March of human history made up of missteps

February 21, 2002|By Crispin Sartwell

IMAGINE THE expressions on the faces of the fishermen of the Spanish border town of La Linea on Sunday morning as the beach filled with combat-ready British troops wielding mortar launchers and SA80 assault rifles.

The commandos were engaged in exercises near Gibraltar, the British fortress on the Spanish coast, and they washed up on the wrong beach.

History is chock-full of accidents. For example, many Floridians accidentally voted for Patrick Buchanan, thus replacing the government of the United States with the board of directors of the Enron Corp. If not for this accident of history, Al Gore would be president, and we'd all be sleeping better at night, having just watched President Al on the late news.

Great accidents of history include Columbus' collision with the Western Hemisphere and Europeans stumbling across the Pacific Ocean. You yourself would not exist today if not for the failure of birth control devices. The Mongol hordes got caught in a storm off the coast of Japan, or else they'd have conquered the place and there would have been no Samurai, no Zen, no Pearl Harbor.

Right now, Slobodan Milosevic is taking the same approach in his trial for crimes against humanity. Ethnic cleansing? Oops.

Historians are always looking for the causes of the great events of history, that single explanation that makes everything make sense. The Marxists, appealing to "dialectical materialism," explain everything by class struggle. The Republicans always appeal to tax policy. Georg Hegel explained every historical movement by the inevitable coming-to-consciousness of the World Spirit. Christians look at it all and find the Will of God.

But I propose a different explanation. Every single historical event is a mistake. Perhaps people are trying to prosecute the class struggle, observe the Will of God, push along the World Spirit. But really they just keep messing up.

One great feature of my new philosophy of history is that it relieves everyone of responsibility for everything and thus stops what the Baron de Montesquieu termed "the blame game." When Alaric the Visigoth stormed through Europe and sacked Rome, he was probably just looking for a short route to Hackensack. When Bill Clinton destroyed the moral fiber of America, he was calling out for pizza.

Think about the shape of your own life and what it actually owes to failure, coincidence, stupidity. Think about all the wrong turns you've taken, the people you've inadvertently married, the times you injured yourself or just committed the mind-numbing gaffe, the times you've embarrassed yourself by saying the wrong thing, the times you've left your zipper down. Now project this onto the scale of mass movements, political upheavals, patterns of migration, disease, mass delusion, the collective idiocies in which we are all swept up.

Isn't it a relief to know that neither you nor anyone else has ever done anything on purpose? Now you know how those hyper-effective British commandos felt as they ran into the fishing village wielding their mortars.

Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

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