Odds are very good that, if you are a human being who has interactions with other human beings, one of them did something to piss you off at some point. While it would be lovely if we all got along with each other, the sad truth is that humans have a strange fascination with being generally horrible to other humans. There will be no pictures here, because this is a serious discussion that I’m going to open in the most childish possible manner, and pictures would just be a distraction.
The temptation, as a rational, well-ordered person, is to swear unending blood feud against Joey for stealing your sandwich and calling you a nosepicker. You want to suckerpunch Joey in the gut a sufficiently large number of times that stupid Joey will no longer have his stupid gut, which he deserves because he’s stupid. However, Joey did those things when you were in Elementary school in a different country. While it was indeed dickish of Joey to do said things, it would also be very, very stupid of you to hold a grudge against him forever because of the stupid immature nonsense you both got into as children. Right? Good, glad we agree. For the record, the real Joey never stole any of my sandwiches, and he wasn’t entirely wrong in, er, gifting me with the epithet he chose. I would, however, point out there was an overgrown fat kid in our class who never showered. Hygiene standards were generally poor, so Joey, put a cork in it. Also, when an Autistic kid sucker-punches you hard enough that you burst into tears, you lose your bully card. You wuss.
But if somebody killed your great-great-great-grandfather in a mass genocide two hundred years ago, that absolutely justifies holding a grudge against the descendants of those people.Ha, well, no it doesn’t, actually, that’s ridiculous. Now, if that same group of people kept killing your ancestors on down the line for another hundred years, and then conveniently finished up just before they decided to develop a conscious and get on the road to policing the world, you might have reason to stay angry. Just in case none of you have figured it out yet, I’m referring to the U.S. government’s warm, loving massacre of Native Americans over the course of its entire existence prior to the 20th Century. That being said, the Spanish, British and French started it, and I’m seeing a remarkable lack of demands for reparations directed at any of their governments. What, the Conquistadors get a free pass because that was a different vast civilization that they wiped out? Real nice.
This brings me, once again, to my main point: remembering the past a bit too closely. There are a number of Russians still furious with the Germans 70 years after WW II. While understandable, I’m afraid it’s a little hard for anyone east of Warsaw to take Russian assertions of honesty seriously at this point. Even in the U.S., and believe me when I say we know a thing or two about being dishonest! Look at the whole mess with Snowden and the other whistleblowers- all that fuss on the Fed’s part, and no one gives a damn a few months down the line. It’s all passe. We here in the States are so used to the idea of our government being awful that we don’t even respond when it turns out that gee, a bloated bureaucracy with excessively broad and deep investigative powers sure leads to a lot of abuse of power.
Now that I’ve acknowledged the red, white and blue-striped elephant in the room, time to get back to the angry, aging red bear. And also the elephant, because I’m applying this point to the whole of humanity and more examples can’t hurt. Now see here: no one is denying that the Germans were kind of crappy in WW II, least of all the Germans, because they seem to be the only country that actually learned anything from that particular Best Dictator pageant. I as an American will state there are many things that the U.S. military’s own slice of the Greatest Generation did which I am not proud of. The internment camps- not cool. The war in the Pacific? As with the Russians, understandable, but still not cool. Just because our enemies were acting like dicks didn’t mean we had to return the favor. Unfortunately, many of my modern countrymen seem to have trouble with the idea of the U.S. being fallible. You know who else thought he was infallible? Napoleon. We all know how that went. Is typing ‘coughTYPHUScough’ too on the nose?
Actually, I don’t think that was a symptom of the particular strain of Typhus that dropped the Grand Armee. Moving right along, the most basic pattern I’m getting at is actually this: overreaction. Some Russians are still furious about something that happened 70 years ago, and wonder why the rest of the Eurasian continent doesn’t like them very much. If you’re going to complain about getting invaded, don’t keep invading other countries. No one likes a hypocrite; a hypocrite doesn’t even like himself, if forced to confront that fact. But here’s the other side; some Russians may be far too apologetic. I haven’t been to Russia, I don’t know precisely how bad things may or may not be there. It could be the apologists are fully in the right at the moment. Remember that whole thing were, in the aftermath of WW II, the German people were afraid to have any kind of national spirit because it might lead to more Nazis? That’s also an overreaction.
I said already that the worst thing about the mistakes of the past is that we don’t learn from them. Well, one of the things we have the most trouble learning is that we have to remember the past without becoming chained to it. Let me emphasize: remembering the past so it doesn’t repeat is good. But becoming so desperate to avoid repetition of those old ills that you don’t do anything new is just as bad. Nazism grew up in an environment of hopelessness and general cynicism in Germany, so an environment of hopelessness and total submission isn’t necessarily a surefire defense against it. Germany moved past all that. They are, in fact, a remarkably hard people to keep down. Erm, not that we were still trying, mind you. That I know of. Look, I have no idea what the CIA and NSA are up to. I barely even trust myself anymore, so I can’t tell you what the nutjobs in D.C. are up to. It’s outside my power. Which is effectively nil.
Bringing this all back around, look at the modern U.S. Do we still do some good? Absolutely. There’s plenty of humanitarian aid we send out, we still do decent scientific work, though I don’t know how our increasing national emphasis on concussion endorsement is going to affect that (The NFL is just a secret conspiracy to dumb us all down. You heard it here first!) Unfortunately, those things don’t really compensate for our growing poverty rate, outdated worldviews, excessive military interventionism, desperate refusal to maybe rein capitalism the fuck in a few feet, sweet heavens above just think of the corporations! and our ongoing indulgence in partisan rhetoric and bipartisan failure to do jack monkey squat about any of the above problems. Our problem here is similar but a tad different: we’re remembering better times, perhaps times that never really were, and insisting that our grass is still green when any idiot can see that the locusts are just too bloated to keep eating at the moment, and that our waters are still blue in spite of the vast stains of oil, industrial runoff and simple mud.
Because all humans really love our extremes. We absolutely adore them. And unfortunately, nationalism is extreme by its nature. No country is flawless; they never have been, and they never will be. But of the two mindsets, I’d rather the one that things are worse than they are, provided we use it to spur us into doing something. As long as we’re making some forward progress, it’s okay if we can’t see how far we’ve come from where we used to be. One day, we’ll look up from the dirt beneath us, and say, ‘Damn, this wheat field makes me want to write a sappy song. Hey, sap! That reminds me of amber!’ The alternative is to keep singing the Stars and Stripes while our fuel technology sinks from slightly outdated to laughably archaic and we keep fighting China for ‘Most Wasteful Breathers’. Fiddle while Rome burns? Ha, that’s nothing. Try playing College Football while Miami drowns.
And no, things aren’t that bad. Not yet. But they can be. We have to remember the past to learn from it. But there’s no point in standing on the shoulders of giants if you just keep stroking their hair and remarking on how shiny it is.