Monday, January 02, 2006

The Nodes of Our Suffering

Frank Warner is blogging on top ten lists. The Worst Britons since 1006 started it off, with Jack the Ripper, King John, and some dude who double-crossed King Canute, undoubtedly kin of the Blackadder clan. The challenge was to pick the best and worst that the US has produced in its somewhat shorter history. I think that this effort is entertaining, but not very gratifying. After all, how do we measure these attributes? What definitions do we employ? Should a person make the list for personal characteristics? Who was worse, Hitler or Dr. Mengele? Hitler never made a secret of his beliefs, and he did not relish violence or suffering. To say that Mengele betrayed his profession and oath as a physician would be supreme understatement. It is difficult to discuss his crimes with any emotional distance.

From the other end we wonder, was Florence Nightingale better than Margaret Thatcher? She did a lot of good deeds, left a lasting legacy, and I’m sure she had fewer enemies. But in the end, who did more good? Are we better people for kindnesses rendered, or for making patients take the nasty medicine against their wishes?

Nor can you fairly evaluate a person by the consequences of their actions. Margaret Thatcher caused great economic hardship in the short term. In the middling, her impact seems to have been a positive boost for the British economy. Such a phenomenon has innumerable, ungraspable positive impacts. Nevertheless, in the long term her impact could yet be negative. The UK has probably increased its energy use, fostered Global Warming, because of her, become accustomed to a softer life as well. She may have moved ahead, if only slightly, the coming days of hardship for the UK. She may have foreclosed the many strategies of poverty by giving her people a better life.

Adding tothe confusion, it’s not very hard to find people who will argue my view of the premises, not to mention my ignorance of the specific history. What indeed was the actual impact of a given person? I wager that the only way to find out is to run history over and over again like a weather model, dropping out each proposed person, one at a time, like a giant Jackknife Test. How else can you recognize the individual impact except by that person's absence. Call it the George Bailey protocol. For instance, it may turn out that Matthias Rust, the bold pilot, was more instrumental in winning the Cold War than Ronald Reagan was. I could make that argument.

But, as my wife, when she was small, asked of her mother, "I know that you don’t know the answer, Mom, but what do you think?" Historians can only do their best with these questions, and we can only do our best in drawing lessons from their stories. For my part, I think that Ben Franklin had the most beneficial long term impact on the US, and Bob Lee had the worst. I say this despite the fact that Lee was certainly the more admirable, in many ways, of the two. Why do I choose these particular men? I’ll have to let you think about it.

But keep this in mind while you are pondering. How do you decide whether President Bush was right or wrong in his decision to invade Iraq? How do you, in fact, decide how much authority to invest in the Executive Branch?

1/2/2006 11:37 PM

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