March 2006


Some people view history as something that happens to humans. They speak about the pendulum swinging this way and that. They speak of the inevitability of this or that. I wonder why this deterministic, almost psycho-historical, viewpoint should be so prevalent.

There is an interesting phenomenon in today's political discourse, and it is shared by pundits of every political persuasion: pendulum theory. By this theory, politics and history are something that happens to people much in the same way as a sunny day or an earthquake happens. They are the result of deep and powerful forces that may be beyond human understanding -- certainly beyond human control. The political pendulum swung to the left for many decades, but now it has reversed course and is running rapidly to the right, inexorably charting a course we're powerless to affect.

This is bunk.

Let's take a little tour of comparative history. With some major exceptions like Nazi Germany or Khmer Rouge Cambodia, the world has been dramatically and irrevocably influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment for the past 200 years. Concepts like human rights, universal suffrage, and equality under the law are very new to human hegemonies. They have been proposed in the past by great men and women, but they were never given force of law, nor did they form the basis for a moral imperative. By almost any measure, in most of the world, it is better to be alive today than 100, 300, 500, or 1000 years ago -- not because technology has given us easier access to material possessions, but because we have come to believe that the social contract of Rousseau, the practical reason of Emmanuel Kant, and the rights of man of Thomas Paine are every man and woman's right, duty and destiny.

What we do have now is a power struggle between people who believe in ideals like democracy, freedom, honesty, fairness, charity, and equality and those who, while giving lip service to them in public, scoff at them in private as silly illusions, daydreams, and sops for the masses. Ideals are impediments to profit. Owing to our system of economics and our system of government, many of our business and political leaders have become morally bankrupt. But this is not a new thing. Self-serving liars are drawn to politics like moths to a candle. This was true throughout all of human history and is no different today.

But despite the best efforts of selfish despots in the past, we have managed to change things through the democratic process -- to enact amazing legislation that has benefited generations of people. We have not always been successful against the forces of tyranny and oppression. Many of the first fruits of liberty we picked for ourselves as we exploited other people around the globe, but overall we have made dazzling advances in the expectation of human dignity and equality.

The idea that this era of progress and improvement has come to an end may be a popular theme in the popular corporate press, but there is no reason why we should subscribe to it. The purpose of the argument is clear: if you believe you are defeated before you begin, your accomplishments will be few and far between. Some people, who would otherwise use their anger and indignation to take action with others to correct the faults of the nation, despair instead and do nothing, thinking all action ultimately futile against such a rapacious and indefatigable foe.

As I said before: this is bunk. Go back and read Jefferson, Kant, Paine and the rest. Do you believe in democracy or is it just a pretty toy to mesmerize children with? Speak up. Don't let others speak for you. If there are consequences, damn the torpedoes. That is the spirit that made this country great. That is the spirit of a nation conceived with the ideal of liberty and justice for all. That is the spirit that can make one world dedicated to the same principle. Take arms against a sea of troubles and drop that pendulum dead in its tracks.

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