Thursday, October 9, 2014


October 9, 2014:

          The other day I sent in to my editor at one of the history magazines I write for an account of the uprising in the Vendee in 1793, which is considered the defining event of the French counter-revolution, the only event during the counter-revolution  in which armed conflict predominated and a real, if short-lived war took place. The French government, then controlled by Jacobins--who would all soon lose their heads when something akin to sanity returned to France--, won this war and followed it with what is thought to be the first modern genocide, in which government troops devastated the Vendee area and killed every man, woman, and child they could find. One officer wrote, with a certain pride, that he had trampled children under his horse's hooves. Another oversaw the drowning of at least 2,000 people in the Loire. They were tied naked to rafts (clothes were booty to the soldiers) that were designed to sink as soon as the stopcocks were pulled out. Livestock was killed, farms were burnt. One expert in Paris suggested that they poison the wells. Another suggested gassing these people.

          This is one reason to read history. It has all happened before. The Vendee had a population of 800,000 people. Estimates of the number killed range from 40,000 to 600,000. Simon Schama, in his history of the French Revolution, thinks the number was about 250,000. That is indeed genocide.

          And now I read that the fanatic ISIS group in Syria and Iraq is busy killing people who are not as fanatic as they are in large numbers, as brutally as possible, and that the Kurds are next in line. Blood baths. Common throughout history.

          What a mess the world is in. Here, in our own country, we have a vast dumbing down, not just of the electorate, but of our own representatives, the people who are supposed to lead us. The Republican party has officially adopted the anti-scientific stance that global warming is a hoax, and those among us who owe nothing to the Koch brothers or the power companies find this astonishing. The scientific evidence for it is overwhelming. On the religious right a similar stance holds strong against evolution, even while the evidence for evolution becomes increasingly incontrovertible and no doubt remains as to its reality. Meanwhile the election of a black president has not, as many of us hoped, been an indication that racism in America was on its way out. On the contrary, the election of a black president has revealed levels of racism in the country that the more hopeful among us thought had been buried decades ago.

          I was not among the more hopeful. I have always believed that racism will decline only when intermarriage is widespread and people are everywhere light brown. History teaches you not to be very hopeful about human beings. History, as the historian Gordon Wood has said, teaches you caution, prudence, and, as I have mentioned before, all about the law of unintended consequences. Things very seldom work out the way we intended. History taught me long ago that Western values are not universal, that you cannot impose democracy from above on tribal people. Just as Native Americans could not be changed into farmers, as Jefferson and many others hoped, Arab tribes cannot be transformed into something called "nations."

          And religious fanaticism cannot be eliminated. Nicholas Kristof reminds us in today's Times that the Muslim religion has, for the most part, in its history, been tolerant, and that most Muslims today remain tolerant; but there are always fanatics, true believers, in every religion, every ideology. There are people who cannot abide doubt, even though doubt is THE fundamental consequence of being human, being conscious and self-conscious, because we do not know, cannot know, what happens to us when we die. It is so comforting--or so I imagine, being full of doubt myself--to believe in something like Heaven. A heaven of 72 virgins, if you are sex-obsessed, or a heaven of singing angels and green fields that go on forever, as you presumably will, too. A heaven of universal love, all conflict gone, all opinions moot, with a Father who will be eternally kind. Just read my Book. Etc.

          History goes on and on, both the writing of it and the living of it. It is always messy. There are always wars, there always will be, and the weapons, if not ourselves, will get smarter and smarter. There is always conflict, fanaticism, always people who cannot abide that you think and believe differently from them, that you live a different truth. For them it raises that awful possibility, doubt. For an historian, and I have read a great deal of it, human history is an appalling record of hatreds, futilities, error, interspersed with remarkable feats of heroism, sacrifice, and what is clearly love, the love of doing some good in the world, the love of other people. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that in the end the arc of history leans toward justice. Maybe. We can only hope so.

          But I doubt it.