I’ve been watching the excellent BBC mini-series entitled, “Fall of Eagles.” Filmed in 1974, it tells the stories of the collapse of three enormous dynasties: the Hapsburgs of Austria-Hungary, the Hohenzollerns of Prussia/Germany, and the Romanovs of Russia.
The miniseries takes place from the late 1800s until 1914. Watching these events unfold on film, one cannot help but be struck by an astonishing fact: Less than 100 years ago – my own grandparents were alive -- millions of people lived in abject poverty across vast swaths of Europe and all of Russia. Rural serfs and urban factory workers endured abysmal conditions, starving and destitute. As the nineteenth century ended and the twentieth century began, people were struggling – often by violent means – to overthrow oppressive governments that stifled every hope and possibility of a better life.
To see this is to understand anew what a remarkable, unprecedented, and utterly unique country the United States was – and is. While the European emperors pontificated, peasants starved, and revolutionaries incited to violence on the eve of World War I, the United States had already been a free nation, a democratic Republic, for nearly 140 years. Russian Tsar Nicholas II, Hapsburg Emperor Franz-Josef, and Kaiser Wilhelm II thought America a silly, frivolous, hopelessly naïve country doomed to failure. They were proven wrong when America’s entry into the Great War helped end it. They were proven wrong when their own people insisted upon the rights that Americans already had. They were proven wrong when they were toppled from their thrones.
But life remained grim after the monarchies. Germany flung itself from the brief Weimar Republic to the horrific Third Reich of Adolf Hitler, who plunged Europe and Russia into World War II. Millions more Europeans died – 20 million in Russia alone, and 6 million Jews, victim of Hitler’s “final solution.” Russians, Hungarians, Poles, and the rest of the people in what became the Soviet Union descended into the Communism of Lenin and Stalin, and tens of millions more died in privations far worse than the tsars and their okhranka could have dreamt up - famines, purges, persecutions, executions, labor camps.
While Europe was drenched in blood, what was happening in the United States? True, America lost soldiers in World War I. And even more American soldiers gave their lives in World War II. Yes, America suffered through the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. And yes, America had equality issues still unaddressed in the first half of the twentieth century.
But, even given our country’s failures, the citizens of the United States enjoyed relative peace, political freedom, personal liberty, and economic opportunities that the rest of the Western world – even enlightened Britain – could not match. This has not been the exception in American history. It has been the rule.
It is profoundly disturbing, therefore, to see Americans’ present-day responses to the current economic blip. Because that it what it ought to be – another hiccup in our history, like so many others we have faced and bested with ingenuity, entrepreneurial thinking, individual initiative, patience, sacrifice, and confidence in the superiority of our system.
But not this time. This time, instead of our leaders inspiring us with uplifting – and historically true – accounts of America’s exceptionalism (yes, that is the right word), and the can-do attitude of the average American, our current government fills the airwaves with doom and gloom, and warns of impending “crises” and “catastrophes,” unless we sell ourselves to the government, which will take care of us by taking everything we have, denying us control over our own lives, and promising goodies that cannot be paid for. This is not stimulus; it is “stealfromus.” It is not security; it is slavery.
It is self-serving deception of the highest sort, completely and resoundingly refuted by history. Our Founding Fathers never saw the Soviet Union, Cuba, North Korea, Cambodia, or the Sudan. And didn’t need to. They knew enough of government to know that a people dependent upon any form of government would be a people enslaved by it. Nothing in the 200+ years since they lived has proven them wrong.
America was a grand and successful experiment, light years ahead of its time. (And, contrary to what our self-appointed constitutional scholar-President claims, our Constitution does not have a “blind spot.” Someone needs to tell him that the Drafters’ decision to limit government’s power over us was deliberate.) And now, with a single Presidential election, a pile of bad mortgages, and a few giddy and appallingly ignorant headlines, many Americans want to sweep that all away in the name of a ‘change’ which has been proven fatally flawed time and time again. Less than 100 years ago, most people across the planet were peasants by circumstance. Americans are at risk of taking their place in the rarefied pantheon of peoples who have become peasants by vote.
A few weeks ago, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal warned that Republicans needed a message, that they could not simply be the party of “no.” But Republicans still don’t seem to get it. This is because Republicans are trying to figure out what to tell the American public about Republicans. How about talking to Americans about themselves? Talk about our resilience. Talk about our spirit. Talk about our independence, our self-sufficiency and our charity. Talk about our 233-year track record of fixing things ourselves!
America’s system of limited government is not perfect. But it is better. In fact, I would submit that America has always been better because America has never claimed to be perfect. The worst excesses of human history have taken place when men believed that their opponents were all that stood between them and utopia. The United States has escaped so many of these horrors because we have had a healthy – and justified - fear of government; because we have never expected government to bring about heaven on earth. One need only know a little history to see that. But one must know at least a little history to see that.
In one of the last episodes of “Fall of Eagles,” entitled Indian Summer of an Emperor, the aging Franz-Josef is being implored by one of his generals to declare war on Serbia, where his nephew (and heir) the Archduke Franz Ferdinand had just been assassinated by a Serbian nationalist. Franz-Josef was less inclined to resort to war than other European rulers, and that trait deepened as he aged. But his general is unimpressed by the Emperor’s reserve, and demands that “times must change.”
“Ah,” Franz-Josef sighs, “it is quite easy to get change. It is not so easy to get progress.”
If Republicans are looking for a message, that would be a place to start.