Thirty plus years ago I was lucky enough to be one of two poor kids on scholarships in my class at a school for rich kids in a small town in California. The other was the renowned science fiction writer John Scalzi. I just noticed this tweet from him as I was watching a welter of reports about what appears to be yet another terror attack in France.
Sometimes feels like a strong correlation between WWII passing from living memory, and autocracy seemingly getting more popular.
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) July 14, 2016
I don’t think John was talking about the attack but the US election and elections now across the world. But perhaps he was talking about the whole picture in toto.
Autocracy is government based on fear, domination and insecurity. It is of course billed as the opposite. But it is born of these three horsemen and in turn breeds them. One of the shaping thoughts of the generation of actors and thinkers who emerged from the Second World War was the seared perception that stability, trust, peace and virtuous cycles of all sorts are not natural phenomena or human norms. In fact, they are brittle creations and perhaps abnormal in human affairs. Of course, these beliefs and the ambitions and goals which grew out of them led to their own follies. One can jump from 1945 to 1965 and see the wisdom of this recognition leading the same luminaries to walk into a folly of an entirely different kind. The men who built much of the world we live in today also built a world that was perpetually on the brink of cataclysmic nuclear annihilation. Their creation, let us say with some understatement, had real shortcomings.
And yet, for all that complicated history and all that human folly, basic realities they understood remain. Democracy, borders that are peaceful rather than armed and bloody … none of these things are natural states of being like a rock that rolls to the bottom of a hill and then stays there until some greater force than gravity and friction pushes it along or hauls it back up the hill.
Whether it was wise or not for the United Kingdom to walk out of the European Union is a question that I can’t answer, though I certainly have my opinions. What is worth noting, though, is that what we now know as the EU was not created to promulgate human rights or create efficiencies of trade and labor mobility. All these came later. The predecessor organizations of the EU were created with a single, very focused aim: preventing the recurring pattern of the rivalries of European states unleashing horrific wars which not only destroyed the lives of millions of Europeans but embroiled the entire world in spasms of almost unimaginable destruction. The key was binding together France and Germany and from there the other great nations of Europe and then the smaller states into one whole, to build connective tissue, whether of trade or culture, which would prevent the every generation blood-letting.
Numerous of Europe’s small nationalities want to break free from the nation-states into which history cast them. We have frozen under our own feet many of the centripetal forces which tore Europe apart in the past. In an ever-deepening European Union perhaps they can do this. We can have a Scotland and a Basque homeland and a northern Italy able to stake out on their own, unfettered by peoples they’ve never quite felt part of. It can all happen within an umbrella of Europe. But if that umbrella frays the picture looks rather different.
We sometimes hear that Europe’s ‘brand’ is human rights. But that is a recent and aggressive rebranding. Europe’s real brand is barbarity and killing on an almost unimaginable scale. Europeans are and were no more evil than Indians or Chinese or subsaharan Africans or any other people. To believe otherwise is just a relic of eurocentrism. But their fortuitous grasping of control over key trading networks in the 17th and 18th centuries and then development of key technologies in the 19th and 20th allowed them to practice barbarity, to be shall we say human, on a scale and with an intensity never before imagined. Yes, there were marvelous symphonies and advances of science and art. They enrich us all. But the barbarity and killing should hold our attention. Indeed, that was what held the attention of the men and women, but still largely men, who pondered how to reconstruct the world in the 1940s.
It worked almost unimaginably well, certainly in Europe and by and large around the globe as well. European institutions, NATO, the benign and generally soft dominion of the United States, which reinforced both, created what was and is, in the scope of most human history, an era of peace and unrivaled prosperity. For all the uncertainty and novel animosities we’ve unleashed and seen unleashed in recent years, the thought of Germany and France going to war with each other is close to unimaginable. The same with England and France, England and Germany, Germany and Italy. All of these contentions are part of a distant past.
But here we see the United Kingdom simply decide to up and leave. And why not? Perhaps the British will see an economic downturn, some perceptible diminishment of prosperity over the decades. But it seems more or less a free choice. Scotland can contemplate and perhaps will decide to leave the United Kingdom in turn. Because, again, why not? No one imagines the Scots and the English will go to war, despite the fact that Scotland is a tiny country compared to England and not one that could easily defend itself alone against an aggressive England to the south.
Of course I am not saying that England and Scotland couldn’t peaceably part. But the fact that they can is a product of institutions and history and habits of trust and rule-keeping that are the product are conscious and hard-taken decisions which we now take to be the natural order of things but are in fact not natural at all.
As John says, the horror of autocracy is diminishing as the living memory of World War II drifts into oblivion. But it’s not just autocracy. It’s the world of cycles of killing, ‘high fear’ rather than ‘high trust’ patterns of international relations and domestic accord that we take for granted as the natural order of things but most definitely are not.
Of course in the United States we have Donald Trump, a man of erratic impulses and petty but intense grievances who has, like all demagogues, ripped at the existing fissures of our society in order to grasp political power. American institutions have preserved political order and domestic peace for going on a quarter of a millennium with the very notable and brutal exception of four years of civil war 150 years ago. Those institutions can in all likelihood weather four years of his mental instability and toxic incitement. But not necessarily. Britain’s exit from Europe, Scotland’s exit from the United Kingdom, the increasingly militarized border between ‘Europe’ and Russia can likely all be managed. But maybe not. Violence and instability can build quickly on themselves.
I believe generally in what Democrats believe in rather than what Republicans believe in. It informs almost everything I’ve written in almost twenty years as a professional writer about American politics. But both have been able to govern the country within a broad consensus of what we consider acceptable behavior. Trump represents something quite different. The kind of menace he represents is amplified by the rise of complacent instability and reckless behavior we see today in Europe, in the conflagration in the Middle East and the still distant but rising specter of great power confrontation on the borders of Russia and in East Asia. The belief that we can roll the dice with no consequences, that we can provoke and act out with no consequences is a dangerous illusion. We are indulging that illusion along with many other peoples across the globe. But there are consequences. They can come upon us suddenly, like a mugger in the dark and then multiply and spin out of control.