Plus ca change…

Little Gidding Church | History & Photos
St John’s Church at Little Gidding

Today is Friday February 26th. Kia ora katoa.

It strikes me that now in fact I’m able to “write in my own voice”, something I wanted to do when I started studying Classics again in 2006. Whether anyone takes me seriously, is another matter. But I guess it doesn’t really matter. I enjoy writing, from time to time, and it’s interesting now and again to look back on what I’ve written. It’s good to have a voice.            

I have been reading and reflecting on political systems, as I think many are doing, watching the political scene in the US.  The political situation in the UK is awful, too, but that doesn’t have nearly such a bearing on the rest of the world.  The political situations I am most absorbed with include the history of Rome, and that of the Roman Republic, in particular; that of Stalin, in Russia, and that of Nazi Germany. Many of us look to these “episodes” in history perhaps to provide guidance, and warnings, about the present, mainly the present situation of US politics, and the future that lies ahead. Nazism affected almost the entire world; the US political system affects us all too, although we are not at war.

I have been reading Mike Duncan’s The Storm before the Storm, which tells about the killing of Tiberius Gracchus in the Roman Senate, when he tried to push through land reforms that would have helped poor people, but which the rich saw as a threat. The event of Tiberius’ murder resonates with the violence that took place within and outside the US Capitol on January 6th; this was an unbelievable event, but it really happened. Many people, not just politicians, were in fear for their lives. Of course, the story of Tiberius Gracchus is complicated, and (somewhat fortunately), Mike has a voice I don’t particularly enjoy listening to – he’s done many podcasts about the history of Rome and about Revolutions.  What fascinates me the most, I guess, is that while I know all this stuff (I studied it for years, both at school and at university), I didn’t really know it: Reading it again, I feel that I was desperately ignorant, before, and that I didn’t understand the real meaning of these events. I am reminded of T.S. Eliot’s poetry – “In my end is my beginning”, and about coming back to a place, and knowing it for the first time (see below).

Other notable comparisons include the Reichstag Fire of 1933, which occurred just four weeks after Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany.  There is lots of discussion about Stalin’s Terror which followed the Holodomor, the manmade famine in Ukraine in the 1930’s; the practices of the Nazis, and the practice of tyranny. What is even scarier is its normalisation, and how difficult it is to condemn legally such acts of domination: another recent read, East West Street, recounted the difficulties of the Nuremberg Trials, and bringing a few of the perpetrators of such terrible deeds to account. Of course, prosecutions don’t bring back the dead, return the possessions, or undo the dreadful fear and deprivation caused, but one hopes that it won’t happen again, and that lawful actions will prevent recurrence.

In the US, politicians (especially Ron Johnson, the senator from Wisconsin) are already downplaying the violence at the Capitol.  Some politicians (e.g. Marjorie Taylor Greene) believe in the Q-Anon conspiracy theory; some (e.g. Lauren Boebert) insist aggressively on carrying guns to the Capitol, and Republicans everywhere are making it harder to vote. There seems to be no ideology, or platform of policies, unless the hard-right gun-toting, anti-women, anti- science, anti-immigrant, anti-coronavirus, generation of fear is a platform; meantime, despite the odds, we have President Biden and his team working valiantly to get vaccine supplies and get folk vaccinated, get a relief package passed into law, and make things better for everyone. I rather suspect that his political opponents actually like these actions.  There is so much to do in four years (two, if you count the mid-term elections), for the democrats. So many good things that need doing, as well as so many to be undone.

I don’t like to make predictions, but I think we are seeing the end of the American Empire, the end of American exceptionalism. When George “Dubya” Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, one of my sons remarked that we were seeing the end of the hegemony (what a lovely word!). There were huge protests against this war, based on some very shonky “evidence” that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD), whatever they were. It’s difficult not to think they just needed some excuse to go to war, a war marked by propaganda, the creation of imbalance between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the Middle East, the creation of Isis, killing of thousands of Iraqi civilians, to name some. It’s ironic that now Dubya’s presidency is seen much more graciously compared with that of Trump, and that hawk Doug Cheney’s daughter, Liz, now a praised Congresswoman who speaks out against Trump. What a turnaround, huh?

The recent extreme cold in Texas, and the ensuing power and water outages, saw some residents burning fences and furniture in order to keep warm Several people died in the cold. Some went “feral” in their attempts to survive. For a time, the US was a great place, in some respects. Many of our best scholars, including one of my sons, went there to study in preference to England or Scotland.  The US was on a roll with modern gadgetry, good infrastructure, good medical care (if you could afford it), and a generally high standard of living. Of course, this masked many deficiencies, including a widely prevalent gun culture, and racism and sexism, to name a few. Now the coronavirus pandemic has exposed deep injustices within the system. When I last visited the US, in November 2017, I remarked that it was both “wonderful and terrible”.  At that time, there were three big issues: the Las Vegas shooting, the arrest of Harvey Weinstein, and another season of alarming Californian wildfires. One would have expected that those great centres of white population, the US and UK, would be well-equipped to handle the pandemic. Sadly, they’ve been just awful. Thousands have died, all our lives have been disrupted, and it’s not over yet.  It’s shown us that at a very basic level, we depend on food, water and power; and government that’s trustworthy to make some rules and impose some restrictions that people can see are sensible in the circumstances.

Is the US getting better? Maybe it is for old white men with their tax cuts (Mitch McConnell does not face re-election for another six years); but white people will be in the minority, however desperately they try to hold on to power.

Sadly, I foresee more and more desperate situations in future: more environmental emergencies – flooding, hurricanes, earthquakes; and more weather-related crises of extreme heat and cold, more pollution, and the failure of utilities to cope. What price, civilisation? We had it so good, folks. But now investment is needed to safeguard such systems: no one is speaking about the recent widespread cyberattack on US computer systems – a very scary event, that may well be ongoing. It seems to me that people need to use much less of the earth’s precious resources.  How about moderating that heating/air con – to have it a fraction colder in winter, and the aircon up a notch in summer.

Many Americans are wonderful people, generous with many things.  I wish more would see sense, in wanting a more effective civilisation. Reputedly, someone once asked Mahatma Gandhi what he thought of British civilisation. He is said to have replied, that it would be a fine thing.  Ngā mihi.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree

From Little Gidding, by T.S. Eliot

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