Wednesday, June 02, 2004

On too much, and too little history 

There's a bit of history everywhere, even in the United States:

"Alberta Martin was 21 when she married 81-year-old former confederate soldier William Jasper Martin in the 1920s.

"The marriage of convenience ended almost five years later when Martin died, but his young bride lived long enough to earn the symbolically important title of last widow of a Civil War veteran.

"Dixie is in mourning after Mrs Martin died yesterday - fittingly on Memorial Day - after suffering a heart attack on May 7. She was 97."
When at the Versailles peace conference in 1919, the upstart Woodrow Wilson was starting to get on Clemenceau's nerves, the French Prime Minister put him in place with the line: "I've known men who have seen Napoleon with their own eyes." Well, Mrs Martin had lived with a man who might have seen General Lee with his own eyes.

Many Europeans still tend to snigger at the United States as the New World, devoid of its own history, and ignorant of others' history. But for all their castles, cathedrals and museums, should Europeans really flaunt their superiority? Europe today seems to me to be indeed divided into a New and an Old part, but not along the lines popularised by Donald Rumsfeld recently.

For the Old Europe the past is still very much a part of the present; for the New Europe, future is. The Old Europe remembers too much, the New Europe too little. The Old Europe is mostly composed of countries of eastern and southern Europe, which see themselves as victims of history. There, old grievances are still remembered and old glories still treasured. The past is valued because the present is so precarious and the future so uncertain. The heart of the New Europe on the other hand is largely in the western and the northern part of the continent, among nations who have transcended their past to enter into a post-modern utopia of timeless here and now. The past is quaint and charming, but only as a sprinkling of spice to make the diverse, multi-cultural dish even more colourful and exotic; it's a decoration, not a teaching tool that can offer valuable insights and lessons.

There's something to be said for either approach: too little history can be as bad as too much of it. The Western Europe has learned the latter lesson rather well. I fear that it will only learn the former the very heard way.


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?