You may hear this said a lot today.
"Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it." (George Santayana).
It would be also helpful to hear Paul Simon sing the words from his song The Boxer,
"Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest."
There are many lessons to be learned from the most costly terrorist attack ever on American soil. The question are we in a mindset to learn them?
In an excerpt from his new book, A Journey: My Political Life, former British Prime MinisterTony Blair states,
In short, we have become too apologetic, too feeble, too inhibited, too imbued with doubt and too lacking in mission. Our way of life, our values, the things that made us great, remain not simply as a testament to us as nations but as harbingers of human progress. They are not relics of a once powerful politics; they are the living spirit of the optimistic view of human history. All we need to do is to understand that they have to be reapplied to changing circumstances, not relinquished as redundant.
While we may find some comfort in his words, I'd say his perspective is not large enough.
The nations and culture of the West are products of long historical trends that are at a transition point.
One of those trends was the Enlightenment belief in rationalism, preeminently embedded in our belief in the progress that would come to humankind through Science. For many Science (large S) has become the replacement religion of intellectuals. It did not require a belief in any mystical being or in the aristocratic social and political structure of old Europe. As a philosophy, it was a ideology of revolution that turned upside down virtually every nation in the northern hemisphere. In a very real sense, this belief in progress was a belief in the morality of science and progress. For as a replacement religion, it inevitably had to have a moral core to its purpose.
This belief in the absolute and ultimate fulfillment of human progress began to erode with the outbreak of World War I. There was an innocence about this belief in progress prior to the war. However, with it, innocence was lost, and irony as Paul Fussell writes in The Great War and Modern Memory, was the result.
lrony is the attendant of hope, and the fuel of hope is innocence.One reason the Great War was more ironic than any other was that its beginning was more innocent. "Never such innocence again," observes Philip Larkin, ...
Furthermore, the Great War, was perhaps the last to be conceived as taking place within a seamless, purposeful "history" involving a coherent stream of time running from past through present to future. The shrewd recruiting poster depicting a worried father of the future being asked by his children, "Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?" assumes a future whose moral and social pressures are identical with those of the past. Today, when each day's experience seems notably ad hoc, no such appeal would shame the most stupid to the recruiting office. But the Great War took place in what was, compared with ours, a static world, where the values appeared stable and where the meanings of abstractions seemed permanent and reliable. Everyone knew what Glory was, and what Honor meant. It was not until eleven years after the war that Hemingway could declare in A Farewell to Arms that "abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates," In the summer of 1914 no one would have understood what on earth he was talking about.
I see that the past decade, in a different way, has brought us back to the place Europe was in 1914. There is a loss of innocence, a loss of purpose, a loss of confidence and loss of knowing what we must do. We live in a time of irony and cynicism, of suspicion and warring factions, where all motives are suspect. We live in a time where words as abstractions that transcend time, giving us perspective and direction for the future, are lost in meaningless of the sales pitch.
As we remember those who died at the hands of terrorists on 9/11/2001, let us not fall into a belief that hope and meaning are lost. That the course of human history is downward toward the apocalypse. Rather, let us see that we are at a crossroads in history, not just the history of our nation, but the history of all humankind. To see the long view is to see that there is a historical progression that leads to our time.
Let me end with a long quote from Peter Thiel's essay, The Optimistic Thought Experiment.Thiel is co-founder and former chairman and CEO of PayPal, Inc. In his essay addresses the same questions that have interested me over the past several months. He sees two ways forward.
In the long run, there are no good bets against globalization
And as it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man. They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all. - Luke 17:26–30
For the judeo-western inspiration, it is a mistake of the first magnitude to place too much value on the things of this world. Those who busy themselves with the meaningless ideologies of politics, or with the interminable drama of human soap operas, or with the limitless accumulation of wealth, are losing sight of the impending catastrophe that may unfold towards the end of history. The entire human order could unravel in a relentless escalation of violence — famine, disease, war, and death. The final book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, even gives a name and a place: The Battle of Armageddon in the Middle East is the great conflagration that would end the world. Against this future, it is far better to save one ’s immortal soul and accumulate treasures in heaven, in the eternal City of God, than it is to amass a fleeting fortune in the transient and passing City of Man.
For the rationalists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as for all those who consider themselves cosmopolitan today, this sort of hysterical talk about the end of the world was deemed to be the exclusive province of people who were either stupid or wicked or insane (although mostly just stupid). Scientific inculcation would replace religious indoctrination. Today, we no longer believe that Zeus will strike down errant humans with thunderbolts, and so we also can rest peacefully in the certain knowledge that there exists no god who will destroy the whole world.
And yet, if the truth were to be told, our slumber is not as peaceful as it once was. Beginning with the Great War in 1914, and accelerating after 1945, there has re-emerged an apocalyptic dimension to the modern world. In a strange way, however, this apocalyptic dimension has arisen from the very place that was meant to liberate us from antediluvian fears. This time around, in the year 2008, the end of the world is predicted by scientists and technologists. One can read about it every day in the New York Times, that voice of the rational and cosmopolitan Establishment. Will it be an environmental catastrophe like runaway global warming, or will it be murderous robots, Ebola viruses genetically recombined with smallpox, nanotech devices that dissolve the living world into a gray goo, or the spread of miniature nuclear bombs in terrorist briefcases?
Even if it is not yet possible for humans to destroy the whole world, on current trends it might just be a matter of time. The relentless proliferation of nuclear weapons remains the most obvious case in point. The United States became the first nuclear power in 1945; by the 1960s and through the 1980s, at the height of the Cold War, five declared nuclear states (the U.S., the uk, France, the ussr, and China) maintained a semi-stable equilibrium (at least as recounted by the historians who know ex post that the Cold War remained cold); as of today, there are two more known nuclear states (India, Pakistan) and perhaps even more (Israel, North Korea). And what if there are 20 nuclear powers in 2020, or 50 nuclear powers in 2050, armed with Jupiter missiles that can rain down destruction on enemies everywhere? We suspect the answer to this question, for we know that there exists some point beyond which there is no stable equilibrium and where there will be a nuclear Armageddon. A scientific or mathematical calculus of the apocalypse has replaced the mystic vision of religious prophets. 1
On the surface, the world’s financial markets remain eerily complacent. For the most part, they remain firmly rooted in the nineteenth century, when the march of History and Progress were more optimistic and certain. Although it encounters perturbations and larger corrections, the climb of the Dow Jones continues on an inexorable north-easterly path.
The news and business sections seem to inhabit different worlds that coexist on the same planet but rarely intersect. 2 Most financial actors are content to rule their separate kingdom, and to refrain from unprofitable questions about the integrity of the larger whole. Those who ask too many questions are not given a serious hearing. Like the deranged orators in London ’s Hyde Park, the prognosticators of a financial doomsday have been wrong for too long. Consequently, they have been relegated to a marginal role, if for no other reason than that they have lost most of their money and have no significant capital left to invest in anything.
More generally, apocalyptic thinking appears to have no place in the world of money. For if the doomsday predictions are fulfilled and the world does come to an end, then all the money in the world — even if it be in the form of gold coins or pieces of silver, stored in a locked chest in the most remote corner of the planet — would prove of no value, because there would be nothing left to buy or sell. Apocalyptic investors will miss great opportunities if there is no apocalypse, but ultimately they will end up with nothing when the apocalypse arrives. Heads or tails, they lose.
In a narrow sense, it seems rational for investors to remain encamped at the altar of the efficient market — and just tend their own small gardens without wondering about the health of the world. A mutual fund manager might not benefit from reflecting about the danger of thermonuclear war, since in that future world there would be no mutual funds and no mutual fund managers left. Because it is not profitable to think about one ’s death, it is more useful to act as though one will live forever. 3
Such a narrowing of one’s horizon cannot, however, be the last word. After all, there exists some connection between the real world of events, on the one hand, and the virtual world of finance, on the other. For macro investors, it would be an abdication not to wrestle with the central question of our age: How should the risk of a comprehensive collapse of the world economic and political system factor into one ’s decisions?
From the point of view of an investor, one may define such a “secular apocalypse” as a world where capitalism fails. Therefore, the secular apocalypse would encompass not only catastrophic futures in which humanity completely self-destructs (most likely through a runaway technological disaster), but also include a range of other scenarios in which free markets cease to function, such as a series of wars and crises so disruptive as to drive the developed world towards fascism, anarchy, or both.
Since the direct approach to our central question leads to paradoxes, absurdities, or at best money-losing investment schemes, it might prove more profitable to explore the inverse as a thought experiment: What must happen for there to be no secular apocalypse — for what one might call the “optimistic” version of the future to unfold? And furthermore, which sectors will do well — surprisingly well, in fact — if the world more or less stays intact, even if there are some major bumps and dislocations along the way? Any investor who ignores the apocalyptic dimension of the modern world also will underestimate the strangeness of a twenty-first century in which there is no secular apocalypse . If one does not think about forest fires, then one does not fully understand the teleology of each tree — and one badly will undervalue those trees that are immune to all but the greatest of fires. Even in our time of troubled confusion, there exists a chance that some things will work out immeasurably better than most believe possible.
(Read the whole essay.)
The task before us is large because we are venturing into an unknown world where the past is not our greatest asset, but a distraction. We need to see history in its proper context, and learn new ways of being a global society. This is the conversation that we should have today. And I hope that you'll take some time with loved ones to reflect back nine years, and then ask the optimistic question, without doubt or guilt or recrimination, how could we make this different a decade from now. Then our remembrance of those lost will honor their lives, and not simply feel sorry for them and angry at their murderers.
May God give us all peace and wisdom on this day of remembrance.
Image: The Great War and Modern Memory: The Illustrated Edition, Paul Fussell