One of the toughest things to get across to History students is the pace of change. Students hate it, but the “memorize this list of dates” approach actually helps — one can’t help but notice that your list of “the 20 most significant dates” for, say, the medieval period covers a millennium, while that same list for the Roman Empire covers maybe a century. Even there, though, most people could be forgiven for mistaking 50 AD for 150 AD, or even 250 AD (even archaeologists generally consider it a success if they can date something to within a century, I’m told).
But nobody would mistake 1790 for 1890, let alone 1990. A Roman of the late Republic (100 BC) could still get around ok if you time-warped him into the late Empire (300 AD). Time warp a guy from 1790 into 1890, though, and he’d think he was on Mars. (Zap him into 1990, and he’d think he’d died and gone to Hell). The pace of change accelerated exponentially starting in about 1400; by the Industrial Era it was a blur.
Which is why I’m terrified right now. We feel like change is happening at light speed. As a Historian, I can promise you — it’s at least Warp 6, and the dilithium crystals are nowhere near to overloading.
An example might help. To us, Victorian Britain looks like a colossus. We call it “the Victorian Age” for a reason, right? But Britain’s period of dominance was very, very short, historically speaking, at it certainly wasn’t uncontested. At its very apex — somewhat arbitrarily, but not unreasonably, let’s say 1880 — she was first among near-equals. A superpower, yes, but far from the only one.
Even there, she probably “lost” as many as she “won,” depending on how you want to describe the outcome of these none-but-a-field-specialist-has-ever-heard-of-most-of-them bush wars. Even the unquestioned victories — the gaudy ones like the Opium War — had less to do with British dominance than her enemies’ fecklessness and disorganization. Any group of wogs with their shit minimally together gave Britain some serious licks — ask the Afghans, victors of three wars against Her Majesty’s forces; or Chinese Gordon, killed losing a war to the Mahdi.
This is not intended to disparage our cousins across the pond — you’ll go a long way to find an outer-and-prouder Anglophile than yours truly. The point, rather, is to show that the rot set in even as the empire was reaching its height. Here’s that list of wars again. Any unquestioned, steamroller victories in there, anywhere past 1840? Let’s be generous, then, and say that the British Empire was arguably Europe’s dominant power for, at most, 60 years.
More to the point, they themselves felt it keenly at the time. The Boer War was a public relations disaster, not least because the Army had serious problems finding fit enough men to fill the ranks. The pop culture of the 1890s was grievously decadent, as they themselves complained of at the time. Indeed, the decadence pretty much caused World War I — just as the Kaiser felt himself declining relatively against the imperial powers, the British knew themselves declining absolutely versus Germany, math being what it is (Germany is many times larger than Great Britain, with a proportionally larger industrial capacity). “Fight now and risk defeat, or fight later when it’s guaranteed” was the unspoken argument on all sides in the war.
The United States was one of two superpowers for 40 years, and the only one for a mere decade. Moreover, much like Britain, the US hasn’t faced off against anything close to real enemy since 1945 (and even then only as part of a huge coalition). Unless you want to count expeditions to Panama, Grenada, and the like as glorious victories for our national arms, we’ve lost every “war” we’ve fought since then. (Note that saying “wars like Vietnam were unwinnable” is, if anything, a harsher judgment on us than a loss. Strong, self-confident powers don’t get into fights for which they have no clear objective. Consult that list of Britain’s imperial wars again — the wins were all basically punitive expeditions, not real wars).
So, too, with politics. It’s hard to say just what Britain was doing overseas from 1839, when she went to war to force the Chinese to pay back a bunch of English drug smugglers, to 1914, when she went to war for…. Belgian neutrality, I guess is the official reason. The “wars” that weren’t punitive expeditions seem like directionless, reactive flailing — moves based on what France or (especially) Russia might do, or to secure lines of communications into places they might possibly care about at some unspecified date in the future. Even Britain’s lifetime civil servants generally had no idea what the British were doing in India. It was a glorious day, when the sun never set on the British empire…. but, historically speaking, it was just a day.
I trust that the parallels to our current situation are obvious.
So, too, are the cultural parallels, and those are what will really do us in. A nation can lose a war or two and still be fine, but a loss in the cultural war is mortal. Matthew Arnold, the original Stodgy Old Conservative, was the last of a dying breed when he railed against the Philistines in 1869 — Walter Pater was the hot young thing then, and he was mere prelude to Oscar Wilde. Wilde’s sodomy trial was 1895 — just 26 years from “the best that has been thought and said” to “Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic].”
Anyone think we have anything close to 26 years left?
When the crisis comes, no one will be expecting it. The robot historians of 2119, though, will have a good chuckle at our folly. How could those fools not have seen it coming?Loading Likes...