"Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest." ~ John Stuart Mill
A Child's History of the World
The book had a sturdy, old-fashioned, hardboard cover, securely bound with textured linen fabric. A faded deep green, its corners were blunted and creased and its edges slightly frayed with wear. Its substantial pages, well thumbed and a bit yellowed, were well printed in a rich, bold type.
Not large, as books go, but nonetheless thick, its longish title and a large, cartoonish likeness of a globe-trotting little man in a top hat and tails, holding a magnifying glass before his forward peering gaze, completely filled the small book's front cover. He looked like the guy on the "Community Chest" cards in a Monopoly game. Memorable too, because the front cover's graphics were interestingly embossed in relief, rather than printed over the surface.
That wondrous little book was entitled simply, A Child's History of the World. I don't readily recall the author's name any more''it was a long time ago. My grandmother gave me that book when I was about eight years old, I think, and as I say, it's been a few decades''four, anyway. The book was obviously already an antique when my Grandma gave it to me. It might have been 40 or 50 years old, perhaps encompassing the period up to about 1900 . . . or not. Again, I can't exactly remember. I wish I still had that little book. It might well be over a hundred years old by now, if it even still exists.
I do remember being completely engrossed reading that marvelous little work. I was totally entranced with its vivid animated glimpses of mailed and ermined medieval kings and their majestically bejeweled queens, gallant and precocious young princes and princesses, and mystical, grand, all-powerful golden pharaohs . . . of the legendary omniscient and immortal gods, and epic, divinely sculpted, fecund goddesses.
Accounts of the richly exotic, solitary spice caravans, inching their way across vast lonely deserts, dark and wealthy, mysterious Oriental silk traders and their inevitable bane, those marauding pirates and cutthroat thieves, and fabulous tales of sparkling and sundry treasures from the farthest corners of the earth, all kept me riveted to the little book's gripping, incredibly unfolding story. Fantastic new concepts I had never before imagined, like vast and colossal walls in China, made by slaves of gigantic, hand-hewn stones, to deflect blood-thirsty and nomadic, tribal equestrian hordes . . . concepts like impenetrable and imposing castles, massive unbreachable fortresses, impossibly craggy redoubts, and bristling armed garrisons, all disgorging waves of stolid, warring legions fiercely pitched in battle. With regularity, each newer and mightier empire succeeding the one before. All this held me firmly in the book's relentless grip, my eager mind spellbound in unswerving thrall.
I remember reading in rapt fascination the timeless, too often exalted names of Hannibal, Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, Temujin, and Napoleon, their stories revealing lusty and compelling records. For centuries came successively mightier powers, and increasingly sophisticated armies, vanquishing to the fore, their unceasing procession extending back aeons into the dim mists on the edge of time.
So? . . . this is the legacy and testament of man's so-called progress and "civilizations," a long and melancholy tale of endlessly repeating bloody subjugations of man by his fellow man?
The unbroken thread of this eternal story remains fairly consistent, if not monotonously unchanged. Weaving and unwinding broadly across the annals of time, it is rather obvious and not unduly difficult to correctly discern its fundamental theme, for those inquiring minds so inclined . . . of little matter to them in which colored light the facts are portrayed. My beloved little green volume was fairly matter-of-fact in its treatment of the human historical record as I recall; a quite direct and straight-forward accounting, not at all sugar-coated. Of course, this book long antedated the illusory, pernicious, and fetid, all-enveloping fog of post-millennial Political Correctness.
No, this child's history minced few words with its lively presentation. It was quite unapologetically a recounting of the ages old tale of man's same old typical "business as usual" type behavior. The colonial viewpoint, perhaps? As I recall, my coveted edition of A Child's History of the World fairly set forth the brutal, unvarnished reality of mankind's continuing and inherently overpowering tendency towards suicidally grandiose martial adventurism, accompanied by the inseparable corollary of inhuman and tyrannical subjugation.
"Bullshiat!" you say? You don't buy a word of it?
Admittedly, my little kiddie history primer probably didn't come right out and say these things I write here verbatim. More certainly, it was filled in between the lines of fact with whatever particular conclusions and moralizations as may have obliged the book's then interested principals. Obviously North American and/or anglophonic in origin, we might safely assume the book was propagated with respect to the prevailing free market forces of the day, and with an earnest nod to that sinfully evil pariah, the profit motive. It presented then, the prevailing and most marketable Judeo-Christian world view, between the lines of its putative and proven historical content.
I willingly grant that any historical reading is colored by the author's espoused opinion and analysis of the significance and meaning of the events which he relates. The greatest pleasure which I derive from my own amateur scholarly pursuits, comes invariably from the contemplation and assimilation of differing accounts of the same established historical events, however cynical and anti-establishmentarian my biases may have become, with the passing years compounding and tempering any cumulative knowledge or wider experience I may glean. These days, the more cynicism in the air, the more I like it!
. . . and the point?
Absent all the obligatory, self-serving back-slapping jingoism, the institutional aggrandizement, the glorification of the various Crusades, the de rigueur exaltation of "enlightened Western Civilization," and all the other whatnot deemed necessarily attendant any ultimately measurable success by my book's long dead promoters, the basic contextual and substantive outline of history ultimately remains intact. It was plain and simple, brother, though again, admittedly, artistically glamorized for its juvenile audience. The established events my old kiddie history's narrative recounted, clearly focused attention on the unavoidable and undeniable truths, the prima facie evidence, the proverbial smoking gun . . . that peoples and nations have mercilessly raped, pillaged, sacked, and otherwise utterly destroyed each others' buttcheeks since as far back as anybody in all of recorded history can remember!
Nothing has changed much.
I was bitten by the history bug anew and inexorably compelled to purchase an adults' volume of world history I happened upon recently, "The Penguin" History of the World, by J.M. Roberts. As a naturally ardent anglophile (I offer no excuse, explanation, or apology), even claiming some hazy and forgotten, minutely tiny fraction of hereditary lineage from various points in greater Britannia, English publisher Penguin has long been a personal sentimental favorite. Being a longtime and ardent bibliophile, as well as an unrepentant anglophile, chance would have it these two interests would some day productively intersect in a bookshop, somewhere in a fancy, modern day suburban shopping mall, ultimately depleting my pocketbook in the amount of 18.95 FRN's (Federal Reserve Notes''currently widely mistaken for our real, missing dollars).
If you would have told me ten or twenty years ago that I would one day spend 18.95 FRN's on a paperback book, I would have laughed in your face. Come to think of it, if you would have told me two months ago that I would one day spend 18.95 FRN's on a paperback book, I would have laughed in your face.
HEY! IT HAPPENED! I'M WEAK. I'M SORRY, O.K.? These volumes just don't magically pop up every day where I usually buy books''a ratty, self-service, used book cart, stationed in a strip mall to benefit a private, no-kill animal shelter (incidentally, the paucity of quality historical volumes available there notwithstanding, there's nothing like the thrill of finding a classic Heinlein sci-fi novel for a mere ten cents, or the rush of plucking a meticulously comprehensive and fully illustrated, deluxe, hardbound seamanship manual for a paltry four bits!). Oops. Sorry! It started to get away from me there for a second . . . .
In closing, I feel employing the following pair of quotes pertinent and illustrative. The first quote comes from the aforementioned Penguin World History, by J.M. Roberts, in reference to the stern, unforgiving Japan existing in the 17th century.
"Whatever the equity of this [weapons confiscation from the lower classes], it must have told in favour of order. Japan wanted stability and her society accordingly came to emphasize the things that could ensure it: knowing one's place, discipline, regularity, scrupulous workmanship, stoical endurance. At its best it remains one of humanity's most impressive social achievements." (emphasis added)
Now, class? . . . what can we conclude from this passage about the author's sociological and philosophical predispositions and biases? . . . class?
Humanity's most impressive social achievements?? Uh . . . wha?? Most impressive, alright. I'm going to go out on a limb here. I think it's impressive. It's scary''f*cking scary''that people can hold such ideas with a straight face. Discuss.
Topical Hints: Did you ever read Shogun? Do you know of the term, "samurai"? (one meaning should suffice) Are you familiar with the not-so-euphemistic phrase, "Heads will roll"? (remedial lessons available after class)
I'm still wondering what kind of a warped, twisted person could conceive of 17th century Japan as an exemplar of "humanity's most impressive social achievement." Am I missing something here? Class??
Finally, the second quote I draw from an excellent bitter-sweet opinion piece about the recent, encouraging, world wide, mega-peace protests, and the darker world where business and political chiefs currently hold court in their various fortified ivory towers. The full article, a masterly polemic against cataclysmic megalomaniacal mischief, is well worth the reading, and is posted on the internet at truthout.org. The byline attributes authorship to a brilliant fellow calling himself William Rivers Pitt.
"The weekend of Feb. 15th saw this force [peace marchers] ram headlong into the will of men who walk in shadow, whose hands wield lightning and steel, pestilence and famine. In their ranks stand Presidents, Prime Ministers, corporate magnates, untouchable billionaires, and the advisors who whisper to them of empire and domination. They are few in number, but life and death flows from their fingertips in freshets and gouts. These men control the armies and navies of great nations, nuclear and chemical nightmares beyond measure, unassailable technological weapons and walls, the financial cords which hold the package together, the water, the air, the oil, and a global media machine by which they can obscure their designs with pleasing lies.
No mere citizen could do what these men in one moment can do with the crooking of a little finger. With a word, they can erase cities, deprive an entire populace of water and light, unleash disease and famine, annihilate the economies of dozens of nations, and imprison forever anyone who dares dissent. These men bleed, they sicken, they die, but in their time of life they can punch holes in the sky large enough to make Zeus wince with envy."
Hot damn! That reminds me why I'm an anglophile!
Man's history is not erased. It remains, plainly recorded in millions of little old books, clear for all with open eyes to see. Alas, as the sage said, ". . . if we fail to heed the lessons of history, we are doomed to repeat them."
Even a child should understand that.