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Our futures seen in snippets of the past

16 June 2008

An unfortunate side-effect of historical analysis — in which one leaps across centuries by turning a page — is that we can forget how quickly regime change occurs. The pressure builds for generations, the cracks slowly spreading and deepening almost invisibly … but the final steps can occur with astonishing speed.

Recent history provides vivid examples of nearly instantaneous transformations by highly developed States, leaving successors quite alien to their ancestors. Two accounts of this, both well-written and engrossing, are The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig (1943) and Otto Freidrich’s Before the Deluge: Berlin in the Twenties (1972). Here are a few snippets from history of relevance to 21st America.

“Mutato nomine de te fabula narratur” (Change the name and the story is about you.)
Horace’s Satires, Book I, Satire I.
A post on the FM site about this topic: The Iraq War as a warning for America)

Constitutions are just paper bullets of the mind.

“The history of the world’s democratic constitutions had, up to this time, been largely a story of people searching for a rational political document under which they could live. … The constitution drafted at Weimar began and would end as a document in search of a people.”
The Kings Depart: The Tragedy of Germany, Versailles and the German Revolution, Richard Watts (1969).
Additional reference: Forecast: Death of the American Constitution

We measure our strength by so many fleeting, superficial and trivial things: our money, our military power, our reputation. This ignores the deep sources of strength: our wisdom, our ability to act together, our resilience, our faith in our ideals, and our willingness to suffer hardship for the benefit of our descendants.

“The health of a people comes only from its inner life — from the life of its soul and its spirit.”
— Words on a granite memorial stone in Berlin marking where Walther Rathenau “fell on this spot by the hand of a murderer.”
Additional reference: Diagnosing the Eagle, Chapter II — books that tell us about America’s future

The strange thing about so many of the threats before us is that we have so long been warned about them.

“The only trouble with this cure was that the patient still seemed to prefer his sickness, and so the Keynes report was ignored by Germans and Allies alike.”
— Otto Freidrich’s observation about German Chancellor Josef Wirth’s reaction to the 1922 report by John Maynard Keyes, which warned of hyperinflation and economic trauma — all of which came to pass in 1923 – 24.
Additional reference: We have been warned. Death of the post-WWII geopolitical regime, Chapter II

Every election allows us to determine what we shall be. Our politicians are rewarded for their ability to sense this and give us what we most desire.

“The receptivity of the masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a few essential points…These slogans must be repeated until every last member of the public understands what you want him to understand.”
— From a text about government by one of the founders of modern political marketing (Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler)
Additional reference: News from the Front: America’s military has mastered 4GW!

The Bush Administration has reshaped America in a way not seen since Johnson’s Great Society (1964-68).

“We are simple because the people are simple. We think in primitive terms because the people think in primitive terms. We are aggressive because the people are radical.”
— From a book about government by one of the founders of modern political marketing (Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler)
Additional reference: Was 9/11 the most effective single military operation in the history of the world?

Of course, nothing is new. As we see in the following warning by one of the greatest analysts of American society, Alexis De Tocqueville.

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things;it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.

Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions: they want to be led, and they wish to remain free. As they cannot destroy either the one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large who hold the end of his chain.

By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master and then relapse into it again. A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large.

— Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy In America, chapter VI; What sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

Other posts in this series about America, how we got here and how we can recover it

  1. Forecast: Death of the American Constitution, 4 July 2006
  2. Diagnosing the Eagle, Chapter III – reclaiming the Constitution, 3 January 2008
  3. A report card for the Republic: are we still capable of self-government?, 3 July 2008
  4. Americans, now a subservient people (listen to the Founders sigh in disappointment), 20 July 2008
  5. de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
  6. A soft despotism for America?, 22 July 2008
  7. The American spirit speaks: “Baa, Baa, Baa”, 5 August 2008
  8. We’re Americans, hear us yell: “baa, baa, baa”, 6 August 2008
  9. Obama describes the first step to America’s renewal, 8 August 2008
  10. Let’s look at America in the mirror, the first step to reform, 14 August 2008
  11. Fixing America: elections, revolt, or passivity?, 16 August 2008
  12. Fixing American: taking responsibility is the first step, 17 August 2008
  13. Fixing America: solutions — elections, revolt, passivity, 18 August 2008
  14. The intelligentsia takes easy steps to abandoning America, 19 August 2008

For all posts on this subject see America – how can we reform it?.

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