Quote of The Week

“If we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed and tolerance with them.”

Karl Popper


Archives

Dangerous Planet

Earth Day arrives this week, so what should we do? Back in the 1970s, when Earth Day began, the answer was fairly simple: plant a tree, raise consciousness, promote cleaner air and water. It was a ritual of purification and celebration, a day for us to show how concerned we were about the deterioration of our environment, and our (perhaps naïve) determination to put things right.

Now it’s more daunting. Global warming is a mega problem. A few hybrids and windmills won’t solve it, let alone devious evasions like carbon credits. We need to change completely how we live – no more long distance flying, no more pointless short car trips, no more thermostats set to our perfect comfort zone three hundred and sixty-five days a year. The penalty for failing to change these habits, so we’re told, will be a new and more comprehensive version of Noah’s flood, with Long Island one of the first places to go under.

This is definitely something worth worrying about. But are we really going to change how we live? I should give up my car, become a vegetarian, and live in a tent but I won’t. I should reduce my carbon footprint, but that’s harder than reducing my waistline. The habits of a lifetime don’t change so easily. As the water rises I guarantee that we’ll see the first amphibious SUV’s splashing down the street towards the Mall, gulping gas at fifty dollars a gallon.

Global warming must take its place in the hierarchy of human problems and, given a choice of problems, we will always prefer the ones that cause the least personal inconvenience. So why worry about global warming when the cosmos itself is such a dangerous place? Here we are, zipping through infinite space on a ball of dirt so small that even the most intelligent aliens have never noticed it. Every day astronomers report exploding stars and the annihilation of whole galaxies in unimaginable collisions. The Andromeda Galaxy is headed our way at eighty-seven miles a second, and killer comets and asteroids are coming at us like paintballs from all directions, at about twenty-six thousand miles an hour. We are threatened by giant cosmic clouds of poison dust, and super-magnetic neutron stars and the latest speculation by scientists is that a rogue “bubble universe” made of phantom energy could appear out of nowhere and gobble up the earth quicker than Washington gobbles up our tax dollars. Then there’s the giant Hadron Collider in Geneva, which could create an uncontrollable black hole that would swallow the planet in a matter of seconds, if the bubble universe and poison clouds don’t get us first.

All this is rather disturbing, but at least it puts the anxiety about global warming in proper perspective, somewhere between cholesterol and the credit crunch. There’s nothing to be done about vast cosmic threats like exploding galaxies, so we can worry about them, as it were, free of charge. There’s no need to make any changes in the way we live.

But global warming and climate change are not at all like science fiction. They seem to demand dramatic action – but what? Remember the slogan coined by Friends of the Earth: “Think globally, act locally”? It set me thinking about that sly fox Voltaire. In his comic masterpiece Candide Voltaire created a character who suffered every conceivable disaster and never quite gave up his optimism. But at the very end of the book, Candide concluded that the world was a madhouse, and there was nothing to be done except act locally. “We must cultivate our garden,” he declared, meaning we must just get on with it and do what we can where we are.

It’s not exactly a rousing slogan, but it’s probably all that most of us individually can do on Earth day: plant a tree, or maybe some rice, buy a recyclable shopping bag, get the old bicycle out, cultivate our gardens – just do what we can.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Nostalgia Industry

For ten years the television series Downton Abbey was the flagship carrier of international nostalgia. Then it ended, to great lamentation among its hundred and twenty million worldwide viewers. Now it’s coming back, and fans are gripped by a kind of pre-emptive nostalgia at the thought of seeing it all over again. It is a genuine cultural phenomenon. New or recycled historical series had already begun to fill the gap, including classics like Upstairs Downstairs, and pastiches like Dickensian. In Britain, the production of decorative nostalgia is a kind of cottage industry. They must have warehouses full of eighteenth and nineteenth-century costumes.

I have nothing at all against Downton Abbey. It is a superior soap opera, beautifully produced, and a work of art in its own way. I watched a few episodes of the first series, and quite enjoyed it. But I couldn’t bring myself to believe in it. My grandmother worked as a maid in one of those great houses at the turn of the nineteenth century, and her stories about it were more like Dickens than Downton. It was a cruel world and a hard life.

Nostalgia never has much to do with reality. While enjoying these colorful tales we know full well that the past was very much like the present, only worse. But the idea of a Golden Age is endlessly seductive. Two thousand years ago the Greeks and the Romans looked back with nostalgia to the Age of Heroes. Five hundred years ago, during the Renaissance, Europeans looked back to the Golden Age of the Greeks and Romans, and so it goes. Every nation has its own tales of a glorious past that never really existed. History is a bottomless source of inspiring but unlikely plots, as Shakespeare knew very well. England in the fourteenth century was captivated by ancient and fantastic tales about King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. America has its myths of cowboys in the Wild West, although some seem to find the Puritans of New England more appealing. The followers of the Islamic State believe that the tenth century was pretty much ideal.

If we are going to visit the past at all, fiction is the way to do it. In fiction, the chaos of life is put into proper narrative order. It makes sense, which it never did at the time. But serious history books are hard work, and the best place to experience the reality of the fantasy is on television where we can admire the architecture and the costumes and not get too bogged down in the messy details.

Not all fictional portrayals of the past are warm and fuzzy, of course. Many of them revel in the sheer horror of it, and I haven’t seen an optimistic film about the future since Woody Allen’s “Sleeper.” If Hollywood is to be believed, the future will be all about apocalypses, barbarism, screaming teenagers, and giant armored vehicles racing across devastated landscapes. If that future ever comes, we will be remembered as the Golden Age.

Who wouldn’t prefer gentle dramas from an imagined past, like Downton Abbey? The series author, Lord Fellowes, seems to be a nice chap. I do hope that he will give his new fairy tale an old-fashioned happy ending.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Vacation Dreams

Spring would normally be a busy time for the travel industry, but not this year. The vacations of 2019 have almost faded from memory, and we can hardly wait. A few advertisements are just beginning to hint at how the golden weeks of summer can be enjoyed, at a price. Right now, when we so much want to get away, almost any price seems worth paying.

Vacations are as much a matter of personal taste as food or music. One person’s perfect getaway is another’s worst nightmare. So the huge vacation market is roughly divided between packages that offer comfortable and familiar experiences and those that promote getaways that are new and challenging – between relaxation on the one hand and stimulation on the other. There is also a large intermediate category of trips like European river cruises, that promise travel on calm waters, with a boat full of people just like ourselves, familiar food and comfortable surroundings, gliding at a safe distance through an exotic landscape full of foreigners, some of whom may be persuaded to pose for souvenir photographs. This is obviously the best of both worlds.

Actually, I’d rather like to take one of those river cruises, they sound so relaxing. But they also seem a bit tame, and I feel that I’m not being adventurous enough in my old age. There are so many parts of the world I haven’t seen, and the travel industry has been there ahead of me, preparing for me as it were. Every exotic locale has been exploited to the maximum. No island is too isolated, no culture is too peculiar, no activity is too bizarre to be promoted by the tourist industry as a unique travel experience. There is not a remote tribe or an endangered species that doesn’t have its own group of tourists, cameras poised to record the moment. The exotic has become the mundane – bungee jumping in the Sahara, surfing in Antarctica. When everyone it seems has walked on the Great Wall of China or herded wild guinea pigs in Peru, it is very hard to find something different on a small planet.

Vacations are escape attempts. Their purpose is to convince us at all costs – and the costs are often huge – that we really have left the routine world and that this is not just more of the same. Hence the market for so-called adventure holidays keeps on growing, although it’s actually nothing new. Forty years ago when I had a lot of hair and an enviable suntan I worked for an adventure holiday outfit based in London. My job was to be a driver and guide for small groups of intrepid, and sometimes marginally insane tourists who wanted to see the real Greece, the real Turkey, the real Russia, or the real Morocco. If “real” means dirty, desolate, and totally lacking in amenities we certainly delivered on that promise. The “adventures” consisted mainly in surviving or even recognizing the food, trying to sleep in our collapsing tents, and being driven by a “guide” – namely myself – who had no sense of direction and bad eyesight. Nobody ever booked a second trip with that company.

But there is no true escape without a little effort. A vacation should include excitement, discomfort, uncertainty and risk. It’s exactly what we need to take us out of this claustrophobic pandemic world. Or, perhaps more precisely, it’s what you need. I’ve already been there, and done that.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Going to the Shops

Most of us I think remember bits and pieces from our childhood, but not the whole thing. One of the bits I remember is a ritual I shared with my mother three or four times a week. It was called “Going to the shops.”

“Going to the shops.” was not the same as shopping. Shopping was entertainment, and I never learned to do it properly. But going to the shops was serious.

London at that time was more like a series of villages. Every district had its own main street, and most of the residents bought their food and other necessities there, walking from shop to shop because very few of us had a car. This ritual has stayed in my memory when so many other things have been forgotten, and I can remember those morning walks virtually shop by shop.

The first place we encountered after turning on to the main street was the best: Mr. Pask’s bicycle shop, a dark cave of a place smelling of oil and rubber and full of infinitely desirable machines. There was a repair shop in the back, forbidden to customers. I had read in a book that the Wright Brothers had discovered the secret of flight in a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, and I always wondered what Mr. Pask was doing in his hidden workshop. My friends and I favored the theory that he was working on a pedal-powered helicopter.

Next to the bicycle shop was a candy shop that sold loose candy from big glass jars and fizzy drinks in bright colors – disgusting but always worth a visit. And then some rather boring establishments, a butcher, a baker, a fish shop, and a grocer, each with its own rich odor, and where we always had to wait. Then there was a photographer whose place was almost as full of interesting sights and smells as the bicycle shop, a general electrical store, a wool shop much patronized by my mother, a shop that sold everything including army surplus items, fresh eggs, and radio sets, an old-fashioned hardware store, a shoe repair shop full of antique machinery and warm leather smells and finally a newsagent’s shop that was an exploding cornucopia of brightly colored magazines and comics.

Small businesses like these are losing or have lost the battle against the big box supermarkets on the edge of town. Now everyone wants one-stop shopping. What I used to do with my mother in those distant days was more like ten stop shopping, and it was certainly not efficient. But we used no fuel, created no pollution, and got a whole lot of exercise.

You can still find old-fashioned shopping streets in some small towns. Along the main street of our nearest town in France, in spite of all the boutiques selling overpriced clothes and tourist items, the shadow of the old, practical main street is still visible. There is the hardware store, the photographer, the electrical store, the wool shop, numerous food and wine shops, pharmacies, newsagents, a peculiar place that sells only knives, dog leashes, and walking sticks, a laundry, a small bookstore, and even bicycle and shoe repair shops tucked away on a side street – everything we could ever need, if we hadn’t learned to need so much.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Plumbing the Depths

There is no emergency like a water emergency. When the plumbing fails, we panic. It brings out our most primitive fears. We inevitably think about Noah’s flood and the final deluge. When water runs out of control indoors we have the worst kind of domestic crisis.

The typical suburban house provides plenty of opportunities to panic. Basements flood, cesspools collapse, valves, pipes, and faucets disintegrate without warning, and drains block up for no reason at all. For those accustomed to French plumbing, this is business as usual. But, in America, our whole lives depend on the assumption that plumbing should be perfect. In Manhattan, people who suffer from bad plumbing simply call the janitor and go straight to their therapist. Here in the suburbs, we must take responsibility for our own plumbing disasters.

Plumbers are a suburban aristocracy, like firefighters. They are heroic, almost mythical figures, with their elusive habits and their vast estates in the Hamptons. People whisper the names of favored plumbers like those of elite cosmetic surgeons or particularly successful brokers.

We used to have an excellent plumber called Joe, which is the perfect name for a plumber. Joe always arrived promptly in his ancient truck, which leaked oil all over the driveway. We assumed that the Mercedes stayed discreetly in his garage at home. He tackled the latest catastrophe with a skeptical air of one who had seen it all before, and indeed had waded in it all before. According to Joe, there were only two kinds of plumbing emergencies: water that appears in the wrong place at the wrong time, or water that refuses to go away. Water is the plumber’s enemy – nasty, slippery stuff with that alarming tendency to find its own level that we learned about in science class at school. I never quite understood how water knows what its level should be. But, in our house, it is always about three inches above the floor of the basement.

Joe’s diagnostic skills were reassuring. Like a physician, he began with a standard catechism of questions:

“When did the trouble start?”
“Did you notice any symptoms before that?”
“Have you heard any gurgling sounds right here?”
“Have your bathroom habits changed lately?”

Being slightly deaf, he ignored the answers and headed straight for the basement carrying what seemed to be his only tool – a huge wrench which also served as a hammer, a crowbar, and a kind of conducting baton to accompany his lectures on hydraulics, pressure, gravity, and the inadvisability of flushing major household appliances down the toilet. When the job was done he would invariably apologize profusely for the bill

Joe retired and went to his reward in Florida or on the French Riviera, and it has been hard to replace him. Big companies have overwhelmed the independent plumber, much as they have the swept independent family doctors into health care corporations. The plumbing companies are efficient. They send a big shiny truck full of equipment, and what is now called a “technician” with an iPad full of instructions and a cell phone to call the chief plumber back at headquarters if things go wrong. These technicians speak more politely than Joe ever did, but they seem to have a kind of script to follow. “I am Sebastian, and I will be your plumber today.” They have an annoying tendency to recommend new repairs, new spare parts, and new equipment. Joe would always fix the old worn out stuff somehow, like the traditional family doctor. Instead of a heart bypass, a few rubber washers or an aspirin would do the job. And there’s another thing. I’ve noticed that the brave new water management technicians of the brave new twenty-first century
never, ever, apologize for the bill.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Read it Out Loud

The habit of reading aloud to children is slowly fading away. Busy parents prefer to settle their little darlings down with the TV or a video. As the beneficiary of countless hours of reading aloud by my parents, this seems like a shame to me. Not only was it a very warm and companionable thing, but it made me see my parents as magical storytellers, so I have admired storytellers ever since. My father was a particularly good reader, having a resonant voice, good timing, and a gift for imitation. The family myth is that, at a very young age, I learned all my favorite stories by heart, so they could never get away with skipping a page, or even a single line.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was normal for literate families to read aloud to each other, just as it was normal for them to play music together. Now the mass media have made those sociable habits largely redundant. Most of us, if called upon to read from Shakespeare, or even from the morning paper, will make a sad mess of it. We don’t have the skills that come from having the habit.

Yet how reassuring it is to hear a familiar voice beginning a familiar story. The voice draws us in, as plain print does not. We can lift our eyes from the printed page, the smallest distraction is enough to break its spell. But a voice holds our attention.

“The mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters, then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms.”

That’s the opening of Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows ,the story of a mole, a water rat, a toad and their friends in the English countryside. I loved that book as a child, and knew every word. Now I want it to go on, to hear how Mole abandoned his spring cleaning and burrowed up into the sunshine and met the water rat, and all about their adventures. But I want someone else to read it to me, I want to hear it.

Familiar opening lines draw us in like a magnet.

“Old Marley was dead to begin with, there was no doubt whatsoever about that.”

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

“For a long time I would go to bed early. Sometimes, the candle barely out, my eyes closed so quickly that I did not have time to tell myself: ‘I’m falling asleep.’”

“Call me Ishmael.”

Most book addicts will recognize all those openings without difficulty, and that’s the point. They stand for the whole unfolding story, the story that we know already and we want to hear again, like a child at bedtime.

So for some real old-fashioned entirely free home entertainment this season of isolation, choose a good story, preferably a mystery or a ghost story, gather your audience, and read it out loud.

Copyright: David Bouchier

It’s Cold

Despite the teasing promise of global warming we still have to suffer through winter every year. There’s something quite scary about a long spell of cold weather. It’s a harsh reminder that we are living on a slightly warm ball of rock in the middle of an infinite space where the temperature is around minus two hundred and fifty degrees centigrade, just a few clicks of the thermostat above absolute zero. It felt close to absolute zero here the other day, when I was outside scraping ice off the car. The cold began to seep into me and I thought: a person could die in this, and of course people do.

Some years ago we were living in a small house on Long Island during just such a freezing spell when the heating failed completely. We called the repairman, but so had everyone else. The house just got colder, and colder, and colder. There was no fireplace, and we had no electric heaters. We huddled under blankets with the cat, suddenly as vulnerable as homeless people – except that we had a car outside, and could go somewhere safe if things got really bad. How fragile our comfortable lives can be! One faulty machine, one over-stressed system, and nature reclaims her territory, and her temperature.

Human civilization began in warm, welcoming places. What madness brought us to this unpredictable latitude, where just dealing with the weather takes up so much time and money? We spend months in summer trying to stay cool at enormous expense, and waste months in winter dealing with and paying for snow and ice. Even now I can hear the furnace down in the basement, slurping oil like an elephant at a water hole. Hundreds of thousands of other furnaces on Long Island and in Connecticut and all over the northern part of the country are gulping oil just as greedily. Perhaps invading Iraq wasn’t such a bad move after all. We need every drop of oil under the surface of the planet, just to keep warm and keep driving to the supermarket.

The Pilgrim Fathers understood their mistake soon as they landed at Plymouth Rock. Half of them died during their first winter in New England. But they stubbornly refused to make the obvious decision and head back to the temperate climate of Old England. Surely any amount of religious persecution would have been better than this annual meteorological persecution? Just because we can live somewhere doesn’t mean that we should, any more that “All you can eat” equates with “All you should eat.” Somewhere between the possibility and the decision, common sense should intervene. It’s significant that, when people grow old and acquire wisdom, they immediately move to Florida.

Those of us who remain in the northeast are the true inheritors of the stubborn Puritan tradition that allowed these bleak latitudes to be populated in the first place. Humans are fond of inhabiting places unfit for habitation. Las Vegas, for example, is about as sustainable in the long run as a base camp on Mars. It’s one of the strongest arguments I know against human rationality. Would rational creatures live in Maine or Alaska or the Scottish Hebrides? They would not. A truly rational race of creatures would confine its activities between latitudes 30 North and 30 South, and leave the rest of the earth to animals with lots of fur, cross-country skiers, and heating oil salesmen.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Love Letters

I received a real letter from a real person, written by hand on paper and enclosed in an envelope with a stamp. This was an event. In fact, the letter was such an unexpected object that it was almost thrown out with the daily heap of junk mail from corporations and fundraisers. What a nostalgic pleasure it was to slit open the envelope, unfold the sheets, and just read the message without having to plug anything in or enter a password.

The dying art of letter writing received a fine elegy in the form of a book by Thomas Mallon called Yours Ever, in which he introduced us to many of the great letter-writers of the past: Flaubert, Freud, the Mitfords, Thomas Jefferson, and many more. “Past” is the operative word. We don’t do letters anymore. This is a disaster for future historians because letters are our long-term memory, and it’s a sad loss for all of us. Letters brought news from the family, stories from travelers, ideas and opinions from friends, and best of all love messages. Every delivery was precious and potentially exciting.

Letters were precious because they were so personal. The mere fact of writing a letter implied that you cared enough to spend the time and that you had something more meaningful on your mind than a greeting card message. At this romantic time of year, love letters should be flying thick and fast. Instead, we send pre-printed mass-produced Valentines with messages like this: to my wife: “You pick up after me/And arrange things in their place/You turn my frown upside down/And put a smile on my face.” A verse like this could and should precipitate instant divorce, with a hefty settlement for mental cruelty. Love is made ridiculous by these pitiless purveyors of bad verse. Why verse, anyway, when most of us speak in prose whether we are in love or not?

Many of the great love affairs of history and literature are preserved in correspondence. Napoleon, even when he was busy conquering Europe, wrote hundreds of them. Countless romantic plots depend on love letters lost, letters found, letters mailed in the wrong envelope, or letters like Emma Bovary’s, lying like a time bomb in some forgotten drawer. Now romance writers have to depend on malfunctioning smartphones and network outages to separate their heroes and heroines and bring them together again.

Love itself was different when people conducted their affairs by letter. For separated lovers in America’s early days, correspondence was the central fact of their relationship, allowing the couple to learn each other’s minds and characters more deeply than they could by hanging out at the mall and texting. Lovers would correspond constantly when they were apart, and the whole process induced a delicious state of suspense.

When everybody gets a Valentine, including the children and the cat, there’s not much suspense and no surprises. Whatever the message we’ve probably seen it already in the card store. If you want to stand out from the crowd on Valentine’s Day consider this: forget the cards, the heart-shaped chocolates, and the plush bears. Get some notepaper, a pen, and perhaps some purple ink (these are still available from specialty shops) and compose a real, extravagant, romantic love letter. Surprise somebody. She or he may love you for it, or they may move to another state leaving no forwarding address. Either way, it’s a great compatibility test.

Copyright: David Bochier

Escaping from History

When Abraham Lincoln addressed the United States Congress in 1863, he began with these words: “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.” It was a noble sentiment, and perhaps it was true them. But it’s not true now. Not only can we escape history, but we have escaped history, by the simple process of forgetting most of it, especially the parts we don’t like.

What we remember, what we choose to forget, and how our memories change with time and age are among the great psychological mysteries. Apart from those rare individuals who really can remember everything (and how annoying they are), most of us practice a kind of automatic selective forgetting. Any college student facing an exam asks, first: What do I need to remember? But long after we leave college we unconsciously use the same technique. For example, I saw a news item about an argument between someone called JZ and someone called Solange. Now I had not the faintest idea who JZ was, or Solange either, and I didn’t need to know. Why should I clutter up my few remaining brain cells with such useless information? It’s hard enough to remember where I left my car keys, or indeed my car. But this story was all over the news, so I asked my wife who told me that JZ and Solange were incredibly famous persons known and worshipped by just about everyone in the world except me. I took care to forget this information at once.
Ephemeral celebrities are easy and indeed essential to forget. But then there’s the important stuff: the history of who, what and why we are. We live in the flow of time whether we like it or not, but history is scarcely taught in schools anymore, so we can expect that people in the future will have even fewer long-term memories of any kind. Yesterday’s TV news will be more than enough.

Report after report confirms that our knowledge of our own past is pathetically thin. The Department of Education discovered that six out of ten high school seniors couldn’t say how the United States came into existence. (Answer: through illegal rebellion against the authority of the British king). Fifty percent of high school seniors couldn’t say what the Cold War was. (Answer: the Cold War was a political mistake, but an economic stroke of genius). National history knowledge tests show that most fourth-graders can’t identify the opening passage of the Declaration of Independence and that most high school seniors can’t explain the checks-and-balances theory that is or used to be the rationale behind the three branches of the United States government. These young people will be voting soon, and some are voting already.

If there is anything worse than not teaching history at all it is teaching fake history, a comforting, patriotic fairy tale with no social protests, no imperial adventures, no bitter race or class conflict, in short, no inconvenient truths, and above all nothing that might encourage students to challenge authority. The idea of smiley face history may be attractive to some conservative school boards, but students are already overprotected, and feeding them lies about the nature of reality is an insult too far. It’s an insult to the teachers too. Teaching itself is hard enough without being pressured to teach nonsense.

Anyone who tries to teach real history is up against movies, television, and video games, that offer cartoon versions of a past that consists entirely of Hollywood-style battles between good guys and bad guys in which the good guys usually win. It is depressing enough to see some of the stuff that passes for history in the mass media, without asking schools to add to the confusion.

Professional historians have also helped us to forget the real past. We can understand how by looking at the journals in which academic historians talk to each other. They are talking about almost anything but history, as we used to understand it. “Rewriting Single Pregnancy.” “Politics and Collective Memory in American Historiography.” “Postmodernism and Chaos Theory in the Reconstruction of History.”

What happened to Washington crossing The Delaware or the rise of trade unions or the planting of the flag on Iwo Jima? All gone, relegated to the old-fashioned and disgraced category of “narrative history” (i.e. history that makes sense.)

There is no narrative in history, of course, and to that extent old-fashioned history is dishonest. Real history wasn’t a story. But it can be made into a story. That’s what historians are supposed to do, to clean up the messy past and mythologize it, so we can all pretend to understand it and perhaps even learn something from the entertaining tales of the Pilgrim Fathers, Bunker Hill, Wounded Knee, and Watergate.

Without these story-like myths, all we know about the past is that it’s dead. People in history have the rotten taste to be dead, which certainly won’t happen to us. They were unsophisticated, wore funny clothes, listened to un-amplified non-digitalized music in the days when the only way you could get stereo was to have several musicians sitting in different positions in a room.

Worst of all they placed demands on us. For them we were the “posterity,” that would achieve all good and wonderful things. When Lincoln said: “We cannot escape history” he didn’t mean the memory of the past but the judgment of the future: the judgment of posterity.

Now we are the future, and I think that’s what gives us a bad conscience about history. Mostly, we have simply forgotten it, and those little bits we remember make us uneasy. Perhaps our problem is that we actually feel inferior to the past, less energetic, less worthy, even less educated, so we repress it like a bad memory. Would we fight a devastating war over slavery, with more than ten thousand deaths in a single day, when even one military casualty has become politically unacceptable? Would we listen to a president like Lincoln, who spoke in complete sentences and long, complicated paragraphs? Lincoln didn’t do sound bites or Tweets, and he scarcely ever smiled. He’d be off the ballot after the first primary.

The good news is that if history is history, we don’t have to worry about how future generations will judge us. By not teaching history, we have neatly avoided the judgment of history, because we’ll simply be forgotten in our turn. What a relief, what a liberation it is not to have posterity looking over our collective shoulder. Imagine the nasty, skeptical judgments that might be passed on our age by a future Alexis de Tocqueville, Voltaire, or H.L.Mencken. Imagine the first two decades of the twenty-first century, seen through the eyes of Edward Gibbon – the author (as you may or may not remember) of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Cold

Despite the promise of global warming we still have to suffer through winter every year. There’s something quite scary about a long spell of cold weather. It’s a harsh reminder that we are living on a slightly warm ball of rock in the middle of an infinite space where the temperature is around minus two hundred and fifty degrees centigrade, just a few clicks of the thermostat above absolute zero. It felt close to absolute zero here the other day when I was outside scraping ice off the car. The cold began to seep into me and I thought: a person could die in this, and of course people do.

Some years ago we were living in a small house on Long Island during just such a freezing spell when the heating failed completely. We called the repairman, but so had everyone else. The house just got colder, and colder, and colder. There was no fireplace, and we had no electric heaters. We huddled under blankets with the cat, suddenly as vulnerable as homeless people – except that we had a car outside, and could go somewhere safe if things got really bad. How fragile our comfortable lives can be! One faulty machine, one over-stressed system, and nature reclaims her territory and her temperature.

Human civilization began in warm, welcoming places. What madness brought us to this unpredictable latitude, where just dealing with the weather takes up so much time and money? We spend months in summer trying to stay cool at enormous expense, and waste months in winter dealing with and paying for snow and ice. Even now I can hear the furnace down in the basement, slurping oil like an elephant at a water hole. Hundreds of thousands of other furnaces on Long Island and in Connecticut and all over the northern part of the country are gulping oil just as greedily. Perhaps invading Iraq wasn’t such a bad move after all. We need every drop of oil under the surface of the planet, just to keep warm and keep driving.

The Pilgrim Fathers understood their mistake soon as they landed at Plymouth Rock. Half of them died during their first winter in New England. But they stubbornly refused to make the obvious decision and head back to the temperate climate of Old England. Surely any amount of religious persecution would have been better than this annual meteorological persecution? Just because we can live somewhere doesn’t mean that we should, any more than “All you can eat” equates with “All you should eat.” Somewhere between the possibility and the decision, common sense should intervene. It’s significant that, when people grow old and acquire wisdom, they immediately move to Florida.

Those of us who remain in the northeast are the true inheritors of the stubborn Puritan tradition that allowed these bleak latitudes to be populated in the first place. Humans are fond of inhabiting places unfit for habitation. Las Vegas, for example, is about as sustainable in the long run as a base camp on Mars. It’s one of the strongest arguments I know against human rationality. Would rational creatures live in Maine or Alaska or the Scottish Hebrides? They would not. A truly rational race of creatures would confine its activities between latitudes 30 North and 30 South, and leave the rest of the earth to animals with thick fur, cross-country skiers, and heating oil salesmen.

Copyright: David Bouchier