Those Who Forget the Past Can’t Predict The Future

Another year has passed and you and I are lucky to be alive. I mean that in both senses. It’s amazing that so many of us made it through 365 more days of the horrifying human condition, and it’s a tremendous privilege to have done so. I’m pleased to note that we now know where the days go. In Wednesday’s Citizen comics section, Lucky Eddie told Hagar the Horrible they “turn into nights.” As for the years, well, they turn into old-movie special effects of calendar pages flipping, or broken resolutions, or enthusiasms acutely embarrassing in retrospect, like bellbottoms or government-subsidized canals.

A few years back everyone had millennium fever and was listing the great this and the outstanding that of the millennium. Including me. For instance I thought the best spelling of “millennium” was with two “n”s and William the Conqueror was the most significant individual.

Trying to compile a “best books of the millennium” list was a bit much because “of making many books there is no end” and my reading list is full of holes. Movies seemed a better bet because before about 1896, what is there to say? But modern video stores seemed to stock neither most classic films nor clerks who’d heard of them.

Then I got another idea: Great busts of the millennium. You know, things that were terrifically hyped and, in some cases, are remembered, but just didn’t live up to their apparent promise.

It’s not that I’m so pitiful that I take pleasure in taunting dusty artifacts. Rather, I thought it would be worthwhile to combat the tendency to regard history as largely inevitable, an attitude that worships strength and lacks imagination.

What if Jean Chrétien had woken up Montcalm? What if the French had linked up Quebec and Louisiana via the Mississippi? History is not so fantastically unpredictable that studying the past is pointless. But do you really think Hitler couldn’t have won? Also, watching replays of past fads crumbling helps protect you against contemporary trendy thinking.

My list of “busts of the millennium” included the crossbow, a remarkably powerful weapon capable of penetrating armour, knight and the wall behind him. Yet unlike the humble longbow it did not decide a single battle, let alone a major war. Also the Holy Roman Empire. What was that about?

Artificial languages are a bit of a post-Enlightenment thing but also a major flop. So, possibly, was the Enlightenment. Becoming as Gods hasn’t quite worked out, whether you’re thinking about directing the economy or remaking the Moral Law so it’s not hard.

Socialism was a really major instance of “product may not be exactly as shown.” If history had a returns counter you’d sure take it back. Of course, socialism isn’t big on returns counters and other alienating sources of consumer satisfaction. Another reason to dislike it. Unelected leaders with moustaches also proved a grave disappointment. So did high tariffs, industrial policy and modern art.

Mind you, anyone can look back and say French absolutism didn’t work out. (Not everyone does; see Chrétien and Montcalm above. Strangely, there are also still people who think socialism would be a great idea. Guys, the crossbow stands a better chance of ultimate vindication. I assure you.)

The trick is to look forward and see flops coming. So by golly, with New Year’s Eve in sight, here I go with a list of some things that are worse than is generally supposed, and some that are better, to gird us for battle in 2006.

Overrated: China’s economy. Underrated: America’s economy.

Overrated: China’s foreign policy. Underrated: America’s foreign policy. Seriously overrated: Canada’s foreign policy.

Overrated: “Thinking outside the box.” Underrated: Dogma.

Overrated: Finally having a sexual revolution. Underrated: Finally having a sexual counterrevolution.

Overrated: The Charter. Underrated: Parliamentary democracy.

Overrated: Politics. Underrated: Political philosophy.

Overrated: Judges with vision. Underrated: Judges with humility.

Overrated: Peacekeeping. Underrated: Just war.

Overrated: Treaties with tyrants. Underrated: Preemptive strikes on tyrants.

Overrated: The voice of youth. Underrated: The voice of experience.

Overrated: Noise. Underrated: Quiet.

Overrated: Dieting. Underrated: Eating less.

Overrated: Culture. Underrated: Civility.

Overrated: Self-expression. Underrated: Self-control.

Overrated: Lists. Underrated: This list.

Overrated: Euthanasia. Underrated: Not dying yet.

Overrated: Life. Underrated: Life.

Definitely not overrated: Quoting G.K. Chesterton. So, on the last point, I leave you with this thought from him for the coming year: “The more truly we can see life as a fairytale, the more clearly the tale resolves itself into war with the Dragon who is wasting fairyland.”

A rampaging dragon? Personally, I can’t wait. Now where did I put that crossbow?

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson