Sunday, March 22, 2009

When does 1848 come round again?

... untune one string,
And, hark! what discord follows; each new thing meets
In mere oppugnancy

-- Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida

a corner liquor store window and adjacent building on Fillmore near Haight in San Francisco
We'll get to 1848 shortly via cuff links. I complained a couple of posts ago that I went searching for cuff links amongst my vast collection of tschotschkes, and none appeared. So my good friend Roy, retired Cal Berkeley librarian, brought five fabulous pairs to breakfast on Saturday ... and now I am amply supplied. I love things, and I love things imbued with meaning and past. So wearing Roy's cuff links will be a double delight ... not only am I upping the wardrobe, but I am also in constant touch with a good friend. So it is object as utility and as memory. I like that.

Roy also brought along last week's copy of the New York Times Review of Books and pointed out the article on a new book about 1848, the year that revolutions swept Europe. The Book is 1848: Year of Revolution, by Mike Rapport.

1848 was a year in which great historical utility failed in the face of a memory claimed by reaction.

The ancien regime had morphed through war into a hardened post-Napoleonic conservatism. There were 3 decades of cynicism (Metternich) and idiocy (Louis Napoleon) and weakness (Frederick William IV), and the contradictions in modernizing Europe hardened until only an earthquake would move them. The arth moved, and then it closed back over the revolutionaries. It is not too much to say that the horrors of the next century were founded in those moments.

I also recently read Alistair Horne's essay "France Turns the Other Cheek, July 1870: The needless war with Prussia" in Robert Cowley's What If: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have been, a collection of essays that speculate on how the reversal of single moments in history might have vast effects. Horne's point is that Louis Napoleon took Bismarck's famous bait in the Ems Telegram, and the subsequent Franco-Prussian War of 1870 led to France's humiliation and Germany's unification under Prussian militaristic auspices and, most significantly, an enduring conflict that took two world wars to squelch. Unresolved contradictions live to bite back. Conservatives think only of the moment ... or the last moment ... and their own most narrow self-interest. So, like an earthquake, they live to build up tectonic stress until a slaughter rolls around to blow them away.

Do we see it happening now? As in 1848, conservatives do not merely not have perspective, they are doing everything in their power to obfuscate the better to freeze the moment and stop change in its tracks. 1848 was a missed opportunity ... but there was probably no way that the opportunity could not be missed because the forces just weren't there. Today the forces are there ... we could enter a new era. But conservatives are looking around for a new Louis Napoleon, someone upon whom they might hang their illusions for another couple of decades until they get crushed by the earthquake they are creating.

So the crise du jour is the AIG bonuses. Sure it is obscene, and certainly Frank Rich got it right again when he warned that this could be an early Katrina for Obama. But that is a small item in a big butcher's bill. We have to move on. We have to get past petty fights over whether carbon limits are a new tax. We have to burst into the future. And everything conspires to undermine great historical utility in the face of a false memory claimed by reaction.

Remember what Marx said of 1848 ... the first time tragedy, the second time farce. Tragedy, think Reagan, Bush 1, Bush 2 even. Farce ... think Limbaugh, Coulter, Joe the bloody plumber. None of them are Bismarck. Doubly chilling.

Meanwhile, I have totally cool cuff links, and another great historical read down the road.

Check out my Twitter feed: arodsf

Photo by Arod of a corner liquor store window and adjacent building on Fillmore near Haight in San Francisco

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