Friday, June 13, 2008

Time that "slips off the mind"

Two authors separated by nearly 50 years, conveyed very similar messages to me recently about our place in time, and the danger we pose to it.

The first was Thomas Friedman writing in the New York Times earlier this week about how Barack Obama is favorably perceived in the Middle East.

Friedman related how he was talking at a “Nile-side” restaurant with two Egyptian officials about Obama’s securing the Democratic nomination.

“…one of them quoted one of his children as asking: ‘Could something like this ever happen in Egypt?’ And the answer from everyone at the table was, of course, ‘no.’ It couldn’t happen anywhere in this region. Could a Copt become president of Egypt? Not a chance. Could a Shiite become the leader of Saudi Arabia? Not in a hundred years. A Bahai president of Iran? In your dreams. Here, the past always buries the future, not the other way around.”

The phrase that stuck was, “The past always buries the future, not the other way around.”

Edward T. Hall writing in his classic “The Silent Language” in 1959 noted that in the Middle East “…it is pointless to make an appointment too far in advance, because the informal structure of their time system places everything beyond a week in a single category of ‘future,’ in which plans tend to ‘slip off their minds.’”

Hall’s point, when applied to Friedman’s, isn’t that the past buries the future. It’s that for Middle Easterners, there is effectively no future as we understand it. The future, Hall writes, is in the hands of Allah. It is not a human concern. That’s why any discussion of the future is punctuated by the cautionary phrase, “God willing.”

Friedman’s “the other way around” is, of course, the future’s destruction of the past. That is pretty good description of how American’s perceive history. Our fixation on the future, destroys our past.

Then I thought of the extreme opposite as posed by Hall. Just as there is no future in the Middle East, for many Americans there is no past.

It “slips off our minds,” to use Hall’s words.

So it was that 35 years after the debacle in Vietnam, George W. Bush, hardly a student of history (or seemingly much else) invaded Iraq.

So it was that Bush could dismiss 30 years of scientific research pointing to global warming. It "slipped off his mind" all to protect carbon-generating industries’ profits.

When, if ever, will Americans look to the future not simply from the vantage of the persistent and pressing present (at its worst it is instant gratification, immediate rewards, swift vengeance, instant credit, quick returns), but from the vantage of understanding and wisdom rooted in the past?

Unless we assume such a vantage, we will destroy, both the future and the past.

And the present, for humanity, will no longer exist.

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