I began writing this blog eighteen years ago at a rather dark moment in US history. George W. Bush's re-election campaign was in full swing, and the nation was mired in his Iraq War and a mad attempt to police the entire globe to halt international terrorism. And while I have often in subsequent years been quite pessimistic about where the country was going, I know that many posts have been written in the hope that they might improve. Now I am not so sure. Not only are the Republicans almost certain to win control of the House of Representatives next Tuesday, they also have a 50-50 chance of regaining control of the Senate as well. That means another round of budget fights, government shutdowns, and endless Republican investigations of Democratic wrongdoing. And that is not all. Today news reports announce that if the Republicans are successful, Donald Trump will immediately announce his candidacy for a second term. He leads Ron DeSantis, his closest rival for the Republican nomination, by a 2-1 margin. Worse yet, I doubt very much that either Joe Biden or Kamala Harris, now the obvious heir apparent, could beat him. I do not think that Trump really embodies the passions and the views of all Republicans, but it seems clear that his presence at the top of the ticket has not been, and probably will not be, enough to disrupt the normal rhythm of modern American politics, in which an unhappy electorate--and the electorate is very unhappy these days--takes out its anger on the party in power. The Democrats have in many ways staked their future on the idea that Trump's re-election would be a catastrophe. They are right, but I am not convinced that that position will ever have enough electoral appeal.
"Every epoch is immediate to God," wrote Leopold von Ranke, the founder of modern history, in the nineteenth century. I am not religious enough to use language like that, but I agree that every epoch manifests certain aspects of human nature. My most important political values--free speech, representative government, the idea that reason can drive policy, and most of all a concept of equal citizenship--have actually held sway for relatively small portions of modern history, in relatively restricted areas. They first emerged in the ancient world, but were overthrown in the late Roman empire by corruption and Christianity, as I discovered reading a remarkable book by Charles Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind. It took about 1000 years for the Renaissance to re-establish the classical values, and that began about four centuries in which they steadily gained ground in Europe and spread elsewhere. Now they are in retreat, above all in the academy, which has abandoned its responsibility to maintain them. Literally anything could happen, I think, in the next fifty years.
My inspiration George Orwell entertained some terrifying visions of the future, most notably in 1984, but he died, very young, in 1950, while civilization still seemed to be advancing. I don't feel that it is now, for many reasons. So the question arises: without a great deal of hope about our future, how do we sustain our interest in life for how long is left us? Both history and literature, I think, offer some answers.
I have actually spent a good deal of my life living in the more or less distant past with the help of primary and secondary sources. I have written about some great human catastrophes, most notably those of the two world wars to which I devoted one section of Politics and War. So far, while history sometimes goes in the wrong direction for a long time, it does eventually take a big turn for the better. I am more and more doubtful that I will live to see the next one--but that doesn't mean that it will not take place. And when it does, to judge from the past, the great human achievements of earlier eras will come to life again--including the first two hundred years of the history of the United States. People may rediscover some of my favorite books. Even my own might survive.
Meanwhile I have been thinking of a favorite poem by one of my favorite poets, William Butler Yeats. Entitled Lapis Lazuli, it was written in the 1930s in the shadow of an impending war, to which the opening stanza explicitly refers. In one respect this poem is a challenge to 21st century readers because it repeatedly uses a three-letter word that has now acquired a new meaning. I am sure there are critics out there now who would argue that Yeats was consciously or unconsciously using the modern meaning, but trust me, he wasn't. In a remarkably short space, Yeats draws on both history and art to express eternal hope while the world teeters on the edge of a catastrophe. The poem also reminds me how much my own favorite works of art, literature, music and history have meant to me throughout my life, including, or especially in difficult times. I will end by reproducing it in full.