Belmont Club

The Problem of the Dead

In his famous short story The Sound of Thunder, Ray Bradbury argued the present stood perched on the past. At birth, our parents, the hospital delivery room, the light bulb screwed into the ceiling — the crib itself — all had to precede our arrival there. Someone or something had to set them out beforehand — or they wouldn’t be there. In his famous story time-traveling fictional dinosaur hunters are admonished to stay on the anti-gravity path and disturb nothing, save only the beast who was already known to have died in the next minute by the agency falling of a gigantic tree branch. They are strictly warned against changing anything in the past, lest they alter the future unpredictably.

“We don’t want to change the Future. We don’t belong here in the Past. The government doesn’t like us here. We have to pay big graft to keep our franchise. A Time Machine is finicky business. Not knowing it, we might kill an important animal, a small bird, a roach, a flower even, thus destroying an important link in a growing species.”

“That’s not clear,” said Eckels.

“All right,” Travis continued, “say we accidentally kill one mouse here. That means all the future families of this one particular mouse are destroyed, right? … And all the families of the families of the families of that one mouse! With a stamp of your foot, you annihilate first one, then a dozen, then a thousand, a million, a billion possible mice!”

“So they’re dead,” said Eckels. “So what?”

“So what?” Travis snorted quietly. “Well, what about the foxes that’ll need those mice to survive? For want of ten mice, a fox dies. For want of ten foxes a lion starves. For want of a lion, all manner of insects, vultures, infinite billions of life forms are thrown into chaos and destruction. Eventually it all boils down to this: fifty-nine million years later, a caveman, one of a dozen on the entire world, goes hunting wild boar or saber-toothed tiger for food. But you, friend, have stepped on all the tigers in that region. By stepping on one single mouse. So the caveman starves. And the caveman, please note, is not just any expendable man … with the death of that one caveman, a billion others yet unborn are throttled in the womb. Perhaps Rome never rises on its seven hills. Perhaps Europe is forever a dark forest, and only Asia waxes healthy and teeming. Step on a mouse and you crush the Pyramids. Step on a mouse and you leave your print, like a Grand Canyon, across Eternity. Queen Elizabeth might never be born, Washington might not cross the Delaware, there might never be a United States at all. So be careful. Stay on the Path. Never step off!”

Since Bradbury’s day changing the past — or at least charging for it — has become a modern obsession.  Caroline Glick recently reviewed Ari Shavit’s bestselling book, My Promised Land. In it she argues that one of its principal attractions is it presents the opportunity for American Jews to redeem the past.  The book describes an Israel born in original sin and in need of salvation.

Like Exodus, Shavit’s My Promised Land has been a runaway success … unlike Exodus, Shavit’s tale of Israel is not one of heroism, determination, faith and gumption. Rather, Israel’s tale is morally ambiguous. Israel is a country born in sin and its subsequent history has been immiserated by tribalism, fanaticism, displacement, and war crimes. …

By portraying Israel as a country that is morally deficient, Shavit gave the American Jewish community two gifts. First he gave them a way to feel morally superior, and therefore patronizing towards Israel. Israel, they can say, committed a massacre – and did so because its founding ideology is poisonous. American Jews would never do such a thing. But out of the kindness of their hearts, like Shavit, they will continue to love this unworthy cousin.

The second gift Shavit gave the American Jewish community was the ability to feel comfortable refusing to be inconvenienced for Israel.

In this connection it is also interesting to read Peter Beinart’s article, U.S. Jews must save their people’s honor, which Israel is putting at stake. In this type of storyline Israel’s past has saddled it with a debt to Arab Muslims. What Arabs owe the Jews or each other is less clear. Let’s leave this issue for now, except to note the problem is not particular to Israel. America was also born in original sin, something which the press emphasizes every day. Are there thousands of Central Americans on the southern border? It’s only the result of Columbus’ original sin.  Nile Gardiner argues that president Obama has made a career out of apologizing for America’s past.

No leader in American history has gone to greater lengths than Barack Obama to make amends for his own country. From condemnation of American “arrogance” in a speech in Strasbourg to acknowledging U.S. “mistakes” before millions of Muslims on Arab television, Obama has rarely missed an opportunity to apologise for the actions of the American people.

President Obama has elevated the art of national self-loathing to new heights, and seems to delight in prostrating the most powerful nation on the face of the earth before its critics and rivals, especially on foreign soil. The Obama worldview revolves around the central premise that the United States must be humble and “engage” and work with its enemies through the application of “smart power”. There is nothing smart, however, in appeasing rogue states such as North Korea or Iran.

And that’s a land office business. But it’s not just Israel and America that are working off a debt. The panorama of ethnic conflict roiling the world is sustained by a mountain of grievance. The Sunnis seek justice from the Shi’ites as do the Shi’ites from the Sunnis. The Kurds have their complaints, as the do Copts, Armenians, the Tutsi and the Hutu.  Everyone owes everyone. And in trying to collect they are killing each other at a rate of knots. Once we go down the road of remaking the past we may find there is altogether too much original sin to ever set to rights.

Which really raises the question of how novel the insights of Shavit and Beinart are. For how is the charge of “Palestinian killer” any different from the discredited accusation of  “Christ killer” except that it swaps the name of one victim for another?  To posit the existence of a “special debt” you first have to answer, ‘who is special’?

Brook Wilensky-Lanford has an interesting article in the New Republic which basically says America was not only born in sin but in a lie.

According to Ray Raphael’s Founding Myths, a collection of primary-source documents assembled to counter the too-simple stories found in elementary and secondary school textbooks, we have the American Revolution wrong literally from beginning to end—mistakes that reveal a lot about American attitudes toward radicalism and military intervention. …

Where Founding Myths is meant as a broad corrective to the historical record, Matthew Stewart’s Nature’s God: The Heretical Foundations of the American Republic bets all its chips on a founding myth that, studies by the Public Religion Research Institute have shown, more than half of Tea Party members believe: that our Founding Fathers were religious men, and that America is therefore a “Christian nation.” … Many founding documents are, to be sure, dressed up in Christian language. …

[But it’s not true] … It’s a fight that matters. Since 1997, the right has been making a coordinated and persistent effort to pass varieties of a species of law that redefines the term “religious liberty” in a way that is directly contradictory to this understanding of the founders’ intentions. …

Before the Hobby Lobby ruling, perhaps the most salient example of this redefinition was in Texas in 2010, where the Pat Robertson–founded American Center for Law and Justice defended a municipal bus driver who sued the government on civil rights charges when he was forced to resign after refusing to drop off a woman at Planned Parenthood, on his scheduled route, because he claimed it violated his religious beliefs as a “Christian minister.” The founders purposely relegated religion to the private sphere, as every individual’s natural right to freedom of mind would compel. But by diligent effort, the right has effectively translated “religious liberty” as “the right of conservative Christians to impose their private religion on the public discourse.” Now, the Supreme Court has handed the right a huge victory for this understanding of the term.

So after all these years of thinking you knew who your parents were, along comes the Left to say: those aren’t your parents.  The truth is you’re a bastard. No, it’s worse than that. If only the Founders could speak they would mandate abortifacients under Obamacare. Like Darth Vader in the movie the Left strings you out on a limb then offers a gauntleted hand saying “Luke, I am your father.”

The past is too complicated to untangle. Probably realizing this, Jefferson argued that men are not bound by the dead. “The earth belongs in usufruct to the living … the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.” This is a tremendously liberating idea because it frees us to live according to the facts as we find them. The key word in Jefferson is usufruct “under which it is a subordinate real right (or in rem right) (ius in re aliena) of limited duration, usually for a person’s lifetime.”

Then no man can by natural right oblige the lands he occupied, or the persons who succeed him in that occupation, to the payment of debts contracted by him. For if he could, he might during his own life, eat up the usufruct of the lands for several generations to come, and then the lands would belong to the dead, and not to the living, which would be reverse of our principle.

Jefferson’s great insight is that all decisions in this world are marginal cost decisions; and if we feel free to heap deficit spending on the future to remember the children will also be free to repudiate it. The paramount question we should be concerned with is not whether slavery was evil, but whether a black man living in America today can make a better life than in the Congo; whether Israel is better replaced by the Palestinian authority. For we cannot change the past; it is useless to try and even more useless to make a career of it. Even if it were possible to change the past, Bradbury argues there is no guarantee that the resulting alternative future would be any better.

Our task must to leave the world better than we found it, not to remake it from the foundations. That doesn’t mean the past is gone, but it lacks the special quality of activity. The dead are already costed into the present. They’ve set out the crib, screwed in the lightbulb, defeated Hitler; they were present at our birth and will always be more influential than we can ever know. Moreover they still whisper to us through the agency of written history, which as GK Chesterton points out in his essay Orthodoxy,  can counsel us wisely.

Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.

Still the dead are ghosts, gathered unto the hand of the Father. The earth belongs to the living, to either bring to fruition or screw up. And then they too shall be ghosts and their part in the tale ended though the road goes ever on.  A combat veteran of the Great War once wrote:

It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule. … All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

Note to the dinosaurs. Always look out for falling tree branches.


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