Despite the reality that “twerking” was the word most often searched for on Google in 2013 – a word that, just for the record, my spell check wants to change to “tweaking” or “twirling” – I am actually a little encouraged by the state of humankind. Note that I said a little. I like Miley Cyrus, but I wish as a world we were more interested in the 2.5 million Syrian refugees and the possible ramifications of that cataclysmic civil war than we are in the young singer.
But here’s why I am ever so slightly optimistic.
Later this year, you will see a spate of stories about the centennial of the start of the First World War. (Okay, maybe not a spate. After all, there is no twerking subplot to the First World War. But you will see a fair number.) It will have been exactly one century since the “war to end all wars” began. As we all know, the war failed to end much of anything – and certainly not war. I’m not an historian (I don’t even play one on TV), but clearly the First World War laid the groundwork for the Second World War, much of the instability in the modern Middle East, and the emergence of the Soviet Union. The war was the Ottoman Empire’s cover for the Armenian Genocide. It gave us flamethrowers, tanks, and poison gas. Undoubtedly, its legacy is far broader than even that. But these are, more or less, what was accomplished by the death of roughly 15 million soldiers on the two sides.
And that all began one hundred years ago this summer.
That also means, just for the record, that we have reached the seventy-fifth anniversary of the start of the Second World War. Yup, it was three-quarters of a century ago this September that Germany invaded Poland. We all know the results of that cataclysm, too: The six million Jewish citizens of Europe exterminated in the Holocaust. Perhaps as many sixty million people dead overall. The Cold War. The atomic bomb.
What will occur in the next twelve months to cause historians to look back at 2014 with horror? I couldn’t begin to tell you. My prayer is that they will look back instead at a monumental medical breakthrough. Perhaps someday we will look back at 2014 with wonder and joy.
In any case, later this year expect people far wiser than I to see the parallels between our world and eras past. We will try to learn from the mistakes that our predecessors made. After all, we know the quotes.
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” William Faulkner reminded us.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” George Santayana observed just after the twentieth century dawned.
Yet a tragic part of being human is how impossible it can be to overcome our bad habits. Let’s face it, I still bite my nails. I crunch them like pumpkin seeds.
Moreover, some wars had to be fought. Exhibit A? The Second World War. Once we had allowed madness to rule in Germany and Italy and Japan, we hadn’t a choice.
But sometimes we do learn – and that is why I am encouraged. So far, we have restrained ourselves from detonating an atomic or nuclear bomb outside of a test since 1945. (This past November, we mourned the death of President Kennedy on the fiftieth anniversary of his assassination. Had that President and his administration not handled the Cuban Missile Crisis so deftly a year earlier, just imagine what kind of fiftieth anniversary we would have had in 2012.) So far, we have not invaded Syria. So far, we have not shut down the U.S. government for longer than it can actually handle.
That’s why on occasion I believe that we just might be getting smarter. We’re as flawed as ever and sometimes we have to sit through a lesson twice before we understand its meaning. Two world wars. Two atomic bombs. Two excursions into Iraq. You get the point.
But when we look back on 1914, let’s be sure and remember not simply went wrong, but what we learned.
And as for 2014? At the very least, let’s transcend the twerk.