Growing up, I was constantly lectured about World War II and the Holocaust. Not a big surprise. I was born in 1947 and the war was barely over by then. Moreover, the lessons of the Holocaust was not lost on my family. Any members of my family that had not come to this country before the war, died in the Holocaust. How many? No one knows for sure.
My parents were permanently grateful to be living here, in the U.S. But they were never passively certain that everything was “just fine” in this country. There was HUAC. There was censorship. There was J. Edgar Hoover. Nor was I ever allowed to forget — not for a minute — that Germany didn’t get Hitler through some kind of military coup.
Hitler was elected. It happened there and it could happen here.
I didn’t believe them. How innocent I was.
In a country that was famed for its love of the arts and liberal democracy and free speech, Germany went from a haven for intellectuals and artists to the home of the most bestial leader in known history … and it happened in under ten years.
Gone. Maybe there were others equally brutal. Maybe many others as bestial or worse. That we don’t know their names mean nothing.
What I do know is that borders — the lines on the maps — are essentially meaningless. How many times have the “lines” bordering the U.S. changed as we acquired lands from Spain, Russia, France, and Mexico? How many nations in Europe have been part of one empire, then another, and another, and then one more?
I used to have an old globe in the house. It was created in the late 1950s and almost none of the borders in Europe on that globe exist today. For that matter, many of the names of countries are different. It was interesting as a historical document but useless as a map.
Africa has been made, remade, and made again along with Asia. Where does China begin or end? How big is Korea?
Remember East Germany?
It is presumptuous indeed that we believe our current borders are somehow more real than any other borders we’ve had. That Europe will not reshuffle itself in years to come. That the two Koreas will not at some point decide to rejoin. Or that Russia won’t decide to go and rearrange eastern Europe as it has done so many times before.
Even people who think they don’t believe in borders, really do. They are sure Texas is going to stay Texas and won’t, in some bizarre future iteration of the U.S., be returned to Mexico. Or that Maine won’t decide that Canada looks like a better deal than the U.S. Or Puerto Rico, tired of being our neglected toy, won’t join with other Caribbean countries to form a separate (but hopefully equal) nation.
The world isn’t a fixed ball with permanent lines drawn on the landscape. Hadrian’s wall and the Great Wall of China are huge reminders of how impermanent borders are. What we believe is all about who we are right now, this minute, this decade. This weekend.
As we go forward to celebrate the fourth of July, it’s wise to remember how much and how often the world changes. Our aging would-be demagogue could have a heart attack. The next election could turn the House of Representatives upside down. Or the demagogue could live long enough to eliminate democracy and found Imperial America. It happened to Rome and they were a lot older and better organized than we are.
Our idiotic arguments with our current allies (versus our earlier allies) mean nothing in the long run. Worse, we as individuals mean nothing either. Short of really blowing up the world, our presence or absence is of no great account except to those we love and who love us in return. Maybe the most important thing is to remember is who we love and who loves us back.
Is that comforting or the opposite? I’m not sure.
Sometimes my irrelevance is surprisingly comforting. The world will not rise or fall based on me, my opinions, or actions. That’s good, right?