Near the end of 1940, with Britain fighting alone against Nazi Germany, the famously appeasing former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain died. Prime Minister Winston Churchill eulogized him in the House of Commons, saying:
“It is not given to human beings, happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. What is the worth of all this? The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour.”
There are three aspects of this thought that are worthy of attention. The first is the changing appreciation of the past when viewed through the lens of current events. The second is the idea of the “telescoping” effect of examining history. People look at events, outcomes – maybe even debates – and do not see the human dimension surrounding the focal points of historical events. The third idea here is an argument for morality, without knowing what will happen in the future, or how any action may be perceived, it is important to do what one thinks is right in the moment.
The Second World War, a truly seminal and unique event in world history, is actually a multitude of related events with social, political, and of course, military dimensions. Most date the War as beginning in September 1939 and ending in September 1945 – but the Japanese invasion of China began in earnest in 1937, and the Japanese annexation of a province in Northern China began in 1931. Colonialism, social injustice, the failures of Capitalism, scientifically-precise industrialization, monetary systems, modern information technology, and forms of government all had a starring role in the upheaval of the so-called Second World War.
And our perceptions of the War have changed over time too. Once a beyond-reproach moral victory for the West, the actions of the Allies, and the United States in particular, have been brought under scrutiny. This is not to diminish the evil (yes, I will use the absolutist term of “evil”) of the Nazis, the Fascists in Europe broadly, and the racist, genocidal violence perpetrated by the Japanese in their (Orwellian-named) Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. But – as time skidded into the future, the Allied bombing campaigns (including the use of the atomic bombs), the “take-no-prisoners” attitude and taking of gruesome trophies by American soldiers in the Pacific, and the ruthless appropriation of the underpinnings of the British Empire by the Americans have all come under a moral examination.
All of the aspects of the Second World War which I just mentioned share a common theme, they all involve a type of mental foreshortening of events. Mental foreshortening occurs for the sake of convenience, things that are too complex to understand are made simpler, perhaps with a narrative: “World War 2 occurred because Hitler decided to invade countries surrounding Germany.” It occurs because the emotional content that drove decisions is not always apparent in historical sources and a “zeitgeist” can be difficult to measure: “Germany was taken over by the Nazi’s because of the Great Depression.” And it occurs because we want to protect our moral integrity, or the moral integrity of aspects of our chosen identity: “The US had to bomb those cities like that because it was the only way to win the War quickly.” [Note: this is very similar to what Epsilon Theory calls “abstraction” and “memes.”]
We like to put neat labels on events to make them easier to understand, but history, just as current events, flows and ebbs like a tide, it does not run straight between banks like a river. And as the generation that lived through World War 2 fades, the memories of the past fade too. We can scarcely imagine the mass mobilization, the mass feeling, the patriotism, the colossal scale of horror of the Second World War now.
So what can this knowledge tell us about the issues and events of the day?
Firstly, in the Impeachment of President Donald Trump, the Democrats are looking for a “savior” and are appealing to the “verdict of history” in trying to sway Republicans to their point of view. Democrats will find this effort to be in vain. Any individual Senator or Cabinet official will not be remembered as a “coward.” If they are remembered at all, it will be as a gear in a large machine. (How many people have strong feelings about Senator Aldrich – besides Twitter’s Rudy Havenstein?) When you hear people “appealing to history” it is an acknowledgment of the failure to obtain or exercise power. There is no possible conception of how history will view the Impeachment, or the Trump presidency, without knowing the consequences of his tenure in office beforehand.
“History,” in its simplification and smoothing of emotions, will remember the Impeachment as an aspect of the failure of the political parties to compromise – the entire period may well be seen as being defined by (in another Epsilon Theory phrase) the “widening gyre.” There are too many things happening, too many different aspects of the present age to consider, for any individuals without the magnetic presence of Trump to be remembered for much of anything – they will be cut out. Appeals to history are ineffective, unrealistic, and arrogant. In 700 AD, a single history or document would serve to color our perceptions of an entire time period or of a leader’s rule, but no more. Evidence and multitudinous documentation now exist for every moment of our lives. (Incidentally, this may lead to some more “mental foreshortening” to reduce complexity and assign a narrative, but it may be difficult for any single actor to create that simplification.) Churchill famously tried to define his place in history by “writing” it, but those narratives are coming undone now too.
Climate-change is another fraught topic. One that involves appeals to an absolute and certain view of the future. On both sides – “nothing will happen, its all a scam” and “it is the end of the world” – the outcomes are both unknowable. So what is there to say about this that “history” can teach us? Future scientists (if we’re not all dead, under 20 feet of water) will almost certainly say that our predictions were wildly incorrect, and that the movements were more a product of social issues than actual environmental concerns. The view of our present moment will change when viewed through the distant and holistic lens of the future. Political clashes resulting from differing views on climate change will be hard to understand, as the firm convictions and views of the participants will find their sharp edges dulled by subsequent, factual events. With this in mind, it would behoove both sides to take measured, morally-correct actions in the present. Instead of trying to force massive change (or no change), a holistic view of both shortcomings in knowledge and inclusion of all impacted parties should be implemented. In practice this means trying to find economic solutions for developing countries, attempts to innovate technologically, and to ameliorate the political fears of climate-change deniers.
A history of post-9/11 America is being formulated now too, but its dimensions are vague. Modern capitalism is being questioned in a way that seemed to vanish after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Economic and political and military power all seem to be waning for the United States, but it is unclear to what degree this is occurring. A narrative will be assigned to America’s fate – after it is obvious.
Beware of trying to assign a specific or complex historical value to events happening now. If you are going to conduct an action that is tangential to the broad history of the nation or world (supporting a political party, allocating your resources in a political manner – boycotts, cryptocurrency, ESG-investing) then you must act by what you think is right, not by what history will say about the movements. Predicting the future is the Quixotic task of legions of technological innovations and industrial-scale processes, but it will always fail. We are achieving the opposite of Hari Seldon’s Psychohistory, we may be able to predict the short-term future, or the actions of one individual, but definitely not all of humanity. Stay closer to the ground, more self-contained. Act boldly for what you think is right, but leave the predictions, and the verdicts of history, to those future generations looking backward with a mirror.