The Hard Knocks of History

There is a poem by a Peruvian César Vallejo called “The Black Heralds,” which, during its time, was a forerunner of the emotionally raw archetype that came later in Latin American poetry. Somehow for me, this captures the resigned sadness that can only be credibly summoned by someone from a place like Perú–or maybe Russia, where history itself is optimism killing.

Think about how strongly that contrasts with this country’s idea of itself. Americans of my generation or older don’t see history as tragedy. We have kept the modernist idea of history as progress alive. We subconsciously know that our peril lies in hubris, not in resignation.

But is that the case anymore? And if it is, isn’t it a sad delusion? After all, America is becoming more like América. We’re killing our middle class. The industrialists–think Halliburton, the Carlisle Group, ExxonMobil–instead of United Fruit, Anaconda, etc.–rule us and can change the law at will. This same cabal has undemocratically installed the Bush junta.

What’s the difference? Is history for Americans now about sad resignation and past glories? This sociological self-image is something I don’t read much about, but what was the mood among the British when the finally surrendered their Empire after World War II? Surely not as optimistic and haughty as the Victorian–or the Romans of the late western empire–or Spain in the seventeenth century?

Is America depressed? And if not, shouldn’t we be? After all, it’s only this faith in the future that allows us to somehow manage the guilt of past crimes. If we lose that, if our progress comes to a grinding halt, then we lose even the ends justifying the means rationalization for our bloody and sad past.

I take some solace in the fact that many post-imperial nations are wonderful places, certainly better than post-colonial places. We’re both–which end of the stick do we get?