FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Ironies of History

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 at Clemson University. He can be reached at: mayt@clemson.edu.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
May 25, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Melvin Goodman
A Major Win for Trump’s War Cabinet
Andrew Levine
Could Anything Cause the GOP to Dump Trump?
Pete Tucker
Is the Washington Post Soft on Amazon?
Conn Hallinan
Iran: Sanctions & War
Jeffrey St. Clair
Out of Space: John McCain, Telescopes and the Desecration of Mount Graham
John Laforge
Senate Puts CIA Back on Torture Track
David Rosen
Santa Fe High School Shooting: an Incel Killing?
Gary Leupp
Pompeo’s Iran Speech and the 21 Demands
Jonathan Power
Bang, Bang to Trump
Robert Fisk
You Can’t Commit Genocide Without the Help of Local People
Brian Cloughley
Washington’s Provocations in the South China Sea
Louis Proyect
Requiem for a Mountain Lion
Robert Fantina
The U.S. and Israel: a Match Made in Hell
Kevin Martin
The Libya Model: It’s Not Always All About Trump
Susie Day
Trump, the NYPD and the People We Call “Animals”
Pepe Escobar
How Iran Will Respond to Trump
Sarah Anderson
When CEO’s Earn 5,000 Times as Much as a Company’s Workers
Ralph Nader
Audit the Outlaw Military Budget Draining America’s Necessities
Chris Wright
The Significance of Karl Marx
David Schultz
Indict or Not: the Choice Mueller May Have to Make and Which is Worse for Trump
George Payne
The NFL Moves to Silence Voices of Dissent
Razan Azzarkani
America’s Treatment of Palestinians Has Grown Horrendously Cruel
Katalina Khoury
The Need to Evaluate the Human Constructs Enabling Palestinian Genocide
George Ochenski
Tillerson, the Truth and Ryan Zinke’s Interior Department
Jill Richardson
Our Immigration Debate Needs a Lot More Humanity
Martha Rosenberg
Once Again a Slaughterhouse Raid Turns Up Abuses
Judith Deutsch
Pension Systems and the Deadly Hand of the Market
Shamus Cooke
Oregon’s Poor People’s Campaign and DSA Partner Against State Democrats
Thomas Barker
Only a Mass Struggle From Below Can End the Bloodshed in Palestine
Binoy Kampmark
Australia’s China Syndrome
Missy Comley Beattie
Say “I Love You”
Ron Jacobs
A Photographic Revenge
Saurav Sarkar
War and Moral Injury
Clark T. Scott
The Shell Game and “The Bank Dick”
Seth Sandronsky
The State of Worker Safety in America
Thomas Knapp
Making Gridlock Great Again
Manuel E. Yepe
The US Will Have to Ask for Forgiveness
Laura Finley
Stop Blaming Women and Girls for Men’s Violence Against Them
Rob Okun
Raising Boys to Love and Care, Not to Kill
Christopher Brauchli
What Conflicts of Interest?
Winslow Myers
Real Security
George Wuerthner
Happy Talk About Weeds
Abel Cohen
Give the People What They Want: Shame
David Yearsley
King Arthur in Berlin
Douglas Valentine
Memorial Day
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail