No generation is immune from the hubris of exceptionalism; we imagine that the march of human progress is inevitable and forever upwards as we naturally strive to better ourselves and our societies.
Still, history is a cruel headmaster.
How far have we come in, say, 100 years, or 50? How much changed is the world of 2015 – the world of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and Vladimir Putin’s virtual annexation of the Crimean Peninsula – from the one the late encyclopedist, James Trager, described in 1979?
The author of “The People’s Chronology” had no favorite years, preferring, instead, to view all of civilization’s pageant through a slightly warped lens. Indeed, 1915, was, in his estimation, remarkable only for its consistency.
“The Great War in Europe,” he wrote, affecting the diarist’s first-person narrative, “grows more intense. Casualty lists mount for both sides on the eastern and western fronts and a German U-boat blockade of Great Britain begins February 18.”
Later that year, an enemy sub would sink the English passenger liner S.S. Lusitania, sending nearly 2,000 passengers and crew (including 128 Americans) to their watery deaths in less than 18 minutes, provoking such outrage in the United States that public neutrality towards the European conflict would soon shift convincingly to widespread saber-rattling.
Meanwhile, as Trager noted, “British income taxes rise to an unprecedented 15 per cent as the Great War drains the nation’s financial resources.”
Yet, all was not exclusively mired in, or tainted by, battlefield follies:
“The Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and research is founded by the University of Minnesota with a $2.5 million gift from C.H. and W.J. Mayo of the Mayo Clinic at Rochester, Minn. . .The disposable scalpel is patented by U.S. inventor Morgan Parker. . .Long-distance telephone service between New York and San Francisco begins. Alexander Graham Bell, now 68, repeats the words of 1876 (‘Mr. Watson, come here. . .’) to Thomas Watson in San Francisco. The call takes 23 minutes to go through and costs $20.70.”
From 1915, flash forward 50 years, and consider the actual substance of the advances: one great war had ended, only to lay the foundation for another. Europe at been destroyed and restored twice in the span of two generations. American power, which had been rising steadily since the turn of the 20th century, was now ascendent.
In 1965, Trager wrote, “U.S. bombers pound North Vietnamese targets in retaliation for a National Liberation Front attack on U.S. ground forces in South Vietnam. Washington announces a general policy of bombing North Vietnam. . .Some 125,000 U.S. troops are in Vietname by July 28 and (U.S.) President (Lyndon) Johnson announces a doubling of draft calls.”
Meanwhile, the American president “asks the UN to help negotiate a peace, but U.S. troops take part in their first major battle as an independent force in mid-August and they destroy a Viet Cong stronghold near Van Tuong.”
Again, though, as in 1915, there were peaceable – sometimes even noble – distractions.
“President Johnson,” Trager reported, “outlines programs for a ‘Great Society’ that will eliminate poverty in America in his State of the Union message and he signs a $1.4 billion program of federal-state economic aid to Appalachia into law.”
The move was blessed, perhaps, by perfect timing. By 1965, the number of people on welfare in New York City had swelled to half-a-million. That number, wrote Trager, “will grow to 1.2 million in the next 10 years and by 1974, the city’s welfare agency will account for $3.4 billion of the city’s $12 billion budget.”
Today, we greet the dawning new year with strange mixture of trepidation and deja vu. We don’t exactly know where we are going, but we sure know from whence we came, and though the players and locations continue to change down through the generations, the game remains essentially the same.
We still fight our vainglorious wars and pay for them with money extracted and diverted from our more tranquil, constructive obligations to each other.
In this, we are not unique.
If, however, we finally determined to change the rules of the game we’ve been playing ever since we began to stand upright on an African savannah, that might just make this generation exceptional, after all.