Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Time will tell 

"People often ask how history will remember our generation of leaders in comparison with the second world war leaders Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Many comment that today's leaders look small compared with the giants of the past. This is, I believe, a misconception. In their day, both Churchill and Roosevelt were frequently criticized, often savagely, by their fellow countrymen, including legislators who had little knowledge of the behind-the-scenes reality of the war."
So writes a preeminent, and arguably the most prolific British historian of his generation, Sir Martin Gilbert. With a multi-volume biography of Churchill and giant narrative histories of World War One, World War Two, the Holocaust and the twentieth century (not to mention significant number of "smaller" works) to his credit, Gilbert still possesses that precious quality, which seems increasingly absent from our manic world and even more manic discourse: perspective. Perhaps it comes naturally to this chronicler of four thousand years of Jewish history; maybe it's the consequence of his ability to seamlessly move between great historical forces and stories of individual suffering or triumph. Whatever it is, Gilbert is pretty lonely in the modern world where Nazi is a catch-all term for anything you don't like, every misdemeanor becomes a Holocaust, and every temporary setback merely a prelude to sky falling.

The passage of time will not be a panacea for the current condition of historical shortsightedness and ignorance. After all, there is hardly a historic event that is still not subject to controversy and debate. But like a steady river, it will eventually remove all the daily garbage choking up the view. It's only five, ten or fifty years on that we will know whether the intervention in Iraq has been a success - certainly not now. The same can be said for the question of greatness or otherwise of our current leaders. In the meantime though, not having the benefit of hindsight on the present day events, I could only pray that more of our contemporaries living in their eternal present, with little awareness of context or precedent, could take a little sip or two from the fountain of history and realize that they're only splashing around on the edge of an ocean.


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