Streams of Consciousness and History (Re-post)

First, my apologies for lack of posting recently. Things have been a tad bit hectic around here. I think you’ll find that some upcoming posts will have been well worth the wait. For now, however, please accept this re-post.

Yes, the title will make sense by the time the post is over. Hopefully.
Anyway, I was talking with some friends of mine the other day, and the topic turned to possible senior theses, and I mentioned that I might do mine on how recruiting for the North and South in Tennessee was affected by the way an area voted on secession, due to the fact that Tennessee had a sizable white population that was pro-Union and also had sizable areas occupied by the Union early on into the Civil War, thereby hopefully side-stepping the question of freed slaves joining the Union army while still actually having a sizable study field. One of my friends, who is very bright but who did not grow up in the United States, mentioned that Tennessee’s geography might have had something to do with that. I said yes and started talking about why, and the resultant discussion ranged from how Virginia spawned West Virginia to the economic origins of Southern cities to why the South and unions don’t go together.
No one who was in that conversation had any idea where it would end up going when we all said hello to one another, and the original and final topics of conversation, if not entirely unrelated, were definitely not the same. However, looking back on that conversation, every single slight turn taken in the topic was completely reasonable and logical at the time, until we’d gone from Civil War recruitment to economic theory. And this was in the space of about thirty minutes, a relatively short time as conversations go. Longer ones tend to go even further afield.
The point of all that is to say this: history is a lot like that, from the perspective of its non-eternal participants.
For instance, take the American War of Independence. I would be willing to bet that none of the men who fought for the independence of the colonies in that war could have imagined a nation that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific that did not include Canada, a nation that had fought a bloody civil war over slavery (Yes, in the end, that is what pretty much everything about the American Civil War comes back to–more on that in a later post (I should really start keeping track of these things that I keep saying I’ll discuss later)) and abolished it, a nation that had sent troops over to Europe twice, both times allied with both France and Britain, a nation that had gotten involved in a sixty-year long entangling alliance, a nation that could send two hundred thousand men to the Middle East in two months, and a nation electing a black man as president, much less all of these rolled into one.
Conversely, it is doubtful whether Sun Yat-Sen, the founder of the Republic of China, could have imagined a nation riven by warlords well into the 1940s, a nation that could not decide whether to fight itself or foreign invaders, a nation that would starve millions of its people to death in a failed attempt to industrialize, a nation that would attempt to destroy its intellectual class, a nation that would decide that a form of “market communism” (if such a thing could be said to exist) was the road to economic prosperity, and a nation that the United States is now in debt to, all rolled into one.
Yet, if you look at all of the decisions that led up to these things happening, each one made at least some degree of logical sense at the time, and also seemed to be a natural outgrowth of all the decisions that had gone on before.
This is not to say, of course, that the progression from the USA of the late eighteenth century to the USA of the early twenty-first century, or early twentieth-century China to early twenty-first century China was, at least from a non-eternal perspective, bound to happen as it did. There were decisions that were not made that were just as logical or more logical than the ones that were made, paths that could have been taken that might have been smoother. But that was the road taken.
The point is this: Whenever beginning some enterprise, or doing something that you think could change the course of history, or even embarking on a conversation with a friend, particularly when dealing with a matter that will affect large number of people, remember that it could go places you could not imagine in your wildest dreams.
Or your worst nightmares.

‘Til next time.

Lowell Van Ness


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