by Jacob Davies
The twentieth century kicks off with the wizard invention of the concentration camp by the British in South Africa, who are engaged in a battle over Lebensraum with a bunch of Dutch guys, neither side having the slightest interest in the brown people previously occupying the area except as a sort of irritating natural resource to be strip-mined where possible. Whatever the original intent of the British, the key features of the concentration camp rapidly assert themselves, which is to say once you have a whole lot of annoying people gathered in one place and prevented from wandering around by barbed wire and guns, you can make them significantly less annoying to you by sort of, well, accidentally forgetting to feed them.
That's just a warm up though; we quickly go to the War to End All Wars That Doesn't, in which approximately one kerbillion soldiers from every civilized nation on the planet are ordered into an unremarkable area of France about the size of Vermont to die by various exciting means including being crushed by tanks, shot, stabbed, starved, bludgeoned, blown up, diseased, machine-gunned, and having the occasional bomb dropped on their heads in an amateurish fashion (they get better at this later). This accomplishes absolutely nothing for anyone and ends only when the Americans get tired of Germans randomly blowing up their stuff.
Everybody learns a Valuable Lesson about the Importance of Peace, which they all put into action in the same way: a determined effort to ensure that this time they will be the ones with the biggest guns, goddammit. Russia has a proletariat revolution which scares the crap out of all the moneybags businessmen in the rest of the world, which just goes to show that their imaginations were a bit limited at the time, since they could have treated them like China today, i.e. a giant source of cheap labor for foreign corporations under a government that doesn't tolerate any silly talk about worker's rights because, hello, you live in a socialist paradise - haven't you read the newspaper today?
There's a brief period of glorious economic euphoria and excitement in the rest of the world, but then all the fun is sidetracked by the implosion of the entire economy everywhere and the immiseration of millions of people, which in America is the terrible worst bad thing ever and in much of Europe is destined to be "the good old days" - you know, back when you were only poor, homeless, and unemployed, and not starved, murdered, robbed or abandoned in a frozen apocalyptic wasteland - but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Germany drops the pointy hats but retains the paranoid militarism, and decides that the worst piece of logical induction ever - "bankers wrecked the economy", "many bankers are Jews", "therefore TEH JEWS wrecked the economy and we have to kill them all!" - makes perfect sense. So anyway, that's when things start to get actually bad.
Japan decides that what every modern industrial power needs is a gigantic empire, an understandable conclusion given that every other modern industrial power either has or is trying to acquire its own gigantic empire, but makes the small mistake of relying entirely on American oil for the whole thing.
It takes a surprisingly long time for all of this to blow up, but when it does, it really does. The thing is, Germany and Japan aren't really doing anything particularly novel. All the other imperial powers have spent the last couple of hundred years taking territory by force and butchering as many of the natives as necessary, and America has just steamrolled across the west regardless of the wishes of the prior inhabitants. The Axis are just late to the game and have plans so grandiosely insane and in conflict with the interests of the existing powers that they can't be left to get on with it.
And we all know this part of the story, or we think we do, but if we're from the west, especially the UK and the US, we don't really know it. We understand the Holocaust (which probably was the worst of the horrors, the most concentrated evil) because we have photographs and survivor accounts and records. But Generalplan Ost did not just call for the murder of millions of Jews, but for the starvation of nearly every person in the cities of Poland and Russia, the murder of 20 or 30 million people, and this plan is in fact put into action and in fact kills 15 or 20 million people and destroys absolutely everything it touches in Eastern Europe, it is the end of the world for entire regions and cities, but we don't see pictures so we don't really know that it happened.
So then after all that we discover a way to make a single compact air-deliverable bomb that can destroy an entire city. And we use it. And surely that is the end? It must have seemed so. Oppenheimer says it in a way grandiose enough to do justice to the reality:
We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed... A few people cried... Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form, and says, "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.
So then we have peace, amid the ruins and the corpses and the radiation. But we also have radio and television, and it turns out that that wasn't the end of the world, and after the postwar consumer boom winds down we have corporations looking back to the good old days when the US military bought everything they could produce, and shortly after that we have the new permanent enemy in the shape of the Commies who are poised to taint our precious bodily fluids and have to be beaten back at all costs and by the way, we do mean all costs.
And television - how much by accidental evolution and how much by intent is debatable - is the means of delivery for a diet of intense fear and anxiety and uncertainty and the promise that all of it can be abolished if you just buy this product or vote for this person or agree with what the man on television says. And because we are just simple plains apes and inclined to believe whatever we are told, we do believe it. Believing what you're told was a lot safer when sociopaths were spread out among the population and easier to spot, not so much when they are concentrated in the boardrooms of Wall Street and Madison Avenue, but we are a little slow. So everyone from the twentieth century is profoundly brain-damaged by extensive exposure to advertising designed to make us afraid and insecure and jealous.
So then we build enough nukes to kill everyone in every city on the planet just in case that ever seems like a good idea, but in the west at least, the thing to keep in mind is that nothing really bad ever happens for basically the rest of the century. Sure, unemployment, minor wars, social unrest, but the absolutely apocalyptic events that swept Europe in the 30s and 40s are never repeated in the west. (Sure, 20 million people starve to death in China, but out of sight of cameras, so it's like it never happened.) Despite nothing really bad happening, we all live in terrible overwhelming fear that it will descend on us at any moment, which is not entirely irrational given that thousands of nuclear missiles are aimed at the exact place we are sitting and armed on a hair trigger.
And so the century comes to a close and by some miracle we are mostly still alive. And I suppose now you're wondering what the point of this superficial and glib and highly inaccurate account of the twentieth century is.
The point is this: we're all profoundly damaged goods, us twentieth century relics. Even those of us, like me, who only lived through the last quarter of it. We flinch at loud noises. We cower, and prepare to fight when someone hurts us even a little bit. We look at our neighbors and wonder if they would push us into the gas chamber if it came to it. We can't have too many illusions about the kindness and goodness of the human spirit because we lived through a period of total derangement and insanity, when a war that would likely kill everyone in every city across two continents was seriously discussed and prepared for.
So I have a certain sympathy for those who are suckered by chain emails and propaganda into worrying that we're about to descend into a socialist or fascist murder-state, or about to be obliterated by nuclear explosion, because the rational unlikelihood of it isn't worth much in the face of the irrationality that propels those kinds of events, and those events are barely historical, they were still happening in our lifetimes.
I think our children are going to think we are nuts. We live in, in the west, in a world incomparably better than the one our grandparents grew up in, with far less absolute poverty, with paved streets and indoor plumbing, refrigerators, clean water and cheap food, big houses, cheap cars. And yet we spend all our time jumping at shadows. The Muslims are going to take over! The terrorists are going to kill us all! Iraq is going to fly poison-gas planes over America! It is delusional, but it is understandable. We are the survivors of horror and threatened horror, and we are having a really hard time adjusting to the idea that maybe there won't be any more horror.
This isn't especially topical. But it's where I start from when I'm trying to understand the world, and I always want to put it all in as a preamble to even the most trivial comments on current events. The world is run by people and still mostly inhabited by people who are seriously traumatized from the last century, which genuinely was a horrific time unequaled in human history. That affects everything they - we - do and say.