The Ironies of History

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Hegel would have loved it. The nineteenth century German philosopher who taught us to beware the ironies of history would have felt vindicated. As the United States marches blindly to war, intent on demolishing an enemy that may have already vanquished it, Hegel would have smiled. Be careful in what you ask for, he might have warned us.

For those who thought irony was dead in the post- September 11th period, the last year must be a sorry disappointment. Al-Qaeda, hoping to defeat the United States, is largely defeated itself. The prey has become the predator. On the other side of the coin, the U.S., hoping to bring the world together to fight terrorism, stands isolated as never before in its post-Vietnam history. The leader has found itself without followers. Italians march against us by the hundreds of thousands. Germans elect a Prime Minister on a platform of opposition to us. Saudi Arabia denies us the use of its military bases. How did this happen?

Hegel wrote that history is not stable. Every historical circumstance contains the seeds of its own destruction. It embodies tensions that, when they break out, turn things into their opposite. Slavery becomes mastery, intimacy becomes distance, what is essential becomes merely circumstantial. This is not by accident but because it is the necessary movement of history itself. History is ironic. It is a lesson we have yet to learn.

For reasons that are not entirely clear yet, the terrorists from al-Qaeda decided to launch a military assault against the United States. They most likely thought, as many think, that we are weak. Life is too comfortable here. We have become soft in our dominance. A blow to our financial and political centers would lay us low.

It did not. What sought to make us weaker only strengthened us. We became as one, standing with those who had been slaughtered and against those who would treat us so. The stores and buildings of Manhattan, which Spalding Gray once described as an island off the coast of America, became awash with American flags. Through the stroke that sought to drive us apart we found our unity.

And we displayed it.

Terrorism will be fought everywhere and without regard to national boundaries. As our president told the world, either you are with us or you are against us. And with that the ironic wheel took another turn. Those who violated our national boundaries would now learn that we would pursue them and kill wherever they are, without respecting national boundaries. Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq. Their borders mean nothing to us. And in our determination to provide a united front against terror, we killed untold hundreds (if not thousands) of civilians, we violated the integrity of states, and we bullied both those without and those within who dared question the nobility of our mission. Even Robert Byrd found himself in the curious position of being an enemy of the state.

And with that our strength becomes our weakness. Because we could attack others without the cooperation of the rest of the world, we did. And, if the president’s resolve is what it seems, we will continue to do so. We have the military means. The voices of Europe, of the Arab countries, of Asia and Africa, do not matter to us because we do not need their cooperation. We ignore them or we threaten them. They turn away from us. We become isolated. And our ability to fight terrorism, a war that, unlike the coming war against Iraq, does not know borders and therefore requires the cooperation of all, is diminished or ended.

We should read more literature. At the end of War and Peace, Tolstoy analyzed Napoleon’s defeat in Russia in 1812. The French army pushed into Russia, oblivious to the fact that it could not endure the entirety of a Russian winter. The Russians resisted, oblivious to the fact that their only chance of survival was to lure the French deeper into Russia. Each fought to do the very thing that would destroy it. In the end the French were not to be denied. They pushed further. Then winter came on and they were decimated. They were stronger, so they lost.

There is another lesson that Hegel taught us, although we could have learned it from others as well. History is a slaughterhouse. Its ironies are never grasped in time. Instead they are lived by those who cannot see them, and who consequently perish by them. Our history, he might say, lies right there behind us, waiting patiently for us to catch up with it. From the look of things, it will not have to wait long.

Todd May is a Professor of Philosophy, Clemson University.

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