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On the Return of History

In the darkness with a great bundle of grief the people march.
In the night, and overhead a shovel of stars for keeps, the people march:
“Where to? what next?”

— Carl Sandburg: The People Yes

IN THE DAYS AFTER THE TOWERS FELL, in the ash that covered the Brooklyn street where I lived at that time, in the smoke that rose for months from that spot across the river, when rising up in the skyscraper I worked in, or riding deep beneath the river in the subway, or passing the thousand small shrines of puddled candle wax below the walls with the hundreds of photographs of “The Missing,” it was not too much to say that you could feel the doors of history open all about you.

Before those days, history happened elsewhere, elsewhen, to others. History did not happen to you. In your world, until that day, you lived in the time after history. There were no more doors in front of you, all history lay behind you. It was a given.

You would have, of course, your own personal history. You would live your life, no bigger or smaller than most others. You would meet people, have children, go to the job, enjoy what material things came your way, have your celebrations, your vacations, your possessions, and your dinner parties. You would hate and you would love. You would be loved and betrayed. You would have your little soap opera and the snapshots and emails to prove it. At some point or another, you would die and be remembered by some for some time. Then it would all fade and the great ocean would just roll on. And that would be fine.

History was behind us. It was something our parents entered for a while during the war but they emerged into what was, essentially, the long peace. They’d had enough history, didn’t want any more, and did what they could to keep history from happening. In general, the history of the Cold War is the history of what didn’t happen punctuated by a few things every now and then such as Korea and Vietnam. But all in all, for over 50 years, history didn’t happen.

With the end of the Soviet Union in a whimper and not a bang brighter than the sun on earth, history was officially over. The moment even got its own book, “The End of History,” which stimulated an argument that even more than the book emphasized that history was over.

Most sensible people liked it that way. In fact, a lot of people really liked it that way. Because if history for the world was over, these people could get on making the history that really mattered to them: The History of Me.

More and more throughout the 90s “History” was “out,” and “Me” was in. “Me,” “Having My Space,” “How to Be Your Own Best Friend,” “Me, Myself, I,” were hallmarks of that self-besotted age. The History of Me was huge in the 90s and rolled right through the millennium. It even had a Customized President to preside over those years; the Most Me President ever. A perfect man for the time and one who, in the end, did not disappoint in choosing “Me” over “Country.” How could he do otherwise? It was the option his constituency of Many-Million-Mes elected him to select. I know because I was into Me then and I voted for him because, well, because he seemed to be “just like me.” It was a sad day when “Me” couldn’t run for a third term, but The Party of Me offered up “Mini-Me” and a lot of Mes turned out for him too.

Many millions of Mini-Mes were very upset when there weren’t quite enough Mes in one state to put Mini-Me in office to continue with the wonderful Me-ness of it all. I voted for “Mini-Me” in 2000, but not because he really seemed like Me, but because he was the only thing out there that said he was Me.

Unlike millions of miffed Mini-Mes, I wasn’t too upset when he didn’t get into the Oval winner’s oval after stamping his feet and holding his breath. I suppose I should have. It was what all the really intense Mini-Mes were doing. But I’d already started to become disgusted with all the Me-ness that had been going around so long and this tantrum of the Mini-Mes just made me not want to hang around them. After all, we were well beyond the End of History by this point, so what did it matter?

Then on one bright and unusually fine New York September morning in 2001 History came back with a vengeance we’d never seen before in the history of America. It came back and it stayed and stayed and stayed. The doors of history swung open again and we were all propelled through them into… what?

Nobody knows. Not the President, not his opponents, not the right, left, center, or just plain unhinged and now in low-earth orbit. We know how it began, but we don’t know how it will end. We don’t really know what’s next. Indeed, we never know.

It was better when we lived in The History of Me. We knew how Me would end — birth, fun, school, fun, job, fun, family, fun, age, fun, death and then … probably fun, who knew, who cared? The meaning of this history was not deep but was to be found in the world “fun.” Mini-Mes love fun. You could almost say it is their religion;  The Church of Fun. A funny concept, fun. Fills the space between birth and death. “He was a fun guy” could be a generic epitaph for the era.

Now we find ourselves back in history as it has always been and it is not fun. Not fun at all. The history of history has little to do with fun, almost nothing at all.

Most of the Mini-Mes don’t know what to do in a history that isn’t fun. All their lives have been about shaping history towards fun and they’ve been having a good run at it. They like it so much, they are now willing to do anything to bring it back — the Kennedy Era, such elegant fun; the Clinton Years, “Hey, we partied like it was 1999.” In the run-up to the last election and now for the next, there’s been and there will be a lot of code swapped about getting the fun back in the game. “Remember the fun of the 90s? You can have it all back. Peace. Love. Understanding. Stock-market Boom. Money. Any number of genders can play. The new fun Obama will make you all feel righteous while drenched in fun!” Indeed, many of these Merry Pranksters of our politics are setting up to run “The Bride of Fun” for President in 2020, even though it is clear she is the least fun of any of them.

Unlike “The Bride of Fun,” Fun is very attractive. It is an illusion to Us now, but the Mini-Mes need Fun and want it back more than, well, life itself. The Mini-Mes talk a great game about groups, entitlement, empowerment, but their program really is, like fun, “all about Me.”

This is not to say that  Me-ness doesn’t dominate that bumbling faction as well. Washington is always about Me-Magnified. In a way, it is true to say that a lot of what is going on is a fight over which set of Mes shall be master. But that is always the case.

Still there are always “differences of degree,” and it is on those differences that one must judge. Weighing the two, it seems to me clear that there is, within the core of the current party in power, at least the recognition that “fun” is no longer what we need to be about at this time. Indeed, there is an understanding there, backed with deeds and policies, however flawed in conception and execution, that our holiday from history is over and we need to get back to business if we’d like to be around in any kind of recognizable form by mid-century. There is even, if you look at it closely, a distinct lessening of “Me” and the beginnings of a “Us” on the peripheries of the Party. Not a lot, but when you look at the other, there is none. Only a yearning for the warm mud of Me-Me-Me.

History, as it will now unfold, will require little from Me but much from Us. I’d like to say that this country’s going one way or another tomorrow will be the ruin of the nation. If I could I would be able to get my Me into the Punditocracy. But that is false. One result or another will not be the ruin of the nation for there is, as one of the founding fathers once remarked, “A lot of ruin in a nation.”

Should the nation choose to move forward, to stay the course and continue the offensive, our encounter with history will move forward at much the same pace as it has these past two plus years, perhaps a bit accelerated. Should the nation choose to step back, to retreat, it will simply retard the process that grips it a bit more than otherwise might be the case. Neither result wil place us back in the History of Me no matter how many yearn for it.

History, having returned, will continue to happen, not to Me, but to Us.

We will have a fresh 21st century war whether we wish it or not. It will continue to be brought to us as it was brought for many years before we could see it in a pillar of flame by day and a pillar of smoke by night. We will be long in this wilderness, perhaps as long as forty years, and it will take a terrible toll from us, soldier and civilian alike; a toll we have not yet begun to see. Like all global wars in the past century, the war upon us will rise in violence until such time as we either capitulate or find the will to kill our enemies wholesale. This is not what we would choose, but it is what we shall have.

We could, if we wished, withdraw every soldier from every inch of soil that is not American territory and leave them here inside our borders rusting for a decade. War will still come because war is already upon us, and wars in the 21st century do not end in staged withdrawals, but in either defeat or victory. The lessons of Vietnam and the Cold War teach this to us if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. Wars do not end just because you spend a few years with nobody shooting directly at you. They haven’t gone back to peace, they’re just reloading.

In this small pause, this brief hiatus in the First Terrorist War, the character of our leadership will make a difference to some degree, but it will not decide. It is who we are and who we shall become as a people that will decide. How that will be in the end, I do not know. What I do know is that history, no matter what they tell you, never comes to an end. And because of that, the one small thing that I have the power to do is to decide that I shall no longer vote for Me. I shall vote for Us.

First published March 2006

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Tom Hyland December 31, 2018, 11:15 AM

    I choose not to believe. Why? Because I’ve been lied to my entire life. I was 8 years old when Dan Rather, the only civilian to see the Zapruder film, said, “The President’s head jerked violently forward.” Finally in 1975 all of us viewed the film. How did Dan get it so wrong? Because he was ordered to report it as such. By 1975 people simply didn’t care. I don’t believe anything “official” reported about 9/11. None of it adds up. I’m just watching the wheels go round and round. It’s easy to believe. It takes an effort to exercise rational critical thinking. And there will be the majority of my fellow countrymen who proclaim I’m a nut job and I hate America. Good. I’m not real fond of you, either.

  • ghostsniper December 31, 2018, 2:00 PM

    There are plenty of us out here Tom, people that have long distrusted everything gov’t. How many times must one be lied to before they too are doubtful? Apparently infinity. No conspiracy, yes collusion. Extreme ineptitude. The most expensive criminal system in world history. In 100 years everyone everywhere will be well aware of it. If they survive.

    BTW, where’s Casey?

  • Hangtown Bob December 31, 2018, 3:05 PM

    I missed this post in 2006, but unfortunately find it very prescient for today’s world. I wish that I could argue for a more optimistic outcome.

  • Dirk January 1, 2019, 9:22 AM

    How does one know our Govts lying? Their lips are moving. If it wasn’t a total truth , would be funny.


  • Anonymous January 1, 2019, 12:50 PM

    “They’d had enough history, didn’t want any more,”

    My mother went back to teaching full-time after we all got into middle-school (in the sixties), and eventually had to go back to college to get her MA in order to keep on the promotion ladder.
    One of her courses was Modern History, which included WW2. During the days before the final exam, one of the Sweet Young Things was fussing about the work load, and said to her, “Ms. Jones, you don’t ever take notes or seem to listen to the teacher, but you always make A’s. How can you do that?”
    “Honey,” Mother replied, “I don’t have to study this stuff. I was there.”

  • Howard Nelson January 1, 2019, 1:20 PM

    As reminded by Tennyson’s Ulysses, noted below, our striving is our thriving whatever our goal may be. “Never up, never in,” to give it another spin.

  • Terry January 1, 2019, 5:06 PM

    Kennedy killing-

    I became a total disbeliever of the gov version around 1972. I was a skeptic from about the third day after the event when certain pictures were no longer shown by the TV news stations. The 1972 wake up for me was a comment made by an ex fed gov agent who my father knew dating back to the re-installation of the Shah in Iran. This guy said the whole assassination op was a CIA deal headed by Allen Dulles.

    The Twin Towers deal appears as a gov op as well. Why was the entire rubble pile “disappeared”? Total fake attack in my view. In my experience governments don’t operate on any truth telling. The lie works better.

  • Tom Hyland January 1, 2019, 5:58 PM

    Terry, if you want to read an enlightening book regarding the big whack, it’s titled “The Man Who Killed Kennedy.” On the front cover is a photograph of Lyndon Johnson. Nobody had, personally, more to gain if Kennedy was eliminated than Johnson. But there were lots of government contractors and employees who stood to lose enormously because Kennedy was moving back and away from VietNam. The book was written by Roger Stone. I have a nephew who told me F-Off a year ago when I suggested he read it. I’m never going to hear from that brat ever again. Read my closing comment at the top of this page.

  • ghostsniper January 2, 2019, 8:42 AM

    The most appalling part is that the gov’t does all of these things knowing full well that a majority of the population just, in the infamous words of Colonel Jessup, “…can’t handle the truth!”

    If you some how manage to break through their adolescent shell and pierce those tender innards they react as your nephew did, Tom.

    Mankind, still, are very primitive creatures – meant to be used as draft animals and little more.

  • Tom Hyland January 2, 2019, 9:34 AM

    George Carlin used to describe the OWNERS as the people who own the politicians, all major news corporations, the armed forces, the land, the banks, all property, essentially… the world… and all creatures and humans that inhabit it. The Owners write history. It is HIS story… HE wrote it… The OWNERS… but it is not MY story. THEY understand a precious insight to human behavior. This is LIFE. This is not America, this is not planet Earth… there is no geographical location nor a beginning or end to BEING. You are BEING. You have no definition. And 99.9% of humanity is totally freaked out by simply being alive. It is human nature to want to be left alone, not bothered, hand over the steering wheel to whoever wants to “take care of business” and TRUST whomever is in control and informing them what’s “going on.” The Owners know that people are totally freaked out by existence itself and can barely cope so THEY have been successful for thousands of years stealing, lying, bullying, raping, and killing off the 99.9% to get whatever THEY want. Occasionally, one of the sheep might pull his snout out from the ass of the next sheep in front of him and wonder aloud… “I don’t believe what I am told. Why can’t I believe history? Why can’t I believe all that I am told?” The surrounding sheep point their little hooves at their fellow “troublemaker” and bray… “Yerrrr Baaaaaad!” I can say this from real experience, my furry little friends, once you’ve breathed some fresh air you are never going to accept anything less.

  • Julie near Chicago January 2, 2019, 5:40 PM

    Tom, thus:

    ” … Kennedy was moving back and away from VietNam.”

    He was? Not according to what I’ve read and think I remember. (I was 21 in 1964.) For instance,

    So would Kennedy have fallen into the Vietnam quagmire just as Johnson did? No one can be sure, and Kennedy supporters can certainly believe that he would have avoided Johnson’s massive committment — even though he had the same advisors as Johnson and the same desire to prevent a Communist takeover.

    However, the Oliver Stone version of the Kennedy assassination, as expressed in the movie JFK, holds that Kennedy had already decided to pull out of Vietnam, and was killed for that reason. That’s just not so.

    This is the conclusion reached by [I believe] Prof. John McAdams of Marquette Univ. in his posting at

    http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/vietnam.htm , entitled “Was John Kennedy Going to Pull Out of Vietnam?” and based on an excerpt from the

    Third Oral History Interview with
    April 30, 1964
    New York, New York
    By John Bartlow Martin
    For the John F. Kennedy Library .

    See his Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_C._McAdams
    . . .

    Gerard — I’m assuming you use WordPress, and that it will accept the html tags.

    This is an interesting piece, and I must say your literary talents are showing! :>)

  • Tom Hyland January 2, 2019, 6:23 PM

    Julie, I read the RFK interview and though he sounds so adamant that his brother was insistent we stay the course into Vietnam, I’ve read too many other books that convince me otherwise. The Stone book is very good. It wasn’t simply Vietnam… it was Johnson who was facing criminal indictments in Texas and a totally black future. JFK made it abundantly clear he was dropping Johnson from the 1964 ticket. He had already drop-kicked Allen Dulles to the curb and that man would remain in permanent limbo unless JFK was eliminated. Dulles himself was the maestro of eliminating people. Read “The Devil’s Chessboard” by David Talbot, a biography of Dulles and his brother, to understand what unbridled evil is. JFK was going to force-retire J. Edgar Hoover, good buddy and next door neighbor to Johnson. Read Roger Stone’s book. Lots of folks were in Dallas that November day… even George H.W. Bush, who is the only adult in America who could never remember where he was that day. Nixon was there, too. Very creepy stuff. It wasn’t just Vietnam.

  • Tom Hyland January 2, 2019, 6:44 PM

    For ghost… wondering about Casey… he posted Christmas greetings as recently as late December at his website. http://thecolorist.blogspot.com

  • ghostsniper January 2, 2019, 6:44 PM

    try to audit the fed and see what happens
    the owners will tolerate a lot but they won’t tolerate that

  • jwm January 3, 2019, 12:45 PM

    @Tom Hyland
    I follow Casey on Facebarf. He posted just today.