Between the Reformation and the rise of Napoleon (1500-1800) Europe laid the groundwork for the global hegemony that countries like France, Britain and the United States have enjoyed in the last two. The political and technological developments of the early modern European states created an enduring legacy of power and influence. To be sure, the West has been both a force for good in the world and a source of oppression for peoples abroad. The collision of world cultures has been a mixed blessing for many of the nations, colonial powers, and developing countries involved. Those who dwell only on the brighter moments and those who emphasize the dark chapters, I submit, reveal their jingoistic and self-righteous viewpoints respectively. Steer your course away from both rocky shorelines with a self-critical spirit as your rudder. History requires a more layered metaphor for me; it is like the perversely enigmatic minor major seventh chord, dissonant and shrill. You think that something’s wrong, you’re intrigued, and you await a resolution. But the cacophony of life doesn’t always resolve itself in the way we would expect.
There’s no guarantee that a study of the past will ensure a brighter tomorrow, for such a hope presupposes that everyone is on the same page, has equal access to the world’s resources, and is beholden to a similar vision for the future. Without such knowledge, however, we will most certainly step into the abyss. Hopefully we will not see World War III; our grandchildren and great-grandchildren can deal with it decades after our demise. We should strive to change the world for the better, but, not expecting miracles, realize deep down that certain undesirable activities are endemic to humankind. Like my mother-in-law who mistakenly thought eating Jenny Craig meals and her normal fare would help her shed some pounds, you come to realize that, sometimes, you can’t have it both ways. We can’t expect a sanguine future and at the same time ignore reality on the ground. Besides, you just might have your money refunded and find yourself banned from the program.