It was something Douglas Murray said. He of the “The Strange Death of Europe” and “The Madness of crowds” and one of the few people who seem to have a handle on where we are. It was in the course of an interview, when he was describing a story from Tolstoy’s “The death of Ivan Ilych” when the judge thought he was dying and remembered being on a train, convinced it was going one way, when it was always going the other way. “How on earth could something like this happen”, he was thinking, followed by the realisation that it was happening. It seemed to sum up the way Murray wasfeeling about our present crisis. There was no end and no limit to the absurdity, the irony and the crazy happenings. The thought that “This can’t be happening. This is not what happens” quickly followed by a second thought “Yes this is what happens, this is history, this is what history looks like.”
It was also something that David Starkey said about history. We think history changes gradually and morphs smoothly into different phases. He said it didn’t. Things slowly build up and then explode. History pivots on one small event. A bullet takes the life of a Duke and the World is catapulted into a war when million are slain. A plane flies into a tower and hundreds of thousands die in a land far away. A cartoon is published in a newspaper and gunmen are on the rampage. A mobile phone video is released and statues are thrown into the sea. History it seemed, turns on a pin and in the case of the current crisis, in a matter of a few days, over a weekend, when the nightmare of lockdown was birthed.
We have seen the build-up, for a long time now. This was best explained for me in the two most incisive studies that I have read on the subject: “Dominion” by Tom Holland which showed how we have what we have and “The strange death of Europe” which showed how we are throwing it all away. The dismantling of marriage and the dismembering of the family, the relativity of truth, the fluidity of reality, the replacing the real with the material, the worship of the gods of health and wellbeing instead of the one true God. David Robertson in “The wee flea” has at the same time consistently shown that by destroying the root we eventually destroy the fruit. In one of his more recent and devastatingly pertinent posts (https://theweeflea.com/2020/06/09/a-free-peoples-suicide-the-end-of-law-and-order-in-the-west/) he suggests that law and order itself is on the point of collapse.
So with each day as the news become more and more bizarre, it is genuinely quite hard to believe if it is all true, if this is actually happening. Whether it is the sudden obsession with statues, the police kneeling before protestors, the laws clamping down on individual’s liberties but winking at thousands on the march. the insanity of social distancing in schools, or the prime minister mumbling about bubbles. And I was recalling a conversation with one of my siblings recently, when we were wondering about the world and the seismic changes that have taken place in recent years. Could our parents have possibly imagined that this was at all possible? No, they simply would not have believed it. Truth be told, I would not have believed it either. I would have thought “this is not what happens” but now I realise, when I recognise the sound outside my window, the sound of our world crumbling, I realise “Yes, this is what happens”. This, it turns out, is what history looks like.
And I imagine a history class in a future era where the pupils are studying “The rise and fall of Western Civilisation”. The reasons for the fall were clearly documented and now very obvious but the curious thing is what actually tipped it over the edge. It was a tiny invisible organism that travelled from the East.
Bad stuff happens. Why should anyone be surprised, if they have the faintest awareness of our past as a species? Starkey surely is not as binary in his approach as to claim that the story proceeds only by explosions? Gradual change is part of the fabric, too, obviously. I am growing old, a process begun over 50 years ago, and for most of the time imperceptible.
Yes none should really be surprised and on history turning on a pin, yes of course it also goes slowly. I just thought it interesting that it often does turn like that and this might be such a time.