Monthly Archives: May 2017
What gets my cranial juices flowing is when two ideas expressed in two different places (usually in books) come together like a couple pieces of wood tongue-in-groove.
I’d like to share the most recent of these experiences with you.
The ancient Greeks used to conduct warfare among themselves in a very gentlemanly, Marquis of Queensbury kind of way. They settled a dispute between city states by sending out a phalanx of heavily armed soldiers (drawn from the higher classes because they had to provide the armor themselves) and have a pitched battle in an open field at an appointed time. Whoever won the battle won the dispute. Casualties only occurred during actual fighting. No gratuitous killing. A surrender meant the violence was over.
Then came the war between Athens and Sparta, the so-called Peloponnesian War that went on for decades and ended with the defeat of Athens. In the second year of that war a plague broke out in Athens, already overcrowded with rural people who were sheltering there from invading Spartans. The illness killed off possibly a third of the population, military and civilian alike.
Athens was not the same afterward. The one man who could hold the city together, Pericles, eventually died himself. Law and order broke down. Citizens began to behave in barbarous fashions. Thucydides, a general who survived the plague and wrote a history of the war, says it was the experience of this lawlessness, the breakdown of civilization, that set the stage for the atrocious way Greeks behaved from then on: ethnic cleansings (a euphemism for the slaughter of entire populations) and other acts of violence that would have been unthinkable in the pre-plague period.
Now, here’s the bit of information that links up neatly with what I’ve already written. European powers from the early years of the nineteenth generally avoided the killing of civilians until the second world war. What happened in between that earlier period and the carnage of the second world war? Hannah Arendt in her The Origins of Totalitarianism makes a good argument that what changed was a result of the colonial polices of some of those powers at the end of the 19th century.
During that period, roughly 1880 to 1914, imperialism became a major political and economic force, as did nationalism (nation-states as is France) as well as ethnically homogeneous if not geographically contained nationalisms (Germans, Slavs.) The victims of this imperialism were the peoples of Africa and Southeast Asia. It was there that nations like Britain, France and Belgium began to practice genocide on a large scale. The Belgians are purported to have killed anywhere between three and fifteen million Congolese. The probable number is about ten million. They and other Europeans did so under the banner of racial superiority, a claim first put forth in an intellectually respectable way by the Frenchman Comte de Gobineau in the early half of the nineteenth century that remained a text for racist ideologies right up through the 1940s.
This kind of slaughter of on a mass scale, Arendt maintains, broke down the veneer of European civilization and paved the way for Nazism, which claimed to be acting as an agent of Evolution by speeding up the survival of the fittest, and for the mass killings of Stalinism, which claimed to be acting on behalf of historical necessity.
Of course, the killing of innocent non-combatants continues right up to the present day. We have euphemisms for it: ethnic cleansing, of course; collateral damage. We carpet-bombed Afghanistan out of pique because that government would not turn over Osama Bin Laden without following due process of law. We destroyed the infrastructure of Iraq in the first Gulf War, and then invaded in 2003 on the false pretext of that nation possessing weapons of mass destruction with intent to use them against us and our allies. The destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure, along with conventional bombing, cost the lives of close to a million people, most of them children who died in the 1990s from diseases caused by our destruction of the sanitary systems during the First Gulf War and for the decade afterward — sewage, water purification plants, etc. And, of course, in addition to terror campaigns we supported and funded in the 1980s in Central America, there was the genocide of millions of Southeast Asians during the Vietnam War. Plus other deadly foreign adventures we have undertaken or sponsored.
Our leaders never speak of any of this with any sense of shame or even regret. We certainly don’t hear or read about this behavior as being the result of the breakdown of the “thin veneer of civilization,” as Thucydides spoke of it. We have become inured to these horrors by their horrible precedents in the twentieth century. The bombing of civilian populations during WWII started as a modest tit-for-tat but within a few years had turned into a massive project to incinerate entire cities, culminating with the use of atomic bombs.
That has become for us what war is, a fact of life like carnivorousness. The idea of gentlemen-soldiers settling their disputes by pre-arranged battles that were over in a few hours seems preposterous to us, a laughable dream. Meanwhile, we deplore individual acts of terrorism as if they were the most egregious acts of violence anyone can experience — because it is We who experience them, not They. What an F-15 or a B-52 does does not qualify as terrorism. But what was unthinkable less than two hundred years ago for nation-states is now conventional.
Can we really call ourselves civilized when we behave in this manner? Has not what occurred in ancient Athens due to plague happened to us, that “thin veneer” that made human beings recognize their mutual humanity, been stripped away without our even realizing it?
The moral of my story: Don’t read serious books. You’ll only get depressed.
I grew up in Fort Lee, then still a small town in northern New Jersey. Apart from its original site as headquarters for a routed American Revolutionary force, its main claims to fame were two: It was the original home of the movie industry in the early decades of the twentieth century, and it holds up the western end of the George Washington Bridge. In the 1940s and ’50s it consisted of about 2,000 people and might have been located in Ohio or Indiana instead of just across the river from one of the largest cities in the world. Today it houses many tens of thousands, including large immigrant populations, most notably Koreans.
In my childhood much of the town was still undeveloped land, the largest tract of which was a couple hundred acres of woodland known as the Great North Woods. Boy Scout troops could camp there without any sign of their being just a short walk to civilization. The Woods abounded in what to me was exotic flora and fauna: tadpoles and rare birds – rare at least for that part of the world. It was also the place I went when I wanted to take pond samples to look at under my toy microscope. In a single drop of water I discovered a world even more densely populated by paramecia and other microscopic wildlife than was the woodland itself by their larger relatives.
Most of my time was spent in the local Catholic school. My explorations occurred after 3:00 p.m. and on weekends, and those were usually in areas closer by than the Woods: a few acres of untouched land where garter snakes abounded in July and August, sunning themselves on the reeds in a small pond. My friends and I tried without success to shoot them with bows and arrows. There were also the immense oaks next to the town athletic field (now a parking lot solemnly blessed by one of the local curates, I’m told). We could climb to dizzying heights in those trees before they were pulled down to make room for a strip mall on Main Street. We could also explore the overgrown trolley route that once ran from north of town to a ferry on the Hudson across from 125th Street in Manhattan a couple hundred feet below the skyscraping Palisades. We gathered wild cherries in summer, caught poison ivy searching for baseballs in the big vacant lot we used for our daily game, and in winter discovered frozen carcasses of dogs and cats in the melting snow.
But it was the Great North Woods that most held my imagination, as much by its name as by the reality. It was the only place I could go where I was unlikely to see, never mind confront, another human being. There was a rumor, perhaps more than that, of a murder having been committed there, or perhaps just a body dumped. In those days Fort Lee was run by a police force indistinguishable from the Italian mafia. Police chiefs who failed to cooperate were found dead, officially suicides, their service revolver lying beside them. A widow of one such lived in an apartment across from our building – “lived” only in the strictest sense because she had tried unsuccessfully to end her own life and was permanently paralyzed.
Then there was the Great Fire. I don’t recall anyone referring to it as such, but I don’t think the name is an exaggeration. I don’t know how it started or how long it lasted, but it was unlike any fire I’ve come close to since, not just because of its extent over hundreds of acres but because it became at some point invisible. After devastating everything above ground it continued to burn beneath the surface, at least in the Great North Woods. The ground smoked like the cone of an active volcano or the roof of hell. Only occasionally did it show itself by a sudden outburst of flame. I had seen it consume the frame of a new house on the periphery of the Woods, one moment looking perfectly alright, the next flaring up in tall flames until nothing was left. But that had taken place far from where I was walking that afternoon. I couldn’t feel the heat through my leather-soled shoes, but plumes of smoke were visible all around me.
I should point out that my religious experience, though rigorously Roman Catholic, had started early on my mother’s lap with what I later realized was a Protestant emphasis. She had read me all the nursery rimes as well as “Tom Thumb” and much else from a collection of volumes called Journeys through Bookland. But she also read me Old Testament stories, all of Genesis and Exodus. I knew as well as I knew “Cinderella” or “Jack and the Beanstalk,” but took much more to heart, the story of Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of his son Isaac, Jacob’s pretending to be his brother Esau so as to cheat him out of his inheritance, even Sarah’s laughing at the two angels who told her she was going to conceive a child at the age of ninety, though I had no clue yet how children were conceived. And the account of the Jews’ exile in Egypt, the plagues visited on the Pharaoh and his people for his delay in freeing them (especially the slaughter of the first-born), the long trek across the desert to the Promised Land and Moses’s acceptance of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, all this was as familiar and as memorable as the Gospel stories I would later hear on an almost daily basis. I have since marveled how little of this Old Testament lore most Catholics and even the average Jew I have known is familiar with. I assumed these tales were basic stuff for any Jewish boy or girl. It was only much later, when I learned something about Protestantism (heresy pure and simple in our history books) that I discovered the importance Protestants placed on the Old Testament.
All the vegetation had been leveled by the fire that had swept through the Woods several days earlier. The landscape was as barren as the mountains of the moon, except that on the moon there is no smoke and no remnants of burnt trees. But one small bit of flora did remain in the midst of gray devastation, miraculously untouched, a short bushy thing with its foliage still intact. I stopped my trek to wonder at it. And almost as soon as I did it burst into flame as if it had only been waiting for me to show up to do so. It didn’t burn bottom to top as would be expected given the source of the fire in the ground beneath. It ignited all at once like an exploding firework, and almost as quickly as a skyrocket bursts and quickly disappears the tree disintegrated into a piece of char-wood in a matter of seconds.
I was too literal-minded to associate this burning bush/tree with the one through which Yahweh spoke to Moses on Sinai. I was no Moses. If I identified with anyone in the Bible it was with one of the minor characters no one names their children after. But what I had just witnessed was biblical in its drama. By that point in my education I knew miracles were more or less common place, at least for believing Catholics, but despite the preservation of this tree in the midst of burnt-out wilderness and its spectacular immolation in front of my eyes, I knew what I had seen did not qualify as a miracle. No one had been cured of a terminal disease, no supernatural being had appeared. And so I went home, had dinner and began to memorize the capitals of all the South American nations and the next three questions in the Baltimore catechism where it was understood that real miracles could occur because for the God who made me to “love, honor and serve him in this life and to be happy with Him in the next” “nothing is hard or impossible.”
These catechism lessons may not have accounted for the burning bush in the Great North Woods, but they didn’t need to. I lived happily in the natural, not the supernatural, world. Here the ordinary – not just burning bushes but love (I had been in love since I was seven), snow falling at night through the dim glow of street lamps (“Lord, I love the beauty of Thy house and the place where Thy glory dwelleth”), the exquisite plumage and impossible levitations of hummingbirds that visited the overgrown gully where those trolleys once rain, these and so much else of this material world were all the miracles I needed.