Tag Archives: 20th century history

Trump and the Terror of History

In my work on the post-war historico-biblical epic, I talk a lot about the “terror of history.” It’s a term with a lot of baggage and ideological weight, first mentioned by the philosopher of religion Mircea Eliade is his book Myth of the Eternal Return and taken up by the historian Theofilo F. Ruiz in his book The Terror of history:  On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization. It’s a provocative term precisely because it encapsulates so much of what we know, subconsciously at least, to be true about the processes of history.

They are, in a word, terrifying.

By terrifying I mean many things, but the thing I want to focus on here is the sense that the movement of history forward seems to always be beyond the ability of the individual human being to either comprehend in its totality or to effect in any meaningful way. An unfortunate side-effect of this is also the sense that those left in the path of history are often the most victimized and marginalized. The march of history, and also its cycles, often brutalize human life in ways and at a scale that are truly horrifying to contemplate. One cannot help but think of the philosopher Hegel’s infamous suggestion that history is the slaughter bench of humanity, the altar upon which collective humanity sacrifices those whom it wants to be rid of. While the 20th Century is often shown to be a truly horrific period in that regard, boy is the 21st giving it a run for its money.

Of course, we on the Left like to believe that history, with all of its horrors and all of its perpetual uncertainty, is a steady and relentless move forward toward a more just and peaceful world. We like to believe, to paraphrase Dr. King, that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. We like to believe, sometimes we have to believe, that somehow everything will turn out okay in the end, that the better angels of our nature will take over and we will somehow learn to show compassion to our fellow humans. That somehow the compassion that seems to be hardwired into the mammal brain will overcome the brutal reptilian id that always seems to lurk at the corners of our collective consciousness, ready to strike out with fangs and claws and rend the fabric of civilization, reducing it to primal shreds.

However, as scholars like Tobias Stone have shown, there is a certain terrifying circularity to the workings of human events. We as a species seem determined to enter into periods of enormous and catastrophic destruction of our own kind. We just can’t seem to help ourselves. We just keep wanting to repeat the same mistakes over and over and over again, grinding ourselves up in the relentless wheel of time’s turning. Whereas Eliade argued that the terror of history came from the abandonment of the circular notions of time prevalent in many archaic societies (his problematic term) in favour of the relentless forward momentum of modernity, to my eye it is the circularity that is the truly terrifying understanding of time. How can we go on, when we know that any progress we made is destined to meet the same resistance as it always has, forcing us to take a giant three steps back for every step forward?

The terrifying nature of Trumpian history is more than just the candidate himself. It is also the tide of red–of white conservatism, of bloodthirsty savagery–that threatens to inundate us. Part of it can be quantified, of course. One need look no further than the hundreds of stories of racial and gendered assault that flooded social media and various nonprofits in the days since the election. Words that were formerly and rightly decried as hate speech have now been given new license to exist out in the open, validated by a presidential candidate who used “political correctness” as a clarion call for all the white nationalists, xenophobes, anti-semites, misogynists, and homophobes to come out of the woodwork and loudly and proudly declare themselves liberated from the chains of civilized discourse. This is a red tide that threatens to drown all those who would see the world a better, more just world.

And though many have focused (with good reason) on the fear of minorities in this new era of Trump, the consequences of Trump’s victory for the war against climate change are even more terrifying to contemplate. We know we are living in the anthropocene, and now that powerful force has a name and a face, and it is Donald J. Trump. The United States of America, supposedly the telos of history’s forward progress toward a cleaner, more sustainable planet, has now turned its back on that progress. We have, through our election of this man and his party, abrogated our responsibility as a global power and unleashed a new and even more terrifying period of history.

So what do we do with ourselves now that we live in this era in which the terror of history has once again threatened to grind us up and leave behind a trail of bodies (both literal and metaphorical?) Do we simply abandon ourselves to the seeming inevitability of decline and destruction that seems to loom on the horizon, blazing and frothing at every opportunity.

The short answer is:  of course not. If there is a silver lining to this entire horror, it is that perhaps Trump will indeed galvanize the Left. If Hillary Clinton’s impending victory in the popular vote–which looks to be quite substantial, by the way–is any indication, there are a lot more on our side than there are supporting the terrifying creature now poised to occupy the White House. However, it does not have to stay that way. We really do have an unparalleled opportunity to show ourselves and the world that we are a country of thinking, critical citizens and that, when we band together, we truly are stronger together.

Review: “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”

While thinking about this blog post, I originally thought about titling it “Captain America and the Negotiation of 20th Century History,” but I decided that might make a better journal article title, so I opted for the simpler “Review.”  Boring it may be, but it cuts to the point.

Still, upon viewing the most recent entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I was struck by the ways in which Captain America:  The Winter Soldier, in addition to its thoughtful (and at least slightly progressive) ruminations on the meaning of freedom and terrorism, also serves as a reflection upon the course of 20th Century world history, with all of its horrors, wars, famines and, to use one of the film’s favourite words, “chaos.”  In essence, the film uses the fictive (we hope) organization HYDRA to corral the seemingly unconnected and devastating events of the 20th Century into a larger grand narrative.

For those who have not seen Captain America:  The Winter Soldier, a bit of summary is in order.  Sandwiched between several lengthy (and superbly edited and choreographed fight scenes), the film suggests that most of the atrocities (wars, famines, violent political coups, etc.) that have troubled the 20th Century are the direct result of the machinations of the sinister organization HYDRA, who intends to use these events to persuade the world’s population to willingly surrender its freedom so that the leaders of the organization can establish a new world order.  Wrapped within this traditional comic book narrative (not that there is anything wrong with that, mind you), there is a serious, and perhaps not entirely intentional, reflection on how we in the 21st Century make sense of the events that have led up to and shaped our current global political climate.

By ascribing often-unconnected political and social atrocities and upheavals to a unified source, Captain America clearly attempts to make sense of a world that seems to rigourously and consistently deny such desires for lucidity, reason, and order.  After all, we live in an age of irony and postmodernism, where the grand narratives of progress that shaped so much of the 20th Century (or so we have always believed) no longer possess their explanatory power.  Just as we want to think there are still heroes that we can wholeheartedly believe (such as Captain America and his compatriots) and a social world where such a thing as justice actually exists, we also want to believe that the seemingly random acts of violence and genocide that have taken and continue to take the lives of millions of people have some underlying meaning or cause, no matter how sinister.  Otherwise, they represent a dark, fatalistic, and almost nihilistic world with which it is very difficult, if not impossible, to cope with on a conscious level.  Just as importantly, the fact that the film ascribes so much of HYDRA’s success to the work of Nazi scientists further solidifies its moral position.  By evoking the shadow of Nazism, in particular its use of science, the film grants 21st Century audiences, especially those in the U.S., a firm moral ground from which to consider the vicissitudes of recent world history.

In other words, Captain America seems to express a deep cultural need to make sense of a century’s worth of horrible atrocities that, in our postmodern age, seem to possess no overarching (or underlying) meaning through which we can make sense of them.  By displacing all of them onto a powerful organization seeking world domination (and, they claim, “order,”) one that has clear ties to the Nazis, the film allows 21st Century audiences, hungry perhaps for meaningfulness, something to hold onto.  The question that hovers just in the background, however, is:  how responsible or ethical is this (re)presentation of history?  What is gained or lost in attempting to ascribe so many events to a single, sinister, obviously evil organization?  These are not easy questions to answer, but they are necessary if we as a culture and a social body are to to engage meaningfully and ethically with the world in which we live.