picture a different way, because looking at something differently opens a subject up for fresh insights. At least, that’s my stuffy way of saying what he was up to.
aegean sea map

“From even prehistoric times,” Stuart explained, “human cultures have organized themselves in two ways — either around a body of water or in the middle of a chunk of land. These two societies tend to approach the rest of the world differently.

“You can see this in the signal conflict of the classical world — the Persian Wars. We may think of Greece as a nation, like France or Argentina, but back then, Greek civilization was a constellation of cities and islands around the Aegean Sea. It was built facing the water, so to speak, and like the ancient Lake People of Switzerland, they looked across the pond and saw trading partners. They built ships and launched out across the water to find their likeness on the far shore.

“Rome was built around the Mare Nostrum, the Mediterranean. In the Middle Ages, the Hanseatic League was all about trade.

Persia satellite view“But Persia was a continental power, built on land, surrounded primarily by land, where other people may have been trading partners, but they were primarily a threat. All through the Middle East, you have one conquering nation after another invading their neighbors. Their gods told them to. Persia, like the standard model continental power, wanted to expand, to push its borders out farther, absorb the neighbors to nullify the threat.

“These are two fundamentally different ways of approaching the outer world, and those two ways govern so much of what happens in history.”

“And this is what you told the department head?” I asked. “And he bought it?”

“She did,” he said — which explained a bit more about Stuart’s persuasiveness. If you know anything about Stuart, you know he approached the world, not so much by riparian or continental cultures, but through the interaction of men and women.

“And so, now you’re teaching world history to students at a two-year school.”

“It’s great, although class is rather early for me: It starts at 10 every Tuesday and Thursday morning. But I can get up for it; it’s been really fun so far.”

“It’s always fun until the grading starts,” I said.

“I haven’t got there yet,” he said. “But I’ve assigned the first paper.”

I remembered my time teaching, and the surprising papers that were turned in. I used to read the really bad ones at dinner parties for fun; we all had a good laugh. Bad grammar, misunderstood concepts, lazy ideas. Once, in an art history class, I had 16 students and 16 different spellings of “Coliseum,” and not one of them correct — despite the fact there were two acceptable spellings: “Coliseum” and “Colosseum.” I knew Stuart was in for a disappointing surprise when those papers were turned in. Indus river map

“Think of all the early civilizations,” Stuart went on. “Egypt on the Nile, the Indus River civilization, the Chinese living along the Huang Ho and Yangtze. Later, you have Vikings around the Baltic Sea and North Atlantic. China is interesting, because it starts as a riparian civilization, but as it grew, it turned continental. It gives a distinct flavor to Chinese history.”

“And the continental?” I asked.

“Think of the Mongolian Hordes,” he said. “Or early American tribes conquering each other. Persia, the Ottomans, Moguls.

“If you look at pre-colonial Africa, you see some cultures are riparian, like Ghana, and some are continental, like the Berbers. The distinctions have been blurred over by the pie-slicing of the continent by its colonial powers into supposed nation-states mimicking those of Europe. Quite unnatural. But they were there: riparian and continental ways of looking at the world.

thirteen colonies“I thought, this explains a lot about us,” he said. “About America. When we were founded, we were an outpost on the other side of the pond. We looked across the Atlantic and saw our compadres there. Europe and the New World were built around the ocean, whether it was England and the 13 colonies, France and Quebec, or Spain and Latin America. It may be a distortion to consider the interrelation between the Old and New Worlds as trade, considering we didn’t really give the native peoples a choice in the matter, but from the point of view of the colonizers, who really didn’t take the original inhabitants seriously, they saw themselves as Europeans trading with their parent nations.

“And for the 13 colonies, when they were still colonies, they were Englishmen trading with England, later making alliance with France. We began, like China, as a riparian society. There were even laws passed to prevent settlers from moving west of the Appalachian Mountains, to keep it a riparian culture.

“But we expanded anyway and became, over time, a continental power. Expansion was seen as not only good, but necessary, even ordained by God. This change explains the current political landscape.”

“How so,” I said, innocently, while waiting for the punchline.red and blue

“Think about it. Where are the blue states and where are the red? By and large, the blue states are on the edge of the continent, both on the Atlantic and and on the Pacific, or around the Great Lakes. The red ones are in the center, where they remain continental in outlook, fearful of foreigners and the core of isolationism.”

“I thought the difference was between the agrarian states and the urban states,” I said.

xi jinping 2“Certainly. My outlook isn’t the only factor in this. But it is there, not often mentioned, and is in part also the reason the coastal states built their economies on trade and the interior states on farming and ranching. I’m not making the case that this theory explains everything, or that it is the only thing that made us what we are, but I am saying that it helps explain it, and that you can see the same forces acting out elsewhere in the world. Maoism was continental in China, but the coastal cities of China were built on trade. The new China of Xi Jinping has grown as it has seen its place in the larger world — and as a riparian economy, not a continental one. The burgeoning economy is largely a coastal event. The Chinese poor are largely in the interior.

“And so, blue states look outward to the world, the red states are xenophobic.eurasia

“Look at Russia,” Stuart said. “They are a quintessential continental power, hunkering down in the middle of Eurasia. Invaded by Tatars, Verangians, and Teutonic Knights, they came to fear the outside and built a national identity on creating a fortress mentality, and conquered neighboring lands to make redouts to protect the national core from attack. Peter the GreatPeter the Great attempted to turn Russia into a riparian culture by building his capital on the Baltic, hoping to become part of the European world of trade. But since then, the country has retreated to Moscow and glowered out at the rest of the world. It’s how the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics accrued, and after a brief period of glasnost, why PutinVladimir Putin has resumed the essential Russian inwardness, and his need to expand the borders again to build up those protective buffer nations around the national heartland. Lookout, Ukraine.”

I wondered if Stuart taught any of this chronologically, or was the whole course built around this theory. Were there any parts of history unrelated to his bifurcation of world outlooks.

“Oh, I fit all that other stuff in, too,” he said. “But mainly I wanted to explore this idea for myself. Teaching is the best way to learn.”

I couldn’t argue that.

“And your department head thinks this is OK? To use your class for you to explore your ideas?”

“Oh, didn’t I tell you? I moved in with her last week. We’re good.”

stone.tif

stone.tif

Perhaps the most peculiar thing about the Declaration of Independence is that the portion of it that seemed commonplace when it was written now seems revolutionary, and the part that seemed to its framers as most central, to us seems trivial, even whiny.

As a piece of rhetoric, it begins in generalities, narrows to specifics, and ends in a course of action. It couldn’t be more concisely structured. The committee charged with drafting it in the summer of 1776 chose wisely when it asked Thomas Jefferson to write the first version. Jefferson’s prose is a model of late 18th-century style: precise, lucid and syllogistic. declaration 3

It states baldly and without argument or support, that all men are born equal, have certain rights by virtue solely of being born, and that when a government fails egregiously to effect the safety and happiness of the people, it is their right to replace it.

But Jefferson didn’t invent its ideas whole cloth. In fact, as Jefferson wrote years later, the purpose of his stirring words was “not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.”

Much of the remainder of the Declaration is given over to a litany of complaints the colonies had about British governance. Some of these complaints still seem legitimate; many seem trivial, even trumped up. “The King did this” and “The King did that.”

“He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns and destroyed the lives of our people,” it says. Pure hyperbole.

These complaints were the part of the Declaration that was “news” in 1776. They constituted what made the document inflammatory.

Few can read through the whole of the Declaration of Independence now without a sense of fatigue: Those complaints were the issues of 1776, not of today.

It is the second paragraph that seems told to all people at all times, and remains news to us in the 21st century.

Bridge between ages

But to follow those ideas from the century before the Declaration into the ink on its page shows just how important its year of birth was. It was born in the cusp between two great ages, two overriding sensibilities, and partakes of both.

The period from about 1775 to about 1825 is one of the richest in humankind’s history, fertile, even febrile. It is in many ways, the hinge between the past and the modern, between the classically minded 18th century and the Romantic 19th. From an age of Reason to one of Sentiment — as it was called at the time. In Europe, it was the age of Goethe and Rousseau.

And no figure in the American experiment better demonstrates that shift of sensibilities than Jefferson.

On one hand, he epitomized the faith in science and logic of the Enlightenment; on the other, he shared with the revolutionary Rousseau the belief in the nobility of humanity and its drive to social improvement.

You can hardly fail to notice this point when you visit Jefferson’s home in Virginia.

Monticello is a mirror of its maker. Jefferson built a model of Palladian proportion and filled it with moose antlers. The outside lines of the house are clean and mathematically rational. The inside is a warren of peculiar and unnerving spaces.

Jefferson never fully reconciled these two aspects of his personality. He was a slave owner who sings of the dignity of the free man. How much more conflicted than that can you be?

The Declaration of Independence speaks to us now, in large part, because of this clash of sensibilities in Jefferson.

On the one hand, you have the ideas of the Enlightenment, that brilliant flame of philosophy and science that sprang up in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

On the other hand, you have the growth of the individual as a thinking and feeling person.

The Enlightenment preached rationality and temperance, tolerance and universal principals.

One of its most influential writers was John Locke, who, in his Second Treatise on Civil Government, from 1690, wrote that all human beings have natural rights and that these included “life, liberty and the pursuit of property.”

It was an idea that took hold and flourished.

By the time of the American Revolution, the idea was commonplace. It shows up in George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights in June 1776, in slightly altered form:

“That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

When you compare that with what Jefferson first wrote, you can see how much better a writer Jefferson was. He only needed 31 words to say what Mason required 57 for, and say it more forcefully and memorably. Two dollar bill

An economy of words

Jefferson’s first take on this was considerably more sonorous, but still not quite there:

“We hold these truths to be sacred, that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of property.”

It was a committee of five, delegated by the Second Continental Congress, that were given the responsibility to draw up the Declaration. Jefferson wrote that first draft, but Benjamin Franklin, also on the committee, struck out “sacred” and replaced it with “self-evident.”

By 18th-century reasoning, self-evidence was universal, while sacredness could be construed as sectarian. Franklin wanted to emphasize the universal truth of the proposition.

And Jefferson himself changed “property” to “happiness,” and with that stroke made the Declaration jump from the past into the future.

The past was Thomas Hobbes, with his sense of the nastiness, brutishness and shortness of life, and a belief that the natural order of mankind was greed, rapine and thievery. Only strong central government, he wrote, could possibly control the natural impulses of humankind.

The future was Rousseau’s perfectibility of man, his belief in the nobility of those uncorrupted by society and government, the “natural man.”

The middle was Jefferson, perfectly if perilously balanced between.

The right of life remained pretty much the same looking forward and back, but the other two rights changed meaning over the cusp of 1800.

Locke believed that all humans coveted was property; Jefferson realized that there were many routes besides ownership to humanity’s true goal, individual happiness. Hence, the change in language.

Liberty is the word that has changed the most. In the 18th century, it meant being left alone, basically. Your government let you be: Taxes shouldn’t be too onerous and armies shouldn’t be quartered in your home at the whim of the commandant.

But by the 19th century, liberty took on a more revolutionary turn: Romantic writers saw liberty as the antidote to repressive regimes around the world and one read poems to Count Egmont, the Prisoner of Chillon and Nat Turner. It fueled popular movements all across Europe and led to a crisis year in 1848. Liberty meant revolt — a very different thing from what John Locke had in mind.

(And it makes almost comic the confusion of the two versions of liberty conflated by contemporary anti-tax factions and the paranoid fringe looking for the black helicopters that we can get all belligerent and militant about “tyranny” in Washington, when compared to what is happening in Sudan, Russia or North Korea, we remain among the most liberty-ridden people on earth. Admittedly, the Declaration of Independence itself is full of the same sort of inflated rhetoric.)

“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This meant that the Declaration could speak, Janus-like, forward and backward. The fulcrum of modern history. The Age of Reason is emerging from its pupa into the language of Romanticism.

 
 

madison lede pix
The 1930s remain in our visual imagination with a vividness that hardly exists from other eras — at least eras we didn’t actually live through. And it is through the photography of the period that this happens: It is hard to recognize how many of the canonized photographers from that era gave us documentary and quasi-documentary images of the times. Elsewhen, artists — and the photographers — often sought something more universal, or general, or eternal, but the quota of work from the 1930s screams out the time of its birth. madison color quad

Think of them: Brassai, Bill Brandt, Walker Evans, Cartier-Bresson, the whole army of photographers working for the Works Project Administration under Roy Stryker — our image trove from the 1930s is a stuffed portfolio. Madison bw quad 1

Click to enlarge

If we tend to distinguish between photography as journalism and photography as art — art with its formal concerns — then the work of Life magazine photographers falls into the first camp and the more elevated work of photographers such as Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham or Frederick Sommer would seem to be of another genus. But especially in the prewar decade, the photographers we honor as artists often were the ones who left us with a chronicle of their times. It is hard to picture America during the Depression without the black and white images of breadlines, dustbowl farms, iron workers and iron-willed matriarchs reigning over raw wood kitchen tables in unelectrified Appalachian cabins.madison bw quad 2

(I am not forgetting later movements of “street photography,” and certainly not forgetting Robert Frank, William Klein or Garry Winogrand, but their work on one hand also seems like a throwback to an earlier era, and on the other, is more consciously concerned with formal problems, like composition, lighting and contrast — and often with even more Postmodern concerns, such as how photography makes the world look. In the ’30s, the primary concern was sociological: These people we have been privileged to look at.)madison bw quad 3

I bring all this up because a friend sent me a link to an unusual archive at Duke University of old documents, photographs and films, primarily from North Carolina. In it, there is a set of three films, or rather three reels of randomly edited home movies, from Madison, N.C., taken between 1939 and 1941 and available for download. You can find them at:

http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/hleewaters/Spatial_Coverage/Madison%20%28N.C.%29

madison bw quad 4These films appear to have been taken by a single person, who filmed schoolkids, class by class, streaming out of the schoolhouse, workers leaving the factory and pedestrians walking down the streets of Madison and neighboring Mayodan. At times, he attempts trick photography, and they are not always in perfect focus. The first reel is in color, the remaining two reels are black and white. It is clear he (or she) favors framing with the subject in the right half of the picture, but it seems less like a formal concern and more like a idiosyncratic tic.

madison bw quad 5Madison particularly interests me because it is where my wife grew up. She was born in 1941 and so, the images in these movies pretty closely approximates the town she knew as a little girl. A few of the teachers shown in them are teachers she knew in school. madison bw quad 6

But I also found that if I excised individual frames from the motion, I could see them almost as a new source of FSA photos, or undiscovered images of Walker Evans. I have included a bunch of them with this blog post. madison bw quad 7

One has to forgive the lower quality of focus or color, taken as they are from what must be a 16mm original, but what strikes me most in them is the quality of individual human beings, the person behind the eyes that stares out at us from the pictures. It is the same face — or the same kind of face — that we see in Dorothea Lange’s California agriculture photos. There is joy, suspicion, hope, hopelessness, anger, privilege, satisfaction and shyness in these faces (sometimes as the film progresses, the same suspicious face turns friendly).

madison bw quad 8And I come to see them not so much as impersonal esthetic constructs, but as a doorway into each of them as people. Individuals, shining lights of the cosmos bound in skin. madison bw quad 9

And then, by way of looking back at the old, familiar pictures of Jack Delano, Russell Lee, Marion Post Wolcott, John Vachon, Ben Shahn and others, you come to the realization that what makes them special — what, indeed, makes them important — is not their photographic quality, not their compositional innovations or formal intent, but that through those rectangular frames burn the lives of actual beings. What brings them alive for us esthetically is exactly the quotient of compassion, of empathy, we bring to them. Do we see them as esthetic exercises? Certainly that aspect exists in them, but such aspect exists in abstract torn-paper collages, too. No, what gives them power is that connection they enable between us in our age, and those people in the pictures, in their age and we see they are us. madison color quad 2

 

arrow earth
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” wrote John Keats. He may have intended that ironically, although it has been taken literally by many. Truth is beauty — well, at least in this: that artists have always sought to express the truth, at least as they have known it.John Keats

Art is, in large part, an attempt to discover truth in the welter of the chaos and confusion that is our lives. We write a play and test whether the ideas our characters believe can hold up under scrutiny. We paint canvasses in an attempt to discover what the world looks like. We write music to explore our emotional coherence.

In short, science is the test we give to hard fact; art is the test we give to everything else.

If you look at the broad expanse of cultural history (including art, literature, music, architecture — even politics and religion), you find each generation attempting to ameliorate the fallacies, misconceptions and naivete of their parents’. It is an ongoing march.

(The 20th century was deluded into thinking that there was a directional arrow to this process, and that they were the conclusion of the historical process, the end result of all that dialectic. That was their naivete.)

But the process continues: Our children see right through us. Their children will see through them.

The real “truth” is that our experience is too multifarious, to contradictory, ever to be summarized by a single cultural moment. This does nothing to minimize the efforts of all those generations before us to attempt to understand their lives. Each attempt is heroic in its own way. And each is truthful in its own way.

This constant shifting can be seen in the back-and-forth of certain cultural constants, which I call the pendulums. They swing back and forth. In gross outline, they are the classic and romantic ideas, the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses. But the pendulums are more complex than that simplicity implies. There are dozens, scores, hundreds of competing and repeating ideas that jostle each other out of the way temporarily, only to reappear in their turn and push back.

In the previous blog post, I discussed one of these ideas — the primacy in their turns of the generalized, universalized image, versus the individualized and particularized.

But there are many more oppositions, many more pendulums, swinging back and forth over our shared history.

(My survey encompasses primarily Western art tradition, because it is the one I know best, the one I swim in, but other cultures share the dynamic, albeit with differing permutations. Just consider the Chinese art that swings from the formality of Chen Honshou to the spontaneity of Mu-Ch’i or Pa-ta-shan-jen).chen hongshou and bada sharen

Society or Cosmos

I wanted to look at just a few of these other oppositions in Western culture.

A second large group of oppositions concerns the subject matter, and whether the artist is concerned with man as a social being, an individual set in a welter of humanity — or whether he is concerned with the individual against the background of nature or the cosmos.

In the 18th Century, for instance, Alexander Pope wrote that “The proper study of mankind is man.”

The novel, which investigates human activity in its social setting, came from the same century. Fielding and Defoe come from that century.Prometheus

The succeeding century is concerned more with man in nature, or man in his loneliness, or fighting the gods and elements. One thinks of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound or Byron’s Manfred.

Such poetry would have been considered utter nonsense 50 years earlier. One hundred years later, and they were taken for nonsense once again.

One only has to look at Pope and Wordsworth to see the difference.

I said these pendulums swing at different rates: After Romanticism in writing, we swing back to the social nature of Flaubert or Thackery or Dickens. The pendulum tends to remain social through the early part of this century. Eliot, despite his religious conversion, is eminently concerned with man and man, and sees religious conviction as a social good.

But when we hit the mid-century, the pent-up spirituality bursts out with the Beat writers, with the Abstract Expressionists, with Existential philosophy

The social-cosmic pendulum does not swing in synch with the general-particular pendulum.

Social — Cosmic

Limits — No limits

This world — The next world

Political — Apolitical

Regional — International

Active participation — Retreat from world

Rational — Magical

Emblem — Myth

Incarnation — Transcendence

Society — Nature

Nature as desert — Nature as cathedral

Dramatic — Lyric

Irony — Sincerity

Clarity and Ambiguity

The third large category is the fight between clarity and ambiguity. One age likes its art simple and direct; the next likes it textured, complex and busy.

The classic example, of course, is the shift from Renaissance classicism to Baroque emotionalism.

In a Renaissance painting, the artist made sure everything could be seen clearly. He lined everything up with the picture frame, lit it with a general illumination so that confusing shadows would be minimized.

Look at this Last Supper by Andrea del Castagno.

castagno

See how clear it all is. But the Baroque painter Tintoretto had a different vision of the same biblical event. It is writhing, twisting out into deep space, with deep shadows and obscure happenings.

tintoretto

The Renaissance liked stability and clarity, the Baroque, motion and confusion.

Like the David of Michelangelo and the Bernini statue of Apollo and Daphne.

david and apollo and daphne

Or the Birth of Venus of Botticelli

botticelli

and the Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio.

caravaggio

In buildings, you can see the shift from the Gothic, with its infinite variety and crenelated detail, obscuring the larger structural designs to the clarity of ornament and design in Christopher Wren’s  St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.st pauls milan cathedrals

You can hardly see the actual walls of the Gothic cathedral, so overwhelmed are they by buttresses and sculptures.

But St. Paul’s is a monument to line and form, clearly seen and designed.

Clarity — Ambiguity

Limits — Freedom

Simplicity — Complexity

Unity — Diversity

Drawing — Painting

Stasis — Energy

Regulation — Impulse

Overall — Detail

Formal — Organic

Codify — Explore

Stability — Change

Rules — Anything goes

Clarity — Obscurity

Old form — New form

Discrete disciplines — Mix and match

Relevant or Isolated

Another shift concerns whether art should serve some wider function, like moral instruction or a search for scientific truth, or whether art has no purpose but to stimulate our esthetic tastes. Art for art’s sake.

Should the art hang on the wall to be looked at, or should it decorate the handle of the shovel or spoon? Should it remain outside the mores of its time, or should it be used as propaganda for a righteous cause? Is it merely to look at, or should a Madonna teach you something about your religion?

This is a concern that has become important in the art of our time. A whole herd of artists arose in the 1960s who saw art as divorced from life. Color Field painters preached the gospel: “Art can make nothing happen.”

noland kruger pair

But Postmodernism is largely about inserting political thought into the paintings. Art for art’s sake is declared “elitist” and “irrelevant” and the new art must be judged on its political truth.

 

Art as Art — Art for Function

Entertainment — Edification

Style — Content

Apolitical — Political

Ignore past — Embrace past

Retreat from world — Active participation

Art on wall — Art on implement

Technical — Visionary

Vocation — Inspiration

Contemplation — Propaganda

Ideal — Practical

Tribal or Cosmopolitan

The history of art also pulsates with the shift from nationalistic to international styles, from that which is specific to an ethnic or identity group, and that which seeks to transcends those limitations. The Gothic style as an international style, but the Renaissance is either Italian or Northern. The Baroque breaks up further into French, Dutch, Italian, Flemish.

In music, Bach imitated the national styles in his English and French suites and his Italian Concerto.

But the Galant and Classical styles that replaced it vary little from country to country. Perhaps the Italian is a little lighter and the German a little more complex, but you can’t get simpler or more direct than Mozart.

Nationalism reasserted itself in the next century, so that you have whole schools of Czech music, French, Russian.

In the early 20th Century, internationalism took charge once more and for a while, everybody was writing like Stravinsky.

The main architectural style of the first half of this century is even called “The International Style.”

But ethnic identity is back, and art is once again seen as a key to identity.

Exclusionary — Syncretic

Limits — No limits

Theocratic — Humanistic

Reinforce ethos — Challenge ethos

Regional — International

Nationalism — Cosmopolitanism

Discrete disciplines — Mix media

Ajax Defending Greek Ships Against Trojans

All of us or just me

One of the big shifts is between what I call “ethos” and “ego.”

That is, art that is meant to embody the beliefs of an age, thoughts and emotions that everyone is believed to share — or art that is the personal expression of the individual making it.

We have so long taken it for granted that an artist is supposed to “express himself,” that we forget it has not always been so. Did Homer express his inner feelings in the Iliad? Or are those emotions described the emotions he expected everyone would understand and share? He tells of what Achilles is feeling, or Ajax or Hector or Priam — and they are deep and profound emotions — but they give no clue to what Homer was feeling.

In music, Haydn’s symphonies were written about as being powerfully emotional. Nowadays, we think of Haydn as a rather cerebral composer. If we want emotion, we go to Beethoven or Schubert. You cannot listen to Schubert’s string quintet and not believe it expresses the deepest emotions that its composer was suffering at the time. It is his emotion. We may share it, but it is his.

Ethos — Ego

General — Particular

Investigate world — Investigate self

Chorus — Individual

Rectitude — Bohemianism

Anonymous creator — Signed art

Vocation — Inspiration

Atelier — Single creator

Talent — Genius

Depiction of emotion — Expression of emotion

Head or Heart

baudelaireThen, there is the fight between wit and sentiment.

To some generations, art needs to take a cool, ironic view of the world. Cervantes in his Quixote, or Pope in his Rape of the Lock.

To other generations, art is about human emotion. The more a person feels, the better the art.

Wit was the hallmark of the 18th century. Sentiment of the 19th. It was a common issue of discussion. Everyone knew just what you meant when you used the terms.

Did you wish to write “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed”? or did you want to release pent up emotions, creating something new, never felt before? That’s what Baudelaire did.

Wit — Sentiment

Irony — Sincerity

Universal — Particular

Intellect — Emotion

External — Internal

Reinforce ethos — Challenge ethos

Artifice — Naturalism

Social — Cosmic

Verbal — Sensuous

Society — Nature

Emblem or Myth

Penultimately, there is the swing from art which uses its symbols emblematically and that which uses it mythologically.

That is, if you use a symbol, does it stand “for” something else — as cupid stands easily for love in so much pastoral poetry — or does it partake of that which it expresses — that is, in photographer Minor White’s wonderful formulation: “what it is and what ELSE it is.”faerie queene

Cupid is an emblem. The Cross on the Knight’s shield in The Faerie Queene is an emblem. Moby Dick is a myth. One is easily translatable, the other is not and opens itself to investigating that which cannot be put in mere words or images.

A Classic age tends to be emblematic, a Baroque or Romantic age tends to be mythic. The one uses symbols as shorthand, the other as incredibly convoluted mental images that point at, but don’t touch, what it means. It is the opposite of shorthand.

Ovid is the acme of the emblematic. Homer of the mythic. Homer’s gods — for all their occasional silliness — are actual divinities. Ovid’s are puppets playacting for our amusement.

Emblem — Myth

Universal — Particular

Intellectual — Emotional0 R

Simplicity — Complexity

Unity — Diversity

Stasis — Energy

Regulation — Impulse

External — Internal

Secular — Religious

Style — Content

Synthetic — Organic

Miniature — Epic

Ironic — Sincere

Mimesis or Poiesis

And finally, there is the issue of whether art should imitate the appearance of nature, or should imitate the processes of nature. That is, whether art is mimetic or poetic. Should it copy or create from whole cloth?

We have seen in our century the change from abstract art to images. Abstraction once seemed unassailable. It was the serious art; anything else was trivial.

kandinsky mondrian pair

lichtenstein 2Well, we got over that. From the time of Pop Art, art has increasingly attempted to look, in some form or other, like the world.

It hasn’t done this in imitation of the look of paintings from earlier centuries. That look cannot come back, or cannot be used without irony.

But artists today paint images of people and things. They are identifiable. Some are almost like the old paintings.

Richard Diebenkorn was hailed as an abstract artist in the 60s.

When he began returning to the figure, he was at first castigated.

diebenkorn before and afterNow he is seen as a prophet.

Abstraction wasn’t only in painting. Waiting for Godot is an abstract play. Gertrude Stein wrote abstract prose. Carl Andre wrote abstract poetry.

Mimesis — Poiesis

Imitation — Abstraction

Particular — General

Individual — Universal

Observed –Stylized

Detail — Overall

Edification — Entertainment

Content — Style

Naturalism — Artifice

Investigate world — Investigate self

Scientific realism — Emotional realism

Stretching the frame

Before we leave the subject, we should point out that oppositions are entirely dependent on context. Baptists and Lutherans are opposites until we pair them as Protestants against Catholics, and we pair those against, say, Islam as the opposite of Christianity, or those paired as religions of the book against, let’s pick, Hinduism, but then we can pair those as religions against atheism, and pair them as belief systems against thoughtlessness, and pair them as philosophies against — well, whatever is the opposite of philosophy.

There are an uncounted number of oppositions; I have listed a few I have considered. I could elaborate blogs about each of pair them.

But you get the picture.

 

Romeo and Juliet in frame
“All great love ends in death,” Stuart said.

“Maybe in literature, but not in real life,” I said.

“Yes. All love ends in death. On one hand, sometimes it’s love that dies and then you are stuck. But even if love doesn’t die, the lovers do.”

“You mean like Romeo and Juliet?” I asked.

“Yes, like Romeo and Juliet. Like Tristan and Isolde.”

“But can’t love end happily?” I put forward that possibility; I’ve been married 30 years.

“Yes, but even the most successful love ends in death,” Stuart said. “Either for one or the other and eventually, both. They may be 80 years old, but eventually, love ends in death.”

“Oh. I see what you mean. It’s a trick. Like a trick question.”

“No, it’s not a trick, except that it is a trick the universe plays on all of us. I don’t mean it as a trick.

“Romeo didn’t have to die the way he did,” Stuart went on, “but he had to die eventually. Even if they got married and lived long lives, he would have to die some time, and then, Juliet loses him anyway.”

It is the underlying metaphor of all tragic love stories, he thought. His own, for instance. Stuart had never seen a great gulf between literature and his own life. Others, well, they may be banal and ordinary, but his own life had all the electricity of a great book or epic myth.

The one thing that separated Stuart most from the accountants and dentists of the world was that he recognized in himself the hero of his own life — the sense that he was the main character in a story of infinite significance. When something happened to Stuart, it happened to the universe.

The joke was, of course, that this is true. But there was a stinger, too: Although it was true, the universe is so vast that no matter how big it was to Stuart, it added up to zilch in the big picture.

“That is truly depressing,” I made a sour face.

“But that is not the real issue,” Stuart said. “The real issue is the frame.”

“The frame?”

“Yes. This is something I’ve been wondering about for a while. Every comedy ends in a marriage, it is said. The curtain drops and the audience goes home enjoying the happy ending.

“But, if we followed Beatrice and Benedick after the end of the play, in a few years, at least, there would be divorce — or more likely, murder. Happy endings are always provisional. So, there is an artificiality to comedies that is ineradicable. The happiest comedy, if drawn out to the uttermost, ends in dissolution.”Raphael

“So, you’re saying that the frame — the curtain — reveals any art as an artifice.”

“Yes. And not just in theater. Take the photographs of Garry Winogrand. We are meant to see the frame — the edge of the photograph — as an arbitrary border drawn around some episode, but beyond the frame, there are other people doing other things. This has become something of a trope in photography.

“It used to be that we understood the frame in a painting — say a Renaissance crucifixion, or a Madonna — as merely the point at which our interest in the visual matter evaporates. It is the Christ or Virgin that sits in the middle that is meant as an object of contemplation. A frame could be larger or smaller and still contain the essential action.Tintoretto, La crocifissione, Sala dell'albergo, Scuola di San R

“In Baroque painting, there is often the growing sense that the frame cannot contain the action, but that there is something worth knowing just beyond the edge. That sense has become central in certain strains of contemporary photography. winograndA photograph may contain an image of someone looking back at the camera, over the photographer’s shoulder, at something behind him that we can never see.

“The first kind of frame serves as a kind of fence, or corral in which the important information is contained. The second is more like a cookie cutter, which sticks into the welter of existence and excises this small bit for us to consider.

“That is the frame, the ‘beginning, middle and end’ that gives us such satisfaction in a play or opera.”

My concern at this point is that I could see that Stuart was unwinding his own life from the bobbin, and holding it out in his fingers to examine, and what he was finding was deflating. What set Stuart apart from most people was about to be undone. siegfried

I had known Stuart since college, and what made him glow from the inside was not just his energy — or jittery intelligence — but his sense that he was the star in his own movie. Or rather, that he saw in himself a larger, mythological version of himself playing out among the chess pieces of the universe. He was Siegfried voyaging down the Rhine; he was Odysseus; he was stout Cortez.

Don’t misunderstand, please. He was never grandiose — in his exterior behavior, he was as normal as you or me. But inside, was something larger, bursting to get out. He saw the world swirling the way Van Gogh did. For Stuart, every bush was the burning bush. Take away that internal furnace, and what would be left of Stuart? He would have grown up. Not something that any of us who knew him would wish for.van gogh

“This is the fundamental fallacy of American conservatism,” he went on, making another 90-degree turn.

“They seek to enforce a static vision of society, of law, of human behavior. They keep telling us, that if only we would do things their way, everything would finally be peach-hunky, into eternity — the happy ending that we know (and they don’t admit) is always provisional. They see a — excuse me for the exaggeration — ‘final solution’ for something that has no finality to it.

“Politics — real politics — is always the flux of contending interests. You want this, I want that, and we wind up compromising. Conservatives see compromise as surrender, precisely because they see politics with a frame. Get the picture right, and then it is done. Deficits are erased; the wealthy get to keep what is rightfully theirs; order is established. It is the underlying metaphor of all Shakespeare’s plays: The establishment of lasting, legitimate order, final harmony. stew

“Only, we know that after Fortinbras takes over, there will be insurgencies, dynastic plots, other invasions, a claim by mainland Danes over island-dwelling Danes, or questions of where tax money is going. It is never ending. Fortinbras is only a temporary way-station.

“Existence is a seething, roiling cauldron and sometimes this bit of onion and carrot comes to the surface, and sometimes it is something else. It is never finished, there is no frame, no beginning, middle and end.”

“So, where does this leave poor Juliet?”

“Juliet?”

“Yes, where does this leave us all, we who are all bits of carrot. We who are married for 30 years, we who entered the field of contention, worked for our required decades and left the battlefield to become Nestors — or Poloniuses. All this washes over us and we see that, in fact, we have a frame. Existence may not have one, but I do. I am getting old. 67th birthdayI just turned 67 and I feel it. And I know that my Juliet will die, or I will go before her. We do have, in fact, a frame, a curtain that draws down and leaves us — as Homer says — in darkness.”

“Exactly,” Stuart said, “and this is my point. Every one of us lives two very different lives. You can call them the external and internal lives. The first is the life in which we share the planet with 7 billion others. We are a tiny, insignificant cog in the giant machine. The second is the mythic life, the life we see ourselves as central to, in which we are the heroes of our own novels or movies, and everyone we know is a supporting actor. If we live only in the first life, we are crushed and spit out. But if we live only in the second life, we are solipsists. Sane people manage to balance the two lives. A beautiful counterpoint.

“We are most engulfed by that second life when we fall in love. We are certain that we invented this condition. No one else has ever felt what we feel. It’s comic, of course, but it is also profound. Without this feeling, life is unbearable. We have to have meaning, and meaning is created by how we imagine ourselves.

“Politics hovers oddly in the intersection of these two worlds. We need to sober up and consider the other 7 billion people if we are to create useful policy, but we mythologize those who lead us, and those who lead do so most effectively when they mirror back some version of mythology. The most extreme example I can think of is Nazism in Germany. A whole nation bought into the fantasy. Disaster follows.

“But all ideology is ultimately built on mythology: on a version of the world with one or two simple dimensions, when existence is multi-dimensional. The political myth is always a myth of Utopia, whether right-wing or left-wing. And it is always a static myth: Racism ends and everything is great, or government spending is curtailed and everything is great. That simply isn’t the way existence is.”

“The world is always bigger and more varied than our understanding of it, and it will always come back to whack us upside the haid.”

“Right. The conservative sees the world only with his ego eyes, not from outside himself. That frame — his death — is something he cannot see beyond. There is something egoistic about conservatism. Often selfish, also, but the selfishness isn’t the problem, it is the egoism — the frame they put around the world, the static sense of what is finally right — the so-called end of history. In this, the conservative — or at least the tin-foil-hat variety — is no different from the dyed-in-the-wool Communist. Both see the establishment of their Utopia as the endgame of human existence.” hubert robert

“You’ve been reading Ovid again.”

“How did you know?”

“The Pythagoras chapter.”

“Right again. Panta Horein, as Heraclitus said: ‘Everything is flowing.’ As Ovid has it, even landscapes change over time, and Hercules’ brawn withers and Helen’s breasts sag. Cities grow and are demolished; Mycenae gives way to Athens, to Alexandria, to Rome, to Byzantium and Baghdad, then to London and now to Washington, with Beijing waiting in the hopper. ‘Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?’ “

“How’s that?”

In saecula saeculorum: World without frame.”

 

ITR-PCL-00051429
If one takes the long view of history, recent events often turn out to be part of larger patterns, or “themes” of history. Nowadays, for instance, we can see World War II as the completion of World War I. And we can see World War I as the natural continuation — a flare up — of the same thing that caused the Thirty Years War of the 17th Century. These things can smolder for centuries, like a peat fire, and flare up when local events add oxygen.

It is important to understand the long view on history if you want to find a lasting solution to current problems. You don’t treat heart disease by prescribing an aspirin for chest pain.

I don’t want to make unrealistic claims for this. The local symptoms do need to be addressed and the current situation needs to be handled in a way that deals with the contemporary realities of the case.

But we will only make things worse if we act in a knee-jerk fashion with no understanding of the complexity of events.

The underlying mistrust between the European or Western world and the Islamic world can be traced back at least as far as the 11th Century, when Pope Urban II called for a crusade to wrest the Holy Land from the infidel.

It was the European version of a jihad or holy war. In calling for the war to “liberate” Jerusalem, the Pope declared, “It is the will of God.”

Over the next several centuries, European armies contended with “pagan” armies over the region, winning some and losing some. The horrors of that time, and the crimes of the crusaders are well recorded and nowadays would certainly be understood as war crimes, even terrorism.Ninth Crusade

When they first conquered Jerusalem in 1099, the crusaders slaughtered some 40,000 Muslims and Jews who lived in the city.

Yet, the Moslem defenders don’t get off the hook, either. They committed their own series of atrocities. It was a time that didn’t reflect well on the humanity of either side.

Each side was certain of its rectitude and each side knew that divinity was backing them against the unbelievers.

The contested borders of Christianity and Islam continued long after.

Indeed, the problems in the Balkans recapitulated the battles in Kosovo during the 14th and 15th centuries between the Muslim Turks and the Christian Serbs. acropolis mosque

The World Trade Center isn’t even the first well-known building to be destroyed by the enmity. In 1687, the Venetians were fighting the Ottoman Turks when they managed to blow up the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens. Before then the old temple had survived relatively intact for more than 2,000 years.

It is important to recognize that it isn’t merely a battle for territory, like many intra-European disagreements.

The two sides have fundamentally different world views.

Which means that in another sense, the roots of the current attack go back well before the Crusades and begin in the Persian Wars of the Aegean in the Fifth Century B.C.

It was during those conflicts between ancient Greece and Persia that the defining difference between East and West was first, and principally defined.

Up until then, wars were largely fought between sides claiming to be bigger and better than their foes. The biggest monkey kept the banana.

But the Greeks defined themselves against the Persians as an idea. The Greeks — and their historical progeny in Europe — have tended to think of themselves as free, as democratic and as rational and have seen their counterparts in the East as despotic, uncivilized slave societies.

We’re not claiming that this is literally true. There is barbarity and nobility to go around.

But the West has largely thought of itself in these terms, even when in fact it didn’t measure up. Persia is now Iran.

We still see this battle with terrorism as one of “freedom and democracy” against the blind superstition of unreasoning fanatics.

And when Vice President Joe Biden was still a senator, and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, put it even more directly.

“This is not a struggle over ideology. This is not a struggle over religion. This is a struggle between civilization and barbarity.”

These are the very terms the Greeks used in describing their war with Darius and Xerxes.

I am not suggesting that the Islamic world is barbaric, but that we have set up the terms of the argument in this old language, learned from the Fifth Century B.C.

But there is this kernel of truth to the matter: The West has come largely to believe that the purpose of government is the well-ordered organization of society — a belief they hold even in its breach. Meanwhile, the East has seen government as settling the issue of “who’s in charge.”

For the West, the theoretical end of political desirability is “benevolent anarchy” — such as that called for by Libertarians and “shrunken-government” Republicans, while for the East, the same theoretical end is the “benevolent theocracy,” centralized rule that preserves societal order.

The two systems are at such fundamental loggerheads that we mistake the meaning of such words as “democracy” when uttered from across the cultural divide. They mean something different by the word.

It is this difference, cooked long and slow by history, that must be taken into account when we seek to solve global problems.

It is what worries me when I hear even university presidents declare the obsolescence of the humanities, and when I hear the appalling lack of historical knowledge held by American students — to say nothing of a political leadership that has no more historical memory than last week’s car bombing. Those who refuse to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

And it is what worries me when I hear increasingly bludgeoned rhetoric from our lower-grade politicians — “the windiest militant trash” — looking for quick and easy revenge.

They are missing the point. I am reminded of the lines by W.H. Auden:

I and the public know/ What all schoolchildren learn,/ Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return.”