Sunday, December 29, 2013

Déjà-vu All Over Again

Yogi Berra supposedly said, “Predictions are hard, especially about the future.” I say “supposedly” because he later cautioned, “I really didn't say everything I said. Then again, I might have said 'em, but you never know.” One prediction for the new year, now only a couple of days away, is easy though. 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War 1, a disaster from which the world never entirely recovered. So, we will be treated in upcoming months to a slew of books, movies, and documentaries on the subject. It is all to the good that we should hear the timeless warnings inherent in the events of that year, though whether or not we also shall heed them is another question.

In 1913 global living standards maintained their decades-long rise, international trade reached new heights, and liberal democracy (mostly in the form of constitutional monarchies) continued to extend its reach. Though life still was very harsh for most of the world’s population, a slow evolution toward better and more enlightened times seemed inevitable. The world’s leaders by and large got along congenially. At the wedding of Princess Victoria Louise and Prince Ernst August of Cumberland, the collegiate (and related) Kaiser Wilhelm II, King George V, and Nicholas II rubbed elbows pleasantly; George wore a Prussian uniform and Wilhelm wore a British one. A year later they were at war, and no one seemed to know exactly why. A series of miscalculations had escalated a limited regional skirmish into a general war that nobody wanted.

The Economist noted in a leader the other day some ominous similarities between 2014 and 1914. The USA plays the role of the British Empire, a superpower on the wane. The rapidly expanding power of China parallels the earlier growth of Germany. Japan is France, and so on. (The magazine doesn’t cast the role of Austria. Iran? North Korea? Or is one of those Serbia? How does Russia fit?) No one is looking for a general conflict in 2014, but there are unresolved international issues (minor in the scheme of things, but important to those involved) regarding territory and other matters; miscalculation and escalation over them are real possibilities. The most serious parallel danger with 1914, the leader suggests, is complacency – a general failure to recognize the hazards that can accompany a misstep. One big advantage we have over our ancestors in 1914 is a historical record of their mistakes. One hopes this will be enough.

Not all conflicts are international ones, of course. Some are strictly personal – sometimes entirely internal. My own private 1914 was in the 1990s. My 1916 too. A little less complacency would have helped there as well. I think I’ve learned the appropriate lessons, though. Then again, I might not have learned 'em, but you never know.

Down Below (Stay Down Here Where You Belong), written by Irving Berlin in 1914: Tiny Tim’s rendition. (I posted this once in 2011, but, hey, the blog is about repeating history)

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