Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The big picture

The history major in me likes to look at national or world events and try to shape them, for my own satisfaction, into a big, probably much too intuitive picture, one that explains trends or the Movement of Peoples in terms that are emotional (no need for too terribly painstaking research -- and who knows, it might be true) but tidy (that takes care of that). Perhaps I ought to be writing more fiction, or perhaps I have spent too much time reading large survey history books with grand themes and titles, and too much time taking the same kinds of classes years ago in college. Books and classes like these always end so neatly, and before they end the books, especially, always seem to gloss over real human tragedies and failures with many reassuring summations. In the long run all this was for the best, they say, or couldn't be helped, or at any rate all this is now explicable in some large and tidy way. There's little sadness in a survey, and I like that. I am, in short, the general reader.

Do I dare try it myself? Big survey views aren't necessarily wrong. Once in a while, talented people can do a bit of summing up, and can get it largely right with the basic tools of good background knowledge and human sympathy and imagination at their disposal. I may not be one of those people, nor am I about to dare some huge summing up. But here are a couple of trends or movements, along with the ingredients in them which some future talent may be able to click together like a puzzle in a very satisfying way: satisfying enough for the general reader and the professional both to nod and say, "in a way that's probably close to the truth."

One trend, from abroad, is that the French (of all people) are in the process, so the wine bloggers tell us, of becoming neo-prohibitionists and of "demonizing" -- of all things -- wine. Wine cannot be advertised on the internet in France. Any writing on wine, in newspapers, magazines, or on-line, must be accompanied by the equivalent of our idiotic surgeon general's warning as to its pernicious possible effects on health. This means that any innocent little wine-and-food pairing column in any French daily paper must be followed, every single time in every single paper, by the warning paragraph mandated by the state. This is in France, long home of wine and of all things sensuous, joyous, and wonderful. In addition, free wine tastings are very likely going to be banned in France. This means that large and (I presume) traditional professional events like the "en primeur barrel tastings in Bordeaux and the Vinexpo wine exhibition" either will not be held or will have to have fees set for admittance and tasting (Decanter on line, 10/31/08). This is completely new.

Why on earth would the French travel down this road? -- suddenly reacting to wine as Dracula reacts to garlic and sunlight? Power-mad bureaucrats making laws, health-faddists obeying whatever internal dictates drive them; or, is it the case that a people are slowly, intuitively relinquishing one of their most prized possessions, before their abstaining Muslim fellow citizens can attain majority status in the country and then insist that it be done on religious grounds?

A proper historian would shrug at such a silly connection, and would point to dozens of complex factors driving history every day of the year, and changing what they drive every day of the year. But someone writing a survey, five hundred years from now, might note the timing of this strange trend and say this was not a coincidence -- or maybe that it was at least an interesting one. It's a bit like approaching the solution to a murder mystery. There's a body in the library, and a knife on the garden path outside. Yes, there are dozens of other factors and clues. But fundamentally, here are two things that go together and make something wrong. Something strange is happening. There's a connection.

Another strange trend comes closer to home, and forces me to write once again about the junior Senator from Illinois. (The one who, after something like 143 days in office, decided it was time to seek the Presidency.) The mania of the mainstream press for him has been so naked and so delirious that I think even they will look back on 2008, the year of his deification, and wonder just exactly what they were about. Their worshipping and promoting the ambitions of Barack Obama, combined with his popularity all over the world, leads me to suspect that perhaps, in the big picture, what he means to many journalists is their redemption from being hated as Americans. September 11th brought home to us a little slice of the world's hatred of us, and journalists, every bit as American as the citizens they lecture, don't like being hated. The rest of us have been more able to withstand the fact of it because we recognize that maybe the hater has the problem, not us. We recognize that no one has the right to kill us because of who we are. The press doesn't seem to be so sure.

September 11th was a long time ago -- seven years, although it seems like longer, partly I think because after a few months or so, images of the day dropped rather suddenly from public view -- but ever since the delivery of that lesson, that haters can and will strike even New York City (New York! where so many thinking people and journalists live!), our powerful media has had no firm proof to offer the world that they are not like us, and should be excused associations with us. They long to prove categorically that they are different, right-thinking. George Bush's re-election by us, never mind his first election, and of course the war in Iraq not sufficiently opposed by us, have gone far to driving them frantic with chagrin at this proofless-ness. What can they do?

They have found Barack Obama, and so found what they can do. Deify the one candidate for the Presidency who is not only a committed socialist but also exemplifies the academic left's contempt for the Constitution, boasts friends and mentors who like to blow up the Pentagon, and has belonged to a racist, anti-American church for twenty years. Deify the one candidate who brags that he wants to "fundamentally change America." The more damning details have come to light about Obama, the more the media have protected him. The more they have learned about him, the more they have understood he is exactly what they want. Lots of factors come into play in this little slice of history, to be sure, but I agree with the general conservative-pundit assessment that this is emotional. I'll go further, and match up the body in this library with the knife on the path outside. The American press says to the hating world: here. This is our gift to you. We'll do our part to make him our leader. How perfect, the subconscious whispers, that he's even by way of being Muslim. Love us. We're not like them.

These are my two intuitive, big-picture, and unprovable theses on two strange trends of the past year or so. The French are acting as if they hate wine. The American press makes mass obeisance to the first anti-American presidential candidate, ever, and guide and protect his path to power. Why? Sometimes it's the very history books -- non-surveys, this time -- laying out a dozen or eighteen separate reasons contributing to this or that epochal change, which finally seem less convincing than a simple A to B emotional leap. (Perhaps this is why human beings are so susceptible to conspiracy theories about anything. They're easy to grasp, too, and don't require any more research than you care to do.) I read the fine serious books on history and sometimes think, come now, these eighteen factors cannot all have joined together in this place and time and among these people, and impelled them to do or think as they did precisely then. People, if they are not automatons, paint their lives with a bit broader brushes than that, don't they?

All of the foregoing may also explain why I blog, rather than get important papers full of painstakingly accurate and original information published in the William and Mary Quarterly, &c. I hugely respect the compiling of that information, and at long last I realize that that is what magazines and book publishers are buying and selling, not my brand of (with luck) charming speculation. But I also like the phrase that I once came across in William Manchester's biography of Winston Churchill. One of Churchill's gifts, he said, was the "zigzag streak of lightning in the brain," -- confident, inexplicable, but correct intuition. Heaven knows I don't claim to have it, but it's nice to think that there's a place for some pale imitation of it at some level of historical analysis. Maybe even here. Provided it just zigs and zags usefully, and doesn't fry the circuits.

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