Plus ça change . . .
from Richard Ostrofskyof Second Thoughts Bookstore (now closed)firstname.lastname@example.orgFebruary, 2011The world changes so quickly these days that it is easy to forget howslowly some things change. Reading up post-modern philosophy, as I waswriting my first book,
, I was repeatedly struck by theextent to which French, German and English thought today was still preoccupied and shaped by issues that go back to the days of the FrenchRevolution, if not to the Reformation, if not to the Roman Empire and itsfall. Reading the news each morming, I'm struck repeatedly by the extentto which American foreign policy and global affairs are shaped by mythsand events and conventions that go back hundred and thousands of years.For example, one powerful American myth is its attitude that historydoesn't matter – an attitude that goes back to colonial times – the 18
century and even earlier – when immigration to that portion of the newworld, meant opportunity for religious and political experimentation, rapidaccumulation of wealth, and a fresh start. (To Canadian settlers it meantsomething rather different – a fact that partially explains some differences between the U.S. and Canadian societies today.) Similarly, Frenchthinking is noticeably shaped by memories of the 30-years war and then of Louis XIV, when France was the hegemonic power in Europe. Britishthinking too is shaped my memories of the good old days of Empire in thetime of Queen Victoria, if not to that nation's struggle for unity andautonomy in the days of good Queen Bess. The Russians are stillstruggling to maintain the hard-won centralization and unity achieved byIvan the Terrible, and still playing catch-up ball with Western Europe as inthe days of Peter the Great. The Chinese do not forget their humiliation atthe hands of Western powers in the time of the Opium Wars, nor its ownEmpire at the Ming heyday when it could see no other real civilizationthan itself. One could go on and on this way, for every country in theworld. All have their durable preoccupations, memories and myths.Anyone who thinks that history is a dead subject in this age of modernscience and high technology doesn't understand, doesn't begin tounderstand, the world he's living in.And yet, I believe Americans are right on the whole that the peoples of the world would be better off if they could forget past glories and