Things are not the same as they were.
And even while you hold tenaciously on to the present you ought to start thinking about how times in the past were different. And you ought to think about how nothing will be as it is today tomorrow. Our leaders who send our young men and women into that “land of destruction,” which is the Middle East, as well as those who would build impenetrable barriers between us and our neighbors, mistakenly seem to ignore the rule of constant change under which we all live.
In brief, in spite of a world full of evidence to the contrary, our leaders try to keep things, not only “as they were,” but incredibly as they were in their own youth. While the chances of their stopping the march of history are even less than those of the little Dutch boy who in the story would stop the oceans by sticking his finger into a hole in the dike.
How did it happen that our leaders are so ignorant of history, or at least seem not to know their own powerlessness against the waves of change? Do they imagine that history began with the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787? What about the history of the cave painters in Southern France and Northern Spain, and even earlier in Indonesia, tens of thousands of years ago?
Don’t these paintings on a cave wall tell us as much or more about ourselves than we learn from what happened in Philadelphia during those months of the spring and summer of 1987?
And what about Palmyra, now on the front pages of our newspapers, which in the early second millennium BC was a caravan stop for travelers crossing the Syrian Desert and only prospered with the advent of the Romans in the first millennium AD?
Palmyra was destroyed by the Romans in 273 AD (was it because their leaders didn’t see change coming?), and again by the Timurids in 1400, and from about that time has remained a small, insignificant village under the rule of the Ottomans. Now as we read in the Times today the city, or rather the ruins of the city because the city is no more, is threatened by another destruction by ISIS.
Go to any point on the earth’s surface and look at what has happened there, look at the history of the place (as much as it may be known, for at most places on the earth’s surface there are few if any complete histories) since, say, the time of the Cro-Magnon men in Southern France. In most instances alternating periods of prosperity and destruction, as in Palmyra,
as in the Middle East, as in the Empires of the New World, would lead us to conclude that we’re going no where, there is no progress.
The twentieth century itself with the wholesale and indiscriminate slaughter of tens of millions of combatants, yes, but mostly of non-combatants, of the innocent, would almost seem to prove that things are getting no better. That we are not making progress. In this sense things while changing seem to remain the same.
Yet things are not the same. In spite of our living under the iron rule of birth and death, in spite of the seemingly endless repetition of periods of destruction and prosperity, things today are completely different from what they were ever. Today we have the internet, almost enabling the world for the first time to be one, and there are more of us, huge numbers of us, the world’s population of 7.3 billion being nearly double of what it was some 50 years earlier. And regardless of all those who say “plus ça change plus c’est la même chose,” 4 billion more of us on the earth’s outer crust n’est pas la même chose.
A world where billions are able to communicate in the blink of an eye with thousands, with tens of thousands, when voyages of the mind do not need horses, cars, ships, or planes in order to travel, well that and much else makes this world no less than many worlds of the past a new world. Wouldn’t you think that the politicians would begin to understand that they’re never going to step into the same river twice, something which even the ancient Greeks well understood.
Progress is the wrong word for what’s happening. And the question, “How does it happen that serious people continue to believe in progress, in the face of massive evidence that might have been expected to refute the idea of progress once and for all?” is the wrong question.
Forget about progress, it’s change, and it’s evolution that we should be talking about. Progress depends on the point of view of the observer, Change and evolution do not. Whether we’ve progressed or not may be an interesting question, but that’s all.
What is more important than whether we progress is whether and how we change ourselves in the face of change that is constantly upon us. The Blacks are now no different than the Whites. The Gays are no different than the Straights. Women are no different than Men. At least in regard to their common humanity.
These and other changes are upon us, as is also the change in how we see other forms of life. What will this mean in our treatment of other animals for example?
Now the biggest changes didn’t come from our writing them down, as the Founding Fathers the Bill of Rights, as God, aka Moses, the Ten Commandments. Rather the changes, as it were fell upon us, and when we were finally able to recognize their worth and importance, we accepted them as a part, often the best part of what we were.
To the extent that we know ourselves we see and accept the changes. For we are changing, or better, evolving into what we were perhaps meant to be, and that’s what we ought to be coming to grips with, not holding onto things, ideas of no value as do so many of our leaders, so many of our Presidential candidates, things and ideas that ought to be left behind in the past.