Summary: Today we have a guest author from another time. He’s a philosopher and playwright, providing an insightful look at our time as seen from the future — a decade after the ending of our war on terror. Although he provides few details, the events described are easy to identify.
- About pubic finance: Nature’s Long Credits
- About politics: The Mad Election
- About politics: The Practical Business Men
- About the war on terror: War Delirium
- About the war on terror: Madness in Court and The Rabid Watchdogs of Liberty
(1) About pubic finance: Nature’s Long Credits
Nature’s way of dealing with unhealthy conditions is unfortunately not one that compels us to conduct a solvent hygiene on a cash basis. She demoralizes us with long credits and reckless overdrafts, and then pulls us up cruelly with catastrophic bankruptcies.
Take, for example, common domestic sanitation. A whole city generation may neglect it utterly and scandalously, if not with absolute impunity, yet without any evil consequences that anyone thinks of tracing to it. In a hospital two generations of medical students may tolerate dirt and carelessness, and then go out into general practice to spread the doctrine that fresh air is a fad, and sanitation an imposture set up to make profits for plumbers. Then suddenly Nature takes her revenge. She strikes at the city with a pestilence and at the hospital with an epidemic of hospital gangrene, slaughtering right and left until the innocent young have paid for the guilty old, and the account is balanced. And then she goes to sleep again and gives another period of credit, with the same result.
This is what has just happened in our political economy. Basic finance has been as recklessly neglected by Governments and electorates during my lifetime as sanitary science was in the days of Charles the Second. … Nature gave us a very long credit; and we abused it to the utmost. But when she struck at last she struck with a vengeance. …
(2) About politics: The Mad Elections
Happy were the fools and the thoughtless men of action in those days. The worst of it was that the fools were very strongly represented in Congress, as fools not only elect fools, but can persuade men of action to elect them too.
… In short, power and culture were in separate compartments.The barbarians were not only literally in the saddle, but but running Congress, with nobody to correct their incredible ignorance of modern thought and political science but upstarts from the counting-house, who had spent their lives furnishing their pockets instead of their minds. Both, however, were practised in dealing with money and with men, as far as acquiring the one and exploiting the other went; and although this is as undesirable an expertness as that of the medieval robber baron, it qualifies men to keep a State or a business going in its old routine without necessarily understanding it …
From what is called Democracy no corrective to this state of things could be hoped. It is said that every people has the Government it deserves. It is more to the point that every Government has the electorate it deserves; for the orators of the front bench can edify or debauch an ignorant electorate at will.
(3) About politics: The Practical Business Men
From the beginning the useless people set up a shriek for “practical business men.” By this they meant men who had become rich by placing their personal interests before those of the country, and measuring the success of every activity by the pecuniary profit it brought to them and to those on whom they depended for their supplies of capital.
The pitiable failure of some conspicuous samples from the first batch we tried of these poor devils helped to give the whole public side of the crisis an air of monstrous and hopeless farce. They proved not only that they were useless for public work, but that in a well-ordered nation they would never have been allowed to control private enterprise.
(4) About the war on terror: War Delirium
Only those who have lived through a first-rate war, not in the field, but at home, and kept their heads, can possibly understand the bitterness of Shakespeare and Swift, who both went through this experience. The horror of Peer Gynt in the madhouse, when the lunatics, exalted by illusions of splendid talent and visions of a dawning millennium, crowned him as their emperor, was tame in comparison. …
There were of course some happy people to whom the war meant nothing: all political and general matters lying outside their little circle of interest. But the ordinary war-conscious civilian went mad … There was a frivolous exultation in death for its own sake, which was at bottom an inability to realize that the deaths were real deaths and not stage ones.
… The war did not change men’s minds in any way. What really happened was that the impact of physical death and destruction, the one reality that every fool can understand, tore off the masks of education, art, science and religion from our ignorance and barbarism, and left us glorying grotesquely in the licence suddenly accorded to our vilest passions and most abject terrors. Ever since Thucydides wrote his history, it has been on record that when the angel of death sounds his trumpet the pretences of civilization are blown from men’s heads into the mud like hats in a gust of wind. But when this scripture was fulfilled among us, the shock was not the less appalling because a few students of Greek history were not surprised by it. Indeed these students threw themselves into the orgy as shamelessly as the illiterate.
… Remember that these people had to be stimulated to make the sacrifices demanded by the war, and that this could not be done by appeals to a knowledge which they did not possess, and a comprehension of which they were incapable. When the armistice at last set me free to tell the truth about the war at the following election, a soldier said to a candidate whom I was supporting,”If I had known all that in 2003, they would never have got me to enlist.” And that, of course, was precisely why it had been necessary to stuff him with a romance that any diplomatist would have laughed at. Thus the natural confusion of ignorance was increased by a deliberately propagated confusion of nursery bogey stories and melodramatic nonsense …
… And yet, what is there to say except that war puts a strain on human nature that breaks down the better half of it, and makes the worse half a diabolical virtue? Better, for us if it broke it down altogether, for then the warlike way out of our difficulties would be barred to us, and we should take greater care not to get into them.
(5) About the war on terror: Madness in Court and The Rabid Watchdogs of Liberty
The demoralization did not spare the Law Courts. … Not content with these rancorous abuses of the existing law, the war maniacs made a frantic rush to abolish all constitutional guarantees of liberty and well-being. Remonstrances and warnings were met either with an accusation of being pro-Jihadist or the formula, “Remember that we are at war now.” …
About the author
This is a note from the past, not the future. It’s the Preface to the play Heartbreak House (slightly edited to reflect American terms), written by George Bernard Shaw in 1919. He looks back to the horrors of WWI, and forward to the tumultuous 1920s — and the public policy mistakes that laid the foundation for the Great Depression and WWII.
A reader’s comment
From the Preface: “But when this scripture was fulfilled among us, the shock was not the less appalling because a few students of Greek history were not surprised by it. Indeed these students threw themselves into the orgy as shamelessly as the illiterate.”
Comment: “How the hell did Shaw foresee Victor David Hanson?”
Lessons and even advice from the past — and notes from the future
- President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris, 1 July 2008
- de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
- Words of wisdom about the global recession, from the greatest economist of our era, 29 December 2008
- Napoleon’s advice to President Obama about the financial crisis, 29 April 2009
- A warning from Alexis De Tocqueville about our military, 7 August 2009
- Another note from our past, helping us see our future, 16 September 2009
- A note from America’s diary: “My power proceeds from my reputation…”, 22 September 2009
- Seeing today through the eyes of a future historian, 25 September 2009
- The SecDef gives the definitive analysis of the war, a must-read, 30 December 2009
- France gives us tips for the Afghanistan War, from their successful role in the American Revolution, 11 March 2010
- A great philosopher and statesman comments on the Bush-Obama tweaks to the Constitution, 10 October 201