It's been eerie to read this book during this time of downed drones and seized British tankers in the Persian Gulf, of seemingly "tolerated" North Korean missile tests, of an American July 4 celebration centered on a display of military might, and of an American president's assertion that chants of "Send her back" are patriotic.
I began writing this post on the day that Robert Mueller testified before Congress in a proceeding that proved beyond doubt that partisan politics matter more than Russian election interference and democracy. Since that day, I've been wondering how many of my fellow American citizens are resigned to manipulated vote counts. Maybe too many of the Viennese were similarly resigned to disenfranchisement and decline in 1914.
Please know this: I'm one of those "well-educated" people who understands much too little world history to deserve the well-educated label, so my historical interpretations deserve skepticism. But I am continually interested in human behavior, and especially in human inaction, especially my own. When does it reflect fatalism? hopelessness? laziness? exhaustion? privilege? temporary overload? authentic confusion about what to do and how best to do it? These are very different possible explanations for the same observable phenomenon.
Of late, I've been interested in the degree to which people embrace or avoid collective--as opposed to individual--action. Influencing my thinking have been a book about Quaker community practices** and an article about how the belief in a God who rescues the religiously good from worldly danger and destruction can lead some Christian groups not to take action to reverse climate change: the good need not fear its consequences.***
But while I was contemplating what motivates, facilitates, and hinders people's acting together, Morton's book reminded me not to forget the dark side of collective action and raised the following two questions: what if the only course of action that has both individual and mass appeal is killing one's "enemies"? Under what circumstances would such mass enthusiasm develop? Whereas I would have expected to address such questions in relation to Nazi Germany, I hadn't expected to confront them in relation to Austria in 1914.
|A Viking River Cruise on the Danube****|
While these heads of nations and empires and the ministers beneath them kept to their summer plans, their industrious underlings busily moved the world closer to war.***** As Morton explains,
"Power had drained from the thrones and chancelleries into the offices of Chiefs of Staff,"****** "the Chiefs drew their true prerogative from an unofficial but tremendous power,"****** and "The new power had divided the world into Allies-until-Victory and Enemies-unto-Death."*******Morton's book reminded me of how often I wonder who really is the architect of current American foreign policy. I already know which presidential appointees and advisors are more apt to advocate military solutions, which economic solutions, and which diplomatic solutions to conflict. But I'm not sure who listens to whom, who manipulates whom, and who really decides.
While his portrayal of failures of leadership makes me think of present-day America, I am also haunted by the way Morton describes the reactions of Austrian citizens to the imminence of war in 1914, especially those of the middle class citizens. Like most relatively ignorant students of history, I expected Austrians who did not share in the prosperity of their fellow citizens to welcome the chance to rebel. To my surprise, however, the prosperous middle classes were equally enthusiastic about the prospect of war:
According to Morton, people can get excited about going to war just because they're tired of being tired. Frankly, I think I understand that on some level: some people live such orderly, sensible, generally admired lives that it's easy to imagine their periodic yearnings for spontaneity, for unexpected joy, for breaking out of their respectable molds. But in general, the middle classes avoid the unexpected whenever they possibly can. So I really can't say I understand their lust for war in 1914.
But the poor weren't the only ones grateful for the zest provided by the crisis. The middle classes, too, felt exhausted and baffled. Progress had fed them well. Yet the more meat on the table, the less tang was there to each morsel, the more intolerable the superior cut of somebody else's steak. No doubt they were dining well. Were they still eating together? . . . Their mansions brimmed, but they did not feel sheltered. They promenaded in spats and top hats--where from? To what end?*********
High Steaks at the Bristol Restaurant & Bar********
And on the other hand, maybe I do. I did teach Hesse's Demian often during my teaching career. The novel's title character explains this shared sense of meaninglessness, of emptiness seeking transformation:
"'For a hundred years or more, Europe has done nothing but study and build factories! They know exactly how many ounces of powder it takes to kill a man, but they don't know how to pray to God, they don't even know how to be happy for a contented hour. . . . The world, as it is now, wants to die, wants to perish--and it will.'"**********"Successful" inhabitants of rotting worlds may be tempted by death if they can't imagine renewal without it. But what type of renewal is being envisioned and sought in present-day America? It's that question that again brings to my mind the last two lines of Yeats' "The Second Coming": "And what rough beast, its hour come at last,/ Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?"************
There's a lot of trouble in America these days. Strong, tolerated messages that some people are ruining the country and the world and that excluding, humiliating, punishing, and even killing them is acceptable behavior--even virtuous behavior from some perspectives. As for those of us who don't share these views, we're not all the same: some of us see what's happening and worry about it, some of us see what's happening and get busy doing something that we hope will counteract it, and some of us see what's happening and look away as quickly as we can. Meanwhile, August, the month when so many can and will go off on vacation, is practically here. Thunder at Twilight has me worrying about what can happen when people with power are away on vacation. But wait: Thunder at Twilight has me worrying what can happen when people with power are not on vacation. It's a perilous moment for sure.
* Morton, F. (1989). Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914. New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company.
** Check out Martin, M. (2016). Our Life is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey. San Francisco, CA: Inner Light Books.
*** Check out Ford, R. Q. (2019). The Parable of the Unjust Judge, the Book of Revelation, and the Denial of Climate Breakdown (Part Two). The Fourth R, 32-3 (May-June), 9--13, 20.****Morton, p. 310.
***** Morton, p. 311, 315.
*(6) Morton, p. 316.
*(7) Morton, p. 317.
*(9) Morton, p. 21.
*(10) Hesse, H. (1989). Demian (pp. 140-141). New York: Harper & Row.
*(11) Yeats, W. B. (n.d.). "The Second Coming". In The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (1989). Retrieved July 31, 2019, from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43290/the-second-coming.