Although it may not be obvious, history marks us as hopelessly shortsighted.  As a species we’ve only been keeping written records for about four millennia.  History, as we know it—without the intervention of gods—is an even more recent phenomenon.  Since living a century is a rarity (although becoming more common), a hundred years seems like a very long time.  Our lives spin out over a brief span of active decades until we run out of energy and let others make the important decisions.  We hope, against hope, that they will have learned from our collective mistakes.  Learning isn’t always our strong suit as a species.  In just one century we forget and arrogantly refuse to read our history.

One hundred years ago the War To End All Wars ended.  World War One was a slaughter on a scale unimaginable, involving nations around the world distrusting each other and hating one another enough to threaten all the advances of millennia of civilization.  When the war was over we thought we’d seen the last of conflict.  Two decades later it started all over again and the Second World War wiped out millions of lives.  The aggressors, known collectively as fascists, were strong nationalists, believing in racial superiority and privileged rights for those in power.  When that war ended, just about seven decades ago, a stunned world took little for granted beyond the awareness that fascism was, at least, gone for good.

Today we stand on the brink of a chasm that spans one century.  Fascists are in power in the United States and elsewhere.  International tensions are running high and the “leader of the free world” openly eschews reading history.  Protests against the war in Vietnam were largely prompted by the real-time coverage on television.  Now we have a world-wide web, but no basis for truth beyond the tweets of madmen.  For many people the decade-and-a-half that they spend in school seems a long time.  We used to believe that it took that long to learn what our restless youth need to survive in a complex society.  We teach them, among other things, history.  The need to learn from our past is perhaps even more important than technology.  My generation of academics, reaching over half-a-century now for many of us, has been taught that lifelong learning is the value we must instill in students.  Given that we’ve collectively had a century to learn, and that we’re still edging toward the same collapsing precipice, a hundred years seems not nearly long enough.

Honorable Theft

The_Book_ThiefYoung adult literature can be amazingly profound. My curiosity about Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief bubbled to the surface after the movie was released last weekend. I didn’t see it, along with thousands of others, because of its very limited theatrical release. I’m sure you know that distressing feeling when you type your zip code into Fandango and come up with zero results. Short of going all the way into New York City just to see a movie, I was pretty much out of luck. The silver lining is that it made me read the book. I’m not sure what I was expecting (I can also be the victim of hype), but what I found was deeply engrossing while also being deeply disturbing. Spoiler alert!

The Book Thief is set in Nazi Germany. It is narrated by Death. The protagonist, Liesel Meminger, represents the plight of all people; we have no control over when, where, or to whom we’re born. With parents considered enemies of the state, the Book Thief is raised by foster parents who are German, but who are also poor. They are good people, and much of the tension in the book revolves around their hiding a Jewish friend in their small house. The convention of Death as a narrator predates George Pendle’s Death: A Life, by three years. Although in the end Death is the only survivor, he is remarkably sympathetic to the human condition. Death also supplies the main religious observations in a book otherwise devoid of God. When Death attempts to pray during the horrors of war, a devastating conclusion is drawn: “God never says anything.” Is that why Veteran’s Day celebrations tend to be so silent? There may not be any atheists in foxholes, but there’s no God there either.

As Death stalks all those who are dear to her, Liesel finds her comfort in books. Although she begins the story illiterate, and although books are difficult to find in a poor family in a nation at war, Liesel discovers that words have a power that even dictators can’t steal. Her love of reading saves her life as her street is obliterated in an air raid. Even Death has to question the futility of war. In my most idealistic of moments, I hold the conviction that many of the world’s evils would be eliminated if people just read more. We would discover, for example, that even the devastation of war can be overcome by words. The only book Death is portrayed as reading is the Book Thief’s life story. And this gives Death pause, because even young adult literature can be amazingly profound.

Blame it on the Rain

I’ve been on the losing side of my share of elections (although it feels like far more than my share), but I’m amazed at the character of the GOP that has come through these last few days. The quote that keeps running through my mind comes from The Dark Knight when the Joker says to the Chechen that if they cut him up and fed him to his hounds, “then we’ll see how loyal a hungry dog really is.” Blame has been flying thick and fast, but one thing I don’t hear any Tea Partiers suggesting is that Hurricane Sandy was sent by God to seal the election for Obama. Hurricane Katrina may have been sent by God to wipe out the sinners in New Orleans, but when Sandy gave a chance for Obama to show his true colors, it was just a freak storm. I’ve never been a fan of Chris Christie, New Jersey’s bully governor. During Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath, however, I was very impressed how he handled the situation. He showed a rare side full of compassion for those who were suffering. He vowed to help President Obama make things right again. When the storm of the election was over, however, Christie’s own party verbally crucified him for doing the right thing. Does this not show us just what white privilege spawns?

Turning back the clock is an exercise best left for post-apocalyptic scenarios of rebuilding society and the occasional spring or fall weekend. As our world makes progress—and yes, it is slowly making it—we must constantly reassess the situation. The ethics of the 1950s favored white men, the mores were blithely uninformed that an entire world exists outside this strange isolationism that could only be broken when Communists threatened our way of life. We are over half-a-century beyond that: the Berlin Wall has fallen, the Cuban missiles are gone, and those seeking to move to America are by and large the tired, the poor, and those yearning to breathe free. Not all of them are “white.” Not all of them are male. They are, like the rest of us, human beings.

I have never wished want or deprivation on anyone. I know what moderate want feel like (I lost an entire day of my college education searching for three dollars that fell out of my pocket, wondering how I would make it through the week without it). I have spent several years of my life tip-toeing around unemployment, and sometimes falling into that crevasse for a year or two at a time. Each time I claw my way out I earnestly wish that no one would ever have to face that. A political party that puts such a strong emphasis on giving up all the good we’ve managed to obtain, and cries about health care that doesn’t even approach the humane, universal care available in just about every other “first world” nation, is a party in need of serious, prolonged soul-searching. On this day when we honor veterans who, despite personal differences, stood side-by-side for the good of their country, perhaps those attacking their own might in days of privilege spend a few moments in serious thought.

Blame it on the rain…

Foxhole Atheists

It’s Veterans Day and prayer makes the headlines. The old adage about no atheists in foxholes comes to mind as those who fought for the values we hold reminisce about the not-so-happy days before the 1950s when the last semblance of normalcy in American life apparently died. The New Jersey Star-Ledger quotes a World War II veteran who participated at the Battle of Normandy saying “I might have prayed more than I ever prayed before.” No atheists in foxholes. As a lifelong pacifist, I have always believed that war is a terrible waste. 3.5 billion years of evolution and the best we can come up with is to hurl supersonic lead slugs at each other over who gets what and who deserves more than who else. I don’t deny that veterans should be honored – my father was a veteran – but war should not.

A sad truth is that many wars, probably in the history of the modern world, most wars, have been fought for religious reasons. The idea that God demands certain things ultimately leads to fighting over what it is God wants. Both sides often claiming the silent deity is on their side. Millions of mere mortals have had to pay the price. Hey, can’t we just talk about this?

War may very well have evolutionary roots. Studies of chimpanzees suggest that homo sapiens are not the only overly aggressive primates. If we deny our cousins religion, however, only homo sapiens fight for mythological causes. One of the great ironies of life is that the most advanced technology trickles down to civilian life from military applications. If something is new, it must have a tactical use against the enemy. Once the enemy is subdued, we can share the wealth. I grew up hearing about “godless Communists.” I watched in dismay as Bush declared a new crusade. I shudder when I read that Iran is developing long-range missile facilities. God is the midst of all this. Veterans protected us from the human-level wars of a bygone era. In our own homemade Armageddon, however, our own technology will doubtless become the weapons in the hands of an angry God.

If God be for us...