Lesson of the Last Century


In my last column I mentioned the primary lesson of the last century. The lesson is that when a nation pursues an idealistic goal, and believes that inhumane treatment in pursuit of that goal is justified, the greatest tragedies occur. Mao Tse Tung is perhaps the most prominent single example, causing the death of tens of millions of Chinese in pursuit of his vision of a Cultural Revolution.

But the same applies to Stalin, Hitler with his vision of a 1000 year Arian empire, Pol Pot in Cambodia, and others. Those we designate as good guys can also make the mistake of believing the end requires unjust means, to greater or lesser degrees. Even when the ideal thatís being pursued is good the means are an issue.

To give two examples, on a much smaller scale, when we went to war against Japan we not only rounded up Japanese Americans, we permanently took their properties. During the Cold War we installed a shah in Iran, and look how badly the long-term consequences of that have worked out.

The flip side of the lesson comes from the success stories. Mahatma Gandhi is the single best example. He had an idealistic goal -- to free his people from British Colonial rule. But he didnít just apply idealism to the big goal. He applied it all the way down to every detail of how to achieve that goal. Always non-violent. Always treating the opposition with respect.

Iím not suggesting every situation can be dealt with non-violently. When the Germans and Japanese were trying to take over the world it would have been beyond my wisdom to know how to deal with it non-violently. But when we do decide war is unavoidable we can still act in every way possible within our principles, within what we know is right.

That error of idealism applied only to the big goal, and not all the way down to the small steps toward the goal -- idealism without wisdom -- that is the danger.

We are forgetting this lesson. We have this noble goal the Bush administration wants to pursue, of being much more active in promoting democracy and liberalization in countries that need it.

At the same time we have an administration ready to commit unprovoked war before we know if itís really necessary, and which is nonchalant about the humane treatment of those who, rightly or wrongly, are suspected of being in the way. It is an administration that is unduly secretive, not even allowing congressional leaders in on many policies, even though Congress is supposed to be the watch dog that keeps an eye on an administration. (Congress has gone from watch dog to watch poodle in this role, which compounds the problem.)

The lesson that was taught at the cost of millions of lives last century is in danger of being forgotten. We know what happens to those who forget their history. They have to repeat it until the lesson sticks. We have a scenario set for having to repeat that lesson.

We would hope, if we have to repeat it, it is in some small way. But unnecessary wars are hardly small items.

It would be very unfortunate to repeat this lesson, not only for those who suffer in the process, but for the advancement of this worthwhile goal. It would be an unfortunate blow to our own imperfect, but worthy, attempts at being a nation of the best principles.

Idealism without wisdom is the danger. If this administration is short on that wisdom, then itís up to the people, through their own non-violent means, to try to persuade the leadership to stick to the methods we know are right.