Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Wolves and Huns at the Gates

by Richard Crews
It seems that there have always been wolves and Huns at the gates throughout history. One can see this from reading history and from reading between the lines of history.

Closer at hand--from my father and from an elderly neighbor I knew in the 1970s when he was in his 70s--I heard that the time of the First World War, 1914 to 1918, was a terrible time. People were scared--the world was in serious jeopardy.

Then, when at last the War was over, came the worldwide 1918 influenza pandemic. It has been called "the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history." One fifth of the world's population was infected; more people died in the flu epidemic than had been killed in the First World War. At the time it surely seemed that the end of civilization had come.

The Roaring Twenties was a "good" time--at least for some people. It was "good," except for the rampant criminality associated with Prohibition in the U.S., the rise of Fascism related to the post-war devastation in Europe, Communism developing in Russia, the ongoing rape of indigenous peoples in North and South America and Africa, etc. In other words, if you were one of the "One Percent," life was good. But only until, even for the One Percent, the stock market bubble burst in 1929.

Then came the Great Depression--unemployment in the U.S. was up to 25%, world trade down 50%--plus the evolving Dust Bowl, severe drought and soil exhaustion that wracked the American and Canadian prairie lands through the 1930s. Then the Second World War, 1939 to 1945--savagery and bloodshed again raged across Europe, North Africa, and Southeast Asia--the entire world watched in terror.

I was born in 1937. We begin to get into my own first-hand recollections now.

As I was coming to consciousness, the world lived in terror on the brink of destruction. My mother was afraid to tell people in Scarsdale, New York, that she was Jewish, but far worse than that was the terrible news she was getting from and about her friends and family in Europe. My father was the air raid warden for our upper-middle class, suburban neighborhood--he walked the streets at night, knocking on doors to tell people if their house lights were leaking from around the dark curtains in their kitchen windows (which was the only room we could light at all at night). There were no street lights or traffic lights--we wanted to give the German bombers that were expected overhead any night as little help as possible finding their way to New York City (there was no GPS--far from it). German submarines were sighted off the shore of Long Island where we used to go swimming.

I remember clearly how surprised I was when the war ended in 1945 to realize that my parents had been scared as long as I had known them. I had thought that the ongoing atmosphere of anxiety I grew up finding in the world around me was just the way life always was.

More first hand: There were strange and frightening times as I was growing up--the scorge of McCarthyism ostensibly fighting the scorge of Communism in the U.S.; the savagery and public outrage over the war in Viet Nam; the rampant breakdown of society represented by the Sexual Revolution, hippies, and recreational drugs (epitomized by LSD)--the world was in jeopardy and falling apart every direction one looked.

But far, FAR and away dwarfing all of this was the terror of the Cold War. You may be old enough to recall the Blockade of Berlin in 1948 to 1949 when the Soviet Union tried to starve the city of Berlin into submission and the U.S., French, and British undertook to run the blockade--and the world stood on the brink of nuclear war; the Doomsday Clock which moved, over the ensuing decades, as close as two minutes to midnight; the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 in which atomic weapons were aimed at the U.S. from just offshore, and were poised, ready to fire; and more. The Cold War, 1946 to 1991, was a terrifying time. Year after year, decade after decade, the world hovered a few seconds from Apocalyptic disaster. Dozens of madmen (politicians, military leaders, and dictators) held their fingers poised over a Red Button ready to fire nukes at the "enemy." (In Cuba, at the time of the Russian Missile Crisis, commanders at the COMPANY level had discretionary use of "tactical" nuclear weapons--THE COMPANY LEVEL!--that's captains--scores of young men in their twenties.)

I personally made a life decision in the 1960s not to have any children because it was so clear that they would not have a chance to live out anything approaching a normal life cycle. (Andy, my son born in 1970, may not.)

But the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 ushered in a new age of worldwide peace and security. Nobody but Al Gore had even heard of Global Warming, not to mention nano-sludge which could destroy the world by unleashing tiny, self-reproducing, micro-machines; genome manipulation which might inadvertantly pollute and destroy our very DNA; and diabolically creative chemistry and materials sciences pouring into the environment, year after year, millions of tons of highly varied, highly toxic chemicals. And certainly not to mention--oh, I could go on and on, but you hear about all these dangers to the planet and to the very survival of humanity daily on the news.

The point is that wolves and Huns have always been at the gates. Always. And they are at the gates now--worse, perhaps, than ever--but they have always been "worse than ever," in each iteration, for each generation.

We do not know what the future holds. Surely--as the advent of the Internet, the iPhone, social media, the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement, worldwide microsecond billion-dollar financial transactions, etc. tell us--it will be very, VERY rapidly evolving--tumultuous--frightening--yes, perhaps devastating.

The only good thing that we (with the limited minds that we have) can say about it is that we (civilization) have been here before. In fact, we have always been here.

Well, actually there is a second "good thing" to say; that is that our (we seniors') tour of duty is almost done. Most of the power to run the world--or ruin it--and to try to survive--has passed into younger hands than ours.

Do we leave the world far worse than we found it? Perhaps so--perhaps not. Perhaps about the same--tragically, perilously at a cliff's edge.

Pretty much the same--though much different--though the same--though different....