istory is not a pilgrim’s progress. It’s a Ferris wheel with gondolas that rotate endlessly. It does not have a beginning or an end, as some suggest. It does have recurring themes that rarely stray far from basic human obsessions, including the ferocious wish for land, power and influence, conflict in the mix; the foraging for internal and external security, for food, for antidotes to disease; the quest for grandeur and with it for social upheaval, both central to human drama, exhibitionism, advancement, and reversal — a wheel of its own.
Passage from one century to the next, even from one millennium to the next, doesn’t deter history’s craving for recurrence or the Shakespearean fatalism it induces among humans (“Since the affairs of men rest still uncertain, let us reckon with the worst that may befall.”) On the Ferris wheel, the before is the again before it comes to pass.
The border skirmish between Russia and Ukraine, for example, is an early 19th-century event in spirit, a sprig of an old squabble — big imperial-styled country vs. smaller, struggling neighbor — catapulted forward, or so it would seem. Until then and now are collapsed and the rude dance is exposed for what it is: new searchlights on an old gondola, with festering disagreements over ethnicity and language (adored by history) as a key part of the angry alchemy.
The advance of ISIS across northern Iraq and into Syria, and with it intentionally spectacular acts of violence, is yet another spoke on a wheel left largely intact since the Middle Ages, at least in some places. It is religion combined with money given causal zeal especially eager to make a name for itself against the backdrop of a haughtier world that sees it as retrograde, further fueling rage on both sides. Ancient Rome, hardly a paradise, was invaded by waves of northerners for whom invasion and conquering was both profession and goal, as was the dislodging of an arrogant empire. The Crusades brought more of the same, including slaughters for hire. Again, the then and now of history mingled. All that was absent was the means to make images of the cruel and ensure they travel — fast. That part has changed: technology facilitates the seeing of mother history’s worst results. What has not changed is brutality.
The Ebola outbreak in central and western Africa is also a smaller capsule of an ancient anxiety, the plague. Rumors of disease and disease itself unhinged European cities for centuries. Before science and medicine, history toyed with illness so that humans imagined witchcraft or the acts of an avenging God. That storyline has also changed, but only selectively, depending where in the world a plague breaks free to roam. Liberia and Nigeria remain medieval front lines in an actual and wider medievalism that never vanished but seems remote to those who consider themselves rid of history’s baser themes.
Ukraine, ISIS and Ebola have little to do with the world as formulated by Europe and the United States after World War II, at the time especially eager to give its citizenries respite from horrors it wished to suggest were over, as contained in the post-Holocaust admonishment, “Never again” — to which Woody Allen rejoined, aptly and ironically, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” (An adjunct might be, “If you want to bait history, tell it you’ve learned from your mistakes.”)
Once on a wheel, always on a wheel, with history’s job to spin it hard enough to remind the planet’s more affluent inhabitants that stability is precarious, if not exceptional, pandemonium more to the point, and that contrary to intense and self-assured Christian and democratic beliefs, tranquility may not necessarily be part of the essence of what it means to be human, now or ever.