On history

The weird thing about history is that you don’t appreciate it until it’s over. But of course each of us is living history, every moment. And if we are paying attention, we perhaps see the arc of history, and have some understanding of how we got from there to here, and will get from here to beyond.

This issue has been bugging me recently. I sit in scientific meetings, and I think to myself: “What am I really seeing here? Is this the moment that things change? Is this the time?” Perhaps the very fact that I am thinking these thoughts means that it is not, in fact, the moment. Maybe when history is being made you know it with certainty. In this regard, I look backwards, and try to put myself in the shoes of others:

“[In mid-1933] Edgar Mowrer — who had just won the Pullitzer Price for an anti-Nazi book, Germany Puts the Clock Back — received a politely worded threat. The German government didn’t like his opinions and wanted him to resign from his post as president of the Foreign Press Association …. Edgar was informed that the German government could no longer guarantee his safety. He left for France …. ‘Nowhere have I had such lovely friends as in Germany,’ [his wife] wrote afterward. ‘Looking back on it all is like seeing someone you love go mad — and do horrible things.’” (Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke, pp. 39-40).

“When Jewish scientists were dismissed en masse from their jobs in the spring of 1933, following the rise of Hitler, their jobs were promptly taken by their non-Jewish junior colleagues. This so puzzled British scientist George Barger … that he wrote to Karl Freudenberg, a well-known non-Jewish professor of organic chemistry at Heidelberg …. Freudenberg replied as follows: ‘There are orders which you simply have to comply with. It is my firm conviction that a cure of the body of the German people was necessary, something which probably only very few will deny. The way it has been carried out cannot be subject to lengthy considerations in this country, simply because there are orders, and it does not matter at all, what the viewpoint of the individual is.’” (John Cornwell, Hitler’s Scientists, p. 127)

It is an Internet trope that once the Nazis have been invoked all further discussion is moot. And so it is with little credibility that I suggest that wondering about the anti-evolution sentiments that sometimes flare up in my adopted state, or that seeing the anti-immigrant policies that are rife around the country, or looking on as the Chinese claim the human metagenome are somehow echoes of what must have been occurring in 1933. But I continue to wonder what my counterparts, sitting bored in the last row of some scientific meeting in 1933, were thinking. And whether they knew what was really happening, what was about to come.

Or whether everyone in any given present is of necessity myopic (OK, Leo Szilard was not myopic; he was one smart mofo).

Still, whether or not I can see clearly, I think I can still find my way by sound. And somewhere between the reverberations of the Tea Party and the drumbeat of China’s industrial muscle I think I hear a far, keening note that bodes ill for us all. That dumbing down America while the rest of the world absorbs and acts on our hard-won knowledge is not at all a good thing. And most importantly that American industry, which last century could be counted on to come to the rescue of a stalled economy and which drove major war efforts is now quietly slipping out the back door and setting up international offices. What really is the point of a nation state when all that nation state has left is power projection?

Such questions can drive you to distraction. And thus I think that the only rational choice is the arrogant notion that you can, indeed have an obligation to, change history. That you make the best call you can, and move forward by doing the right thing.


- originally posted on Monday, November 8th, 2010