Through a glass darkly on a voyage through history

Well, you can wrap 2004 up. But you can't take it with you. Instead, it's going where all the years go when they cease to be this year, the dusty heap called history. I wonder what history will make of it. Winston Churchill once said he knew what history would say because he intended to write it. Regrettably, I have less authority and fewer volumes at my disposal. But I do have David Warren's recent observation in Western Standard that "the people in the past didn't think of themselves as living there. Like us, they thought they were living in the present." It reminds me that if we attempt to comprehend our own times as the final destination of history's long voyage, not part of it, we are likely to step blithely from the coach and be hurled at speed into a tree.

So, through a glass darkly, I'm trying to see 2004 in light of the chapter titles in the perhaps too many history books I have read, especially the long surveys. Things like "The Development of Responsible Government" or "Edward III and the Executive," but not "Paul Martin: Man of Destiny, a Bit". The Canadian Press and Broadcast News annual survey just voted Mr. Martin newsmaker of the year for the second time running. Oh please. It should be someone who had a surprisingly large impact on our public life (which, parenthetically, involves slightly more than just government policy) especially in a surprising direction.

Of course, a historical perspective deals more in dominant trends (Late 19th Century America: Industrialization, Urbanization, Immigration) than turning points, which are both fewer and less obvious at the time. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 787 says: "And in his (King Bertric's) days came first three ships of the Northmen from the land of robbers ... the first ships of the Danish men that sought the land of the English nation." At the time, I expect Bertric looked like the story. But surely Paul Martin is neither trend nor turning point.

What is? Despite vainglorious rhetoric about a "duty to protect" and "this next nine months as a critical time where Canada has an opportunity to play a leadership role in pulling together networks and coalitions of countries to ... move everyone forward in a meaningful way," one of our chapters must be "Canada Abdicates a Foreign Role." Discarding the traditional alliance with the United States while neglecting hard power assets left the nation without constructive diplomatic alternatives, it will say. As for the United Nations, look in the history books under League of Nations after 1936 for a general sense of the probable tone.

Presumably Canada in the 21st Century: From Sea to Shining C Minus will give a chapter to gay marriage. But what will it say? I'm led to believe by the one-storey intellects that gay marriage is here, "the debate is over" and now it stops. The ship of history has docked. Woo hoo. Party. But I am also told we are a land of changely changehoodship. So this is presumably just one more step in the evolution of the family. Into what?

Well, I imagine a chapter here like "The Rise of Parliament" or "Civil War and Parliamentary Triumph," except much faster in these accelerated times. Call it "The Rise of Judicial Supremacy." With precedent playing a far larger role in human affairs than is generally appreciated by those who think it's all about them, history may well view the transformation of heterosexual marriage from everybody knows in 1999 to are you insane in 2004 mainly as the most telling example of the courts' wresting of final authority away from Parliament. (Oh, and the next chapter is "The Collapse of Central Planning in Health Care.")

If I had my druthers, one chapter would be "The End of Social Science." But it could be the least of our worries. For speaking of accelerated times, 2004 saw many portents of the technology that is yet to come, especially cybernetics and genetic engineering. Compare the Wright brothers' comical contraption to a modern fighter plane and ask whether our appliances and even our desks won't become smarter than we are and put us out to pasture. Perhaps "The Rise of the Cyborgs" will be written by one. Sometimes social changes matter more than first ministers' conferences.

History has a bigger eraser than I do a pen, and as the Asterix comic Le Devin reminds us, soothsayers generally babble. But it helps to try to evaluate our own time, and our own small contribution to it, with some thought to what the chapter titles might look like a hundred years hence. At which point Paul Martin will be lucky to be a trivia question.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson