Was August 2014 our version of August 1914? Or are we just drowning in so much over-hyped bad news that the world looks worse than it is?
One hundred years ago last month, Europe began its lurch into the bloody, muddy siege which, after tearing up the landscape and devouring a generation of young men, came to be known as “The Great War.” That was when “great” meant big, not terrific, mind you. A popular chronicle of that disastrous month came in the early 1960s from American historian Barbara Tuchman, whose “The Guns of August” paints a picture of the step by step progress of 19th Century European nation states into the mire they all met in the 20th Century.
A century full of wonders and horrors followed. We have seen the fastest evolution of human technology – lightning communications, air travel, assembly lines, short-stalked wheat, inventions capable of feeding, moving and lighting-up a world of billions. The state of human relations has arguably greatly improved, with a widening aversion to sexism, racism, discrimination against the disabled and the gay. Everyone is richer, although the planet is definitely poorer. Concurrent to this we have witnessed depravity on a mass scale: from the factory murder of the Holocaust to the machete-wielding madness of Rwanda to the latest depredations of ISIS, and all its fundamentalist Islamic kin. It was a busy century.
If August 1914 was the real beginning of a weird and new century, the century begun in August 2014 seems worse. Russia has renewed its furtive invasion of the Ukraine, while the West dithers and blithers. ISIS, having committed the memorable and well-advertised mass murder of little girls and journalists, men and women, boys and old folks, is now beginning to feel the tang of American missile fire but only just. Unemployment eats the lives of a generation of young Europeans. The awkward and imperfect democracy of Thailand has given way to a stuffy, distinctly anti-democratic military junta – again. Middle America, overheated and over televised, has accidentally displayed the modern evolution of its suburban police into Army units. Drought consumes the southwest, while cloud buries the east. And any observer of the American scene must admit that the country is more brutally divided today than at any moment before or since the Civil War – a cultural schism being aggravated and milked by the dominant strains of political thinking.
Halfway around the world, Israel has just settled its “truce” in Gaza, which consists of sending IDF units back home for a while to eat their mothers’ cooking while Hamas begins to smuggle in new crates of rockets and iPhones. It is hard to tell if the Hamas strategy (“let’s see how much sympathy we can win by getting our own people killed”) was better than the Israeli strategy (let’s see how many of their buildings we can level before they get tired of shooting rockets at us”). One thing for sure, the anti-Semites aren’t hiding anymore. Meanwhile, Nigerian Islamic terrorists appear free to kidnap girls into slavery. Nearby and worst of all, Ebola speckles West Africa with corpses. The World Health Organization has just fled the scene and the public health strategy appears to be simple: contain it and wait. Whole villages will simply die of it, before – hopefully – the plague runs out of people to kill.
The news of August 2014 was uniquely bad, and unfortunately does not seem to hold the seed of any better news in September. The political classes of almost every country appear trapped in their own brain-cauterizing ideologies: whether it’s fascistic pan-Russian expansionism, murkily pacifistic Obamaism or turgid Euro-timidity, who do you trust? When the Arab nations buddying-up to Israel seem like the most astute among us, how bad have things become? Who do you look to with any confidence that he or she “gets” anything right at all, with the possible exception of Angela Merkel (unless you’re Southern European)? Even the people who run Apple don’t seem infallible anymore.
It has been my belief for a long time that the progress of human civilization has met, and will continue to meet, a countervailing force of resistance and backwardness. We build our houses on the beach and hold back the sea. Without comparing them in terms of moral offensiveness, there is a fundamental (pun intended) similarity among certain belief systems surging forward: Islamicism, exemplified by the Hamas and ISIS death worshippers; the widespread stupidity of people who desperately deny the obvious (climate change, the public health menace of guns in America, etc) and the widespread belief in the ridiculous (GMO food conspiracy theories, immunization = autism, etc). It may be that the world is so bad that people naturally reach out to their God, the supernatural or their native prejudices to cope, but more likely the world is so bad because they’re doing that.
We have all enjoyed peace at the price of someone else’s life: a soldier, a cop, a diplomat, a good neighbour – each has put his or her life on a line for us at some point, so that we can sleep soundly behind that line. Many people like to believe that violence and force in human affairs is somehow evil or wrong. They may be right about that, but violence and force are also inevitable: there have always been and always will be people out there ready to imprison or enslave you, your daughter or your wife, to saw your head off and to dance on your grave. Your home, however pretty and serene, is surrounded by an invisible fence of people you pay to keep it quiet. The only question is whether you are protected by the people who have the most force and the greatest capacity and willingness to commit violence to preserve your way of life. In the latter half of the 20th century and early 21st, the West has amassed an array of weaponry and economic clout so titanic that the enemies of this civilization have been held at bay. That clout seems to be ebbing and with it, our peace. Again, this is not to advocate violence but rather, as with the weather, not to pretend it is not a reality in our lives.
But it is precisely at such a moment that Barbara Tuchman (she of the “Guns of August) offers a little wisdom to cling to. The author found that the more we talk about bad things, the more we believe in their ubiquity despite the actual evidence. Being famous enough to coin her own aphorisms, she came up with the modestly named “Tuchman’s Law” which, she said, could be summed up as follows:
“The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold”
Tuchman said that over half a century ago, when the reporting of news was confined to print, radio and television – media which were all “mediated” by professional or semi-professional castes of communicators, filtering events through perspectives wrought by knowledge, prejudice, self-interest and expertise. We aren’t living on that planet anymore. Today, there is no filter but one’s own capacity to stop listening and/or to think. In a world where everything is reported a thousand times, by a million sources, all day and all night long all the way around the world and back, the din of “deplorable developments” seems like the sea itself, washing away all our sand castles in a deafening roar.
So I take slender comfort from the notion that it is the sheer volume of bad news, repeated in a bottomless echo chamber and reflected in a house of mirrors, that has me feeling like things are really, really bad. Maybe they aren’t so bad. Maybe this is just another September 1st. Under a sky of cloud and blue, the safe and contented citizens of my city – like those in your city – wander down the sidewalks, crowd in cafes, mow their lawns, scratch their cats’ chins and stare at their phones. Half have ear buds in and the other half look a little lost. There is laughter, there is mourning, there is someone listening to the new Taylor Swift song. Old couples carry their bags home through the park. The shadows are short in the mid-day sun, the girls’ shorts are shorter, Labrador retrievers plod with their heads down in the heat and blind daters keep the chatter going as long as they can. Just another Labour Day.
Here where I live, we are still at peace. What is uncertain is whether it is the peace we have long believed we were living in, or whether it is something else that we don’t recognize yet.