Charles C. W. Cooke on the evergreen notion that “this time, it’ll be different”:
H. G. Wells’s famous prediction that the First World War would be the “war to end all wars” was met with skepticism by the British prime minister. “This war, like the next war,” David Lloyd George quipped in the summer of 1916, “is a war to end war.” History, he sighed, is not shaped by wishful thinking.
Two decades later, Lloyd George would be proven right. And yet, in the intervening period, it was Wells’s sentiment that prevailed. The horrors of the trenches having made rationalization imperative, a popular and holistic narrative was developed. The Great War, Woodrow Wilson quixotically argued, had finally managed to “make the world safe for democracy” and, in doing so, had served an invaluable purpose. Henceforth, human beings would remember the valuable lesson that had been written in so much blood, coming together in mutual understanding to, as Wells rather dramatically put it, “exorcise a world-madness and end an age.” And that, it was thought, would be that.
In hindsight, it is easy to criticize the idealists. But, historically, their instincts were by no means anomalous. The most successful politicians today remain those who are dispositionally Whiggish, and who possess in abundance the much coveted ability to sell the future as the cure for all ills. Come election time, candidates from both sides of the aisle promise Americans that their country’s “best days are ahead of her” and that it is now “time to move forward.” Customarily, these promises are paired with a series of less optimistic corollaries, most often with the simplistic insistence that we must never, ever “go backwards,” and with the naïve — sometimes spluttering — disbelief that anything bad or primitive could exhibit the temerity to occur in these our enlightened times. “It is amazing,” our jejune political class will say of a current event, “that this could be happening in 2014!” And the audience will nod, sagaciously.
This week, responding to the news that an American journalist had been executed in Syria by the Islamic State, President Obama contended that the group “has no place in the 21st century.” One wonders: What can this mean? Is this a statement of intent, or is it a historical judgment? Certainly, insofar as Obama’s words indicate a willingness to extirpate the outfit from the face of the Earth, they are useful. If, however, they are merely an attempt to shame the group by explaining that in 2014 the good guys no longer behave in this manner, it is abject and it is fruitless. As a matter of regrettable fact, IS does indeed have a place in the 21st century — and, like the barbarians who hypothetically had “no place” in the Roman Empire, it is presently utilizing that place to spread darkness and despair. Assurances that “our best days are ahead of us,” I’d venture, are probably not going to cut it with the mujahideen.