Everyone has heard about the old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times”. Well, consider yourself well and truly cursed. It’s hard to imagine more interesting times than those we are currently living through (“surviving” might be a better word). Robert Kennedy quoted that line in 1966, but added that the sixties were also times of great creativity. Perhaps we should be seeing our times in the same way.
The thing is that we are going through times of transition, as historians are trying to point out. As historians, our job is to record and remember, and then inform the general public. There is a deep truth in the words of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. There are cycles in history, things never stay static for long, and time brings change as inevitably as the seasons change. Though perhaps that is no longer a good comparison to use.
What is disturbing people today is that the institutions, norms and accepted codes of conduct that we have come to take for granted are being thoroughly undermined all over the world. No, it’s not just Trump, although he has to be the most obvious example of the phenomenon. But ever since the 1960’s, in particular, it has seemed that the ideals of human and civil rights were in the ascendancy around the world. Discrimination was frowned on and it seemed that basic rights and humanity were being granted to groups, activities and various minorities that had previously been outcasts, even illegal.
The end of the Soviet Union, and the lifting of the ever-present threat of nuclear war, seemed to promise a new day in human relations and history. Technology was rapidly making communication, education and dialogue easy, fast and universal. Standards of living were rising, at least in the Western countries, as they were called, and the hope and expectation was that this would continue to expand to all peoples in due course. Life seemed good and getting better.
Then came the new millennium, and it seemed that things started to go wrong pretty quickly. The end of the Soviet Union did not end the threats and enmity, after a short experiment with democracy, the Russians got themselves a new Czar, who has been very busy indeed trying to recover the lost world he believes was stolen from his people. To which end, he has been eagerly supporting any politician who he feels will serve his purpose, wherever they happen to be.
But the West still seemed to stand united and strong, at least until 2008. That was the year the economy almost collapsed in many of these countries. Greed, basic incompetence, led to chaos and hard times for many, though not for the bankers responsible for the mess. Anger and disillusion with the “system” spread far more widely, and deeply, than most realised; at least until 2016. The coming of Brexit and the election of Trump revealed certain facts that had been studiously ignored for decades.
Peace and Love had not defeated the “I’m all right, Jack” attitudes of the past. People had not grown out of bigotry, suspicion of “others”, or extreme nationalism: these things had only gone underground because they were not seen as a desirable or progressive. But, once you got a President who prided himself on being rude, sexist, bigoted and racist, then it was all right for everyone who shared those views to (dare I say?) come out of the closet.
The thing that had been forgotten is that these are genuine attitudes. They are not necessarily nice, desirable, or even morally valid, but they are real. That is a fact. Now, some are starting to see the parallels in the past, and they are not reassuring. British newspapers and politicians are drawing parallels between their situation since 2016 and that of Germany in the 1920’s and 1930’s. These are not hysterical people, they are respected academics and elder statesmen who are truly fearful of what is happening to their country.
The European Union is being questioned, even after keeping traditional enemies together in alliance since 1945. The Trump administration is undermining NATO, ties to traditional friends and allies, and making lies, racism, hatred of “others” and even hatred of other Americans, part of the national discourse. Americans, like the Brits, are fearing for the future of their democracy. And I haven’t even mentioned Climate Change, one of those issues that is causing real division. Some point out that change has happened before, in past centuries, which is quite true. But have we ever come this close to destroying ourselves and our planet? And, because it has happened before, does that mean that we are doing nothing to make it happen, or make it worse? And should we do nothing to make it less dangerous, just because it happened before?
But all of these things have happened before in history: to the Greeks, the Romans, the Germans, the British and so many others. Nothing stays the same for ever, or even for long. We have had quite an interesting time in the past century, and it should have taught us that we are not as “civilised” or “liberal” as we liked to think. We have made changes that were not acceptable to many, perhaps even to most, but we weren’t listening to them, and now they are speaking up and it is not pretty. The challenge for us as human beings is not to keep things the same, safe and predictable. That is impossible, by our very nature. Our challenge is in how we handle change, how we deal with dissension and division.