Not with a Bang But a Whimper

T.S. Eliot ends his poem, The Hollow Men, with what is among the most often quoted lines in all of English poetry: “This the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.” The poem was written in 1925, essentially the “eve” of WWII. Europe was beginning to fall apart, with Fascism on the rise and communism tightening its grip on Russia. The euphoria of the 1920s was coming to an end, and the depression of the 1930s, The Great Depression, was just around the corner. The future looked grim, and WWII would soon follow.

I have thought about Eliot’s lines with some regularity the past year or so, beginning with the run up to the election in the States and, then again, since the votes were tallied. Politics have never been especially “neat and clean,” going back as far as Julius Caesar. Much of Western law is based on the Magna Carta, which was written because people recognized that kings could not be trusted. Our technology may be better than that of the Ancient Romans and Medieval kings, but human nature seems to have remained essentially the same. Our dark underbelly has always been there, of course, but it is certainly more visible currently than it had been previously.

At this point, we should be fully aware that those with power tend to abuse it. From the 1930s through the 1960s, the big fear in the States was of “Godless Communists.” In the States, politicians were expected not only to avow Christianity but to ferret out those who weren’t Christian. Wisconsin Republican Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, best known for looking under rocks for Communists, was asked the now famous question, “Have you no sense of decency?” by Boston lawyer Joseph Welch. People thought about McCarthy’s line of questioning and decided that he did not, and that ended McCarthy’s political career.

When I entered the Army during the build-up for the Vietnam War, basic training included assurances that “Thou shalt not kill” did not apply to “Godless Communists.” It was OK to kill North Vietnamese and Viet Cong because they “had no souls.” This was basically a Joseph McCarthy line of thought. Soldiers, of course, need to believe that killing “the enemy” is justified. It’s also reasonably well known that one war begets another. The losers of conflicts feel the need to get even. Why did the Serbs engage in “ethnic cleansing” of the Bosnians? The motivation was to “get even” for medieval conflicts. The common expression, “What goes around, comes around,” is an indication that people have known that history tends to repeat itself. The repetition has variations, of course, but when we look at current events, we can see the repetition of themes that echo through history. As George Santayana said, Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

The current political situation in the States didn’t spring fully formed from the heads of our political parties. A lot of “festering” contributed to our current situation. Too many people unhappy over too long a time leads to change. There is, however, no guarantee that the change will be for the better. From our vantage point, we can look back at some of the most recent revolutions (French, Russian, Chinese) and analyze the causes. The question is whether we can apply what we know about history to our current situation and move forward based on understanding the causes of human resentment. My sense is that Santayana probably meant that we should “understand” as well as “remember.” From the Serb’s perspective, it wasn’t “ethnic cleansing” so much as it was “getting even.” The same is also true of the Nazi’s in Germany. They were “getting even” with those who had robbed them of what they believed was “rightfully theirs.”

Some of the roots of our current political unrest in the Sates go back as far as slavery, which was followed by our Civil War and Reconstruction. The migration westward following the “Dust Bowl.” the Industrial Revolution and mechanization, and the “globalization” of the economy all produced resentments and fears as well as opportunities and—for some—increasing wealth and opportunity. Major revolutions of the past show us what happens when those “on the bottom” feel the need to even the score with those “on the top.” The question is whether we can remember the past well enough to avoid repeating it.

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