America living for today
By ROGER FRANKLIN
One of the curious things about America, the country so often accused of having no respect for the past, is that it is the source of two of the most-quoted lines about the subject.
"History is bunk," sneered Henry Ford, whom philosopher George Santayana dismissed as a fool. "If you don't master the hard lessons," the Harvard professor advised, "be prepared to suffer them all over again."
Both men are long gone, but you can't help thinking that if each could survey the mood of this nation on the verge of war, neither would be quite so sure of his opinion any more. Just now, Americans are plumbing history for all sorts of instructive precedents, but the ones they're finding don't sit well with the national state of mind.
Take Wednesday, for example, when Colin Powell delivered his long-awaited speech about Iraq's deceptions to the United Nations. The spin that preceded his appearance drew on precedent - that it would be a make-or-break performance, like the triumph of an earlier Secretary of State, Adlai Stevenson, who tabled the proof of Soviet missiles in Cuba and carried the day for JFK's policy of blockade and brinkmanship.
Powell came to New York with pictures of his own and a vial of white powder for a prop, and he delivered a solid, dramatic speech. But when he was done, in the streets, bars and coffee shops, only anticlimax. You couldn't hear a country sucking down a deep breath of firm resolve, as the history books say it did in 1962 over the Cuban Missile Crisis.
It was not that Powell's evidence was disbelieved - far from it - just that its chief effect was to confirm that war draws closer by the day. Hard though it will be for anti-war activists in other countries to believe, that's not a prospect Americans relish. When the balloon goes up, as now seems all but certain that it must, civilian sentiment will have shuffled to the front, not marched there armoured with the fierce courage of conviction.
No matter where you look, not just at matters concerning Iraq but at almost every aspect of American life, it's as if hearts and minds no longer capable of being shocked are wrapping themselves for comfort in a sense of blind, complacent resignation.
The polls, which show a nation divided, tell the story. Depending how the findings are analysed, which differing factions of public opinion are mixed and matched and moulded into a majority view, the country either wants war or disdains the idea. You can shape and cast the numbers either way and still get an accurate reading. Passion? Only for ambivalence. Apart from the sabre-rattlers and peaceniks at either extreme, the overwhelming bulk of nominal pros and cons lack any sort of fire.
In the days before and after Powell's address, for example, protesters gathered across First Ave from UN headquarters, though they seldom braved the bitter cold for very long before packing in the placards and heading home.
Even their best turnout couldn't match the numbers at the week's major UN protest - one that attracted not anti-war activists but hundreds of local residents opposed to the world body's plans for a 10-storey office tower on the site of a popular dog run.
In Michigan, 500 pro- and anti-war protesters threw snowballs at each other outside a hall where Bush was speaking. Thirty years ago, when Vietnam brought a nation's divisions into focus, it would have been rocks and bottles.
The national resignation touches all topics. In 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger blew up, the sense of utter disbelief lingered for weeks. Last week, after Columbia's destruction, the grief was there and just as obvious, but nowhere near as intense.
Seven astronauts gone? No kidding? We saw many more than that fall to earth from the World Trade Centre, not to mention the 2700-odd bodies they were digging out for months. Death by public spectacle lost its novelty after September 11.
The economy? It's stalled in that same limbo between past and future. Just a couple of years ago, it was Henry Ford's perspective that dominated Wall St's thinking, the view that American ingenuity must lead humanity's tumbling rush to the brighter dawning of a better day. There was this thing called a New Economy, we were told, with its new technologies, new rules and, of course, those new paradigms that had the future's priests and prophets all abuzz.
But when the tech wreck derailed those illusions, the past wasn't allowed to remind us of forgotten lessons. The editorialists filled columns with their scoldings about how the country reaped just what it had sown, and how those fevered dotcom dreams came from swigging down the same old souped-up snake oil that once saw Dutchmen trade their homes for tulip bulbs and, much later, brought on the Great Crash of '29.
Then Mohammed Atta and his crew arrived on September 11 and nobody was in a mood for moral lessons, not when ordering a new TV or bedroom suite provides a welcome distraction from the knowledge that the battlefield in this age of terror and soft targets - of anthrax letters and snipers and uncertainty - begins on the street outside your very door. Seek comfort in consumption, prop up the economy and never give those weary credit cards a rest.
Sooner or later, the bill will come due - in the letterbox, in Iraq or maybe North Korea, perhaps in the subway on the way to work. But why worry about it now? Better to look neither forward not back, to live for today, precariously safe on that tightrope divide between history's hard lessons and the future's all-too-certain perils.
How can we manifest peace on earth if we do not include everyone (all races, all nations, all religions, both sexes) in our vision of Peace?
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