Centuries

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.

Death by Molasses

Ninety-seven years ago today, 21 people were killed by molasses. Even having lived in Boston, I had never heard of the Boston Molasses Disaster. Credit for my awareness has to go to my wife, who read me the story from the Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets. I had no idea that molasses had been weaponized. The sweet sap, apart from making cookies, can be fermented into ethanol, used for munitions manufacture. In the North End of Boston a hastily constructed tank holding about 2 million gallons of molasses burst on this date in 1919, creating a sticky, 25-foot-high wall that raced through the North End at 35 m.p.h., killing those unfortunate enough to have been in the way. According to the Companion, 150 others were injured.

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We’ve all heard about the slowness of sap in January. Apparently the temperature had risen to above freezing this particular day, after several days of seasonal chill. The tank containing the heavy fluid burst under the strain. I have to admit that visions of walls of water have always frightened me. The images of the Boxing Day Tsunami back in 2004 were horrifying. I’d read of pilgrims to Petra (if you’re not familiar with Jordan, think of the crevasse through which Indiana Jones and company ride at the end of Last Crusade—that’s Petra) being drowned by sudden meltwater from distant mountains suddenly filling the canyon without warning, and shuttered. Having walked Hezekiah’s Tunnel without a flashlight, such images can be all too real at times. Would the offending wall made of molasses have made it any better or worse?

The tragedy is that the event is so little remembered today. I’m sure long-time residents of Boston still tell the tale of death by confection, but why don’t we hear of such things in the natural course of things? I suppose there are too many disasters to follow them all. Millions had just died in the nightmare of the First World War. The strange fate of those individuals killed by molasses might easily be overlooked, despite the fact that the goo had more victims than the Boston Massacre and the Boston Strangler combined. Maybe it’s just that things seem to move a little more slowly in January, but I feel as though I’d missed a part of history about which I might have been informed if I had more of a sweet-tooth.

Non-Fiction Steampunk

TheVictorianInternetThe histories of Tom Standage approach familiar things from unfamiliar angles. Being interested in Steampunk, and a daily user of the internet who has trouble recalling what life was like before then, I found The Victorian Internet fascinating. Subtitled The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers, the story of the wiring of the world did resonate in any almost eerie way to the early days of the world-wide web. Despite my disclaimer, I do recall those days clearly when the only way someone could get in touch with you immediately was the telephone, and you had to be at home for it to work. Prior to the telegraph, news traveled even slower and you could go months without hearing from those closest to you, if they happened to be away. Samuel F. B. Morse knew that first-hand, as Standage tells it. His wife died while he was out of town, and although he rushed back right away upon hearing, she had been buried before he reached her. Such was life when news arrived only by letter. Morse was among those who invented the telegraph, a device that made the world realize that yes, it was possible to send information to distant places almost instantly. It soon become a wired world.

Standage is also more circumspect than some writers who declare, with breathless awe, that some new device will cure the world’s ills. Showing how the telegraph generated much the same hyperbole as the internet (that peace would reign now that people could communicate instantly, that technology had brought a miraculous rapprochement, etc.) he notes that people remained people. Wars continued—intensified, in fact, into World War One where technology was devoted to destruction. People had always been able to kill each other. Now they could do it faster, and in more hideous ways. Still, there’s no denying that once the idea of instant communication caught on that we would continue to develop it rapidly. You never need be away from a network that covers much of the developed world and you can talk on your phone from deep under the Hudson River to the top of the Empire State Building. You can order a pizza from anywhere.

Ironically, Morse dedicated part of his earnings to endow a lectureship concerning how science related to the Bible. It was clear that technology had achieved the impossible (okay, well, the improbable) and yet, Victorian society still relied on the truths contained in Scripture. The telegraph, which began with the words, “What hath God wrought,” ended with the attempt to figure out how the Bible fit into all this. Just because humans had crossed the great barriers of oceans with electric cables didn’t mean the Almighty was out of a job. Even today God can be found on the internet. Along with many other choices of distraction and business. God is not so much dead as commodified. The difference between Morse’s day and ours was that then they knew that the Bible impacted daily life. It continues to do so today, but we’ve become too sophisticated to give it much of a nod. We might be well served, however, to look back once in a while as well as to look forward. We might be surprised at how little things have changed.

Keeping Time

Did you remember to set your clock back? Depending on where you are (and this presumes there are any people reading this at all) it might have been a mistake. When I worked with Routledge, we had weekly trans-Atlantic meetings via conference calls. I remember the general confusion of what time it was where, and how that effected meeting times. The UK sets its clocks back at a different time then many states do this side of the ocean. As much as it is nice to have an extra hour of sleep (next weekend for most Americans, this morning for the British Isles) it really never seems worth the disruption on the other end of “standard time.” In the spring it will take several weeks to adjust to disrupted sleep patterns after long winter naps—for those who are able to sleep in, in any case. I’ve long thought it is time to do away with this practice: if daylight savings time is a good idea, why don’t we just keep it that way all year around? Greenwich Mean Time, however, could never admit to being wrong.

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I was always told daylight savings time was because of concerns for children walking to school in the dark. An article in The Guardian, however, gives the real reason. It was war. During the First World War (which impacted so many aspects of life that we’re still sorting them all out), Germany implemented daylight savings time to conserve fuel to support the war effort. Squeezing a few more minutes of daylight from a slumbering public meant more resources for the engines of destruction. Other nations soon followed and when we turn our clocks ahead in the spring and yawn wicked yawns all day at work and stumble about for lack of sleep, we wonder if that extra hour’s snooze in the fall was really worth it. Because of my commute, I rise early. If everyone awoke around 4 a.m., daylight savings time would quickly become moot. It does nothing to help. I already catch the bus in the dark and arrive home after dark, as I will until well into spring. It is a holiday with no meaning.

Religions have been, historically, the clock keepers of humanity. Our hours were regulated for prayer, our weeks divided up for a day of worship or rest, our years punctured by holy days. All of this was done for the sake of religion. In our secular world, there would be no reason beyond the recognition that people are more productive when they can rest to give them one day off in a week. Seven days corresponds to no natural division of time, unless you consider a quarter of the moon’s phases for 28-day months to be significant. Religions have been our time-keepers. Daylight savings time, however, was the child of war. This week our UK colleagues will be well rested and content. Next weekend the US will join them. But the second horseman of the apocalypse has sanctioned this unholy day, and when the spring rolls around, he will exact his toll. We’d better rest up in the meanwhile, and I, for one, say let’s banish the horseman all together.

Theatrical Desert

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While the appellation T. E. Lawrence may leave many scratching their heads, “Lawrence of Arabia” will still garner nods of recognition. Of course, having a major movie made after you is a pretty good way to retain currency. Being a student of the history of religions, focusing on those of ancient West Asia, I read about Lawrence as I was doing background reading on what would eventually become known as the Middle East—another contrived name. Lawrence, who apparently disliked being called, “of Arabia,” along with Gertrude Bell, played a formative role in what would become a theater of European entanglements that continue to cause trouble to this day. The First World War gave opportunity for colonial interests to play out in the tribal polities that had worked in that part of the world for centuries. The fact that many of these countries are oil rich didn’t hurt.

Yesterday, starting very early, my wife and I settled in to watch the movie Lawrence of Arabia. Since it was released the year that I was born I might be forgiven for missing the first run in theaters, but I really hadn’t had the opportunity to see it before. Sure, you can pick up the DVD in many bargain bins at video stores—now also becoming rare—but a day with four free hours to watch a movie is also an endangered species. What struck me the most about the movie, after the commitment it takes to spend so long watching it, is that the few women who appear in it have no lines. Or lives. No woman speaks for this entire film. Although the portrayal of the Arabs is positive, the utter invisibility of half of all people on the planet is somewhat bewildering. Although not shown in the movie, Lawrence was known to be able to pass himself off as a woman, it is said. Yet the real women are missing, as if their stake in the world following the war just didn’t matter.

It may have been intended as a man-cave of a film—fighting scenes (although mild by present-day standards), things blowing up, and an awful lot of masculine bravado make up much of it. Still, men are not known for sitting patiently while minutes and minutes of visually lush desert scenery and blur shots of the sun take up so much of their weekend time. Yes, women did not fight in the field during the war, but they were an important part of the story. Gertrude Bell, as I mentioned, was a key figure in the drawing up of the boundaries of the Arab world. The movie isn’t about her, nevertheless the women show up in numbers only twice, once to wave goodbye the to army off to take Aqaba and then as nurses to help the overflowing hospital in Damascus. In neither scene do they talk. Perhaps it is intentional, but such a tactic made the desert seem very barren indeed. War has victims of all genders.

Sign of Jonas

A century ago today, the world erupted in war. Those who engaged in World War One are pretty much all gone now, but the war to end all wars has left its scars across the globe. We showed ourselves we could do it. We could drag, through our accumulated frustrations, just about every nation into open conflict. The costs were astronomical, but we didn’t learn a thing. Just a couple decades later we were back at it. Nations taking provocative stabs at other people. Keep on poking and people, being what they are, will eventually hit back. So on this anniversary of the start of the First World War (awaiting a sequel, perhaps from the start), I’m reading about the extremists in Iraq destroying Jonah’s tomb. Poke. Poke. Well, it is more a loss to fellow Muslims than it is to those who take the Bible seriously. Jonah is a nice story of a prophet (rather blithely retold in the Washington Post) who probably never existed. If there was a Jonah he wasn’t fish food, that we know for sure. The tomb of Jonah is like that of an unknown prophet. The symbol’s the thing.

In the story in the Washington Post, Justin Moyer laments that “anything in the Bible” might be destroyed in these circumstances. I wonder how you can destroy something that never happened. Doing so, in any case, is liable to start a war. It really doesn’t take that much. The last century has taught us little. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not in favor of destroying ancient landmarks or parts of a region’s history. But if we misattribute its importance to something sacred, or biblical, it will be far too simple to start a row. You see, Jonah converted Nineveh, according to the Bible. The Assyrians became good Yahwists, despite the historical record. Those who destroyed his tomb likely had conversion on their minds as well.

As these thoughts were taking form in my head, I happened upon the page of GETS Theological Seminary, which, as far as I can tell, is in China. On the banner across its homepage was a picture of its mission field. Is that the United States? Of course, if you read the description you’ll see that the world, in toto, is the mission field they intend. Still, it is a little bit of a shock to see yourself counted among the heathen. I’m sure, had Jonah really existed, that the Assyrians would have been just as shocked. They were as moral as any other militaristic society. And today my thoughts are on militaristic societies. The First World War definitively changed everything from that fatal moment it began, a century ago today. It was the first, but not the last, loss of humanity’s innocence. We would invent newer and crueler ways to kill each other in greater numbers. Blood would become the true currency of the last hundred years. Maybe we should keep a weather-eye out for a fish-swallowed prophet after all. The world could perhaps stand a bit of conversion.

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New Century

Time is the ultimate commodity. New Year’s Day is one of the ten standard holidays to the business world, a grudging nod in the direction that those who are tasked with making money for others might take a little break. Yesterday as I arrived in Times Square at 7 a.m., with a handful of others on the bus, vendors were already setting up their card tables on street corners with cheap, glitzy baubles to celebrate the drop of a ball as 2013 slowly wound out. Like many others, I marched to a job where little was happening. Emails elicited no response. Entire buildings in parts of Manhattan didn’t bother with anything but emergency lights since who really works on New Year’s Eve? Some of us must. As the long hours slowly passed at my cubicle, my mind wandered back over the past few weeks, months, year, decade, quarter and half centuries. New Year’s Day is one of the oldest religious holidays, if not the original one. But how far have we come?

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Only a century ago the world was poised for the Great War as 1914 dawned. Trenches were dug in minds before they ever appeared in the mud of the Somme. 1918 brought a tenuous peace that would lead toward inevitable renewal of hostilities after a decade was allowed for Gatsby and the jazz age. World War Two ended with the first threats of mutual annihilation, and just five years later the Korean War began. The police action ended in time to offer another opportunity at war in Vietnam around three years later. I grew up aware of the Vietnam War, but in a religion that taught me it was just preparation for the Really Great War yet to come. We gave ourselves fifteen years before starting a war in the volatile Persian Gulf, a conflict with a sibling Second Gulf War with its premature mission accomplished. Technically it’s over, but for how long? Drones fly over our heads even now. Books on World War One line bookshop shelves (in as far as there are any bookstores anymore). Sometimes I hope there are no prophets.

New year was a ritual marking that sacred resetting of time, and eventually it took on a significance all its own. A spiritual reboot, as it were. A time to move on from past troubles. As I walked through Times Square yesterday evening, my only thoughts were for the bus that would take me home, away from the massive celebration. I had a book to read against the long journey and already by five o’clock the crowds had begun to coalesce. So many people. So many hopes and dreams. The ball stood poised over Midtown, ready to fall, and a new kind of symbolism became apparent. We begin the new year with a downward trend. The tangled webs we’ve been weaving for decades have not been reset. Politics and power-brokers will continue to build on what they started long ago. Some of us just want to get home.