Paul Greenberg / Jan. 21, 2009

The Mirror of Time

People ask what’s the latest. It’s almost a greeting, as in: What’s new? But what’s old can prove a more reliable guide. Because what has happened can explain what’s happening now. The mirror of time may be warped, for historians tend to have their own prejudices, but it can still be revealing. For example:

The combatants in the latest unpleasantness to rock the Middle East could scarcely seem more different. One side uses classic guerrilla tactics, hiding within a civilian population, terrorizing a neighboring state for years. When lesser responses failed, the other side strikes back with all the power of a modern army, navy, air force and intelligence apparatus.

Yet a closer look at Hamas, which is committed to Israel’s destruction, reveals a group as committed, as determined and single-minded as the early Zionist pioneers who, whatever their divisions, were also devoted to a single goal. Even if that goal was the creation of a state rather than its destruction.

Hamas and the Irgun, the resistance fighters/terrorists led by Menachem Begin when the State of Israel was still a dream, have a lot more in common than either might be willing to recognize. The similarities between them can be overdone; they cannot be denied.

If understanding is ever to come, perhaps it could begin with holding up the mirror of the past, and seeing one’s own passions reflected in the contorted features of the other.


To read the news from Russia these days is to wonder what year we’re in, or even century. In Churchill’s phrase, Russia remains a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. And the more it changes, or doesn’t, the more mysterious it remains.

Leon Aron, a scholar who has spent a long life studying the Bear that walks like a man, notes that the world’s financial turmoil has not spared Russia, and will only accelerate two old and conflicting trends in its history:

“The first will be a growing dissatisfaction with the government, which may lead to a political crisis. The second will be a reactionary retrenchment: Increased internal repression and more of its already troubling foreign policy….”

If one had to choose between those possibilities, which aren’t mutually exclusive, I’d lay odds on political repression. Where Russia is concerned, that’s almost always a safe bet. Vladimir Putin, currently prime minister and acting tsar, is already designing his next presidential term. He explains that a modest proposal to extend Russia’s presidential term to six years wasn’t tailored for him. Even though it fits his ambitions like a velvet glove over an iron fist.

Russia’s once and surely future president explains that this expanded presidency would promote democracy. (The Soviet Union may be gone but its familiar newspeak lives on.)

Pick up the mirror of time, and “democratic” Russia in 2008 looks a lot like imperial Russia in 1905, or any other time when popular discontent set off official repression. Which was more democratic and which more authoritarian, the tsarist empire of 1905 or the oh-so-democratic republic of 2009? It’s a toss-up.

There ought to be a yellow tape around Russia’s vast extent, like that at any other crime scene, to keep the unwary from approaching too closely – or pontificating too surely. The usual Russia experts will be full of the usual, contradictory advice for the incoming American administration about how to handle this mysterious realm. The safest way: with care. The past counsels patience, humility and a deep suspicion of easy answers to the riddle that Russia was, is, and will remain to the Western mind.


There will always be those who think they can free themselves from the lessons of the past, only to wind up repeating them.

Consider a comment from David Axelrod, campaign manager and now political consigliere to Barack Obama. He told NBC News the other day that a slowing economy means it’s more important than ever to eliminate the Bush tax cuts.

How’s that again? Raise taxes to stimulate the economy? Increase taxes on high-earning individuals and corporations in order to encourage investment? That’s not economics, it’s hokum.

It might clarify matters to hold up this soak-the-rich policy to the mirror of history. With the country coming out of the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt decided it was the time for some ideological rectitude. So among other things, his Revenue Act of 1936 raised taxes on corporate profits – not so much to benefit the poor but to punish the rich.

The immediate result: the Roosevelt Recession of 1937, which punished the whole country as investment lagged. The moral of the story: When the ideological takes precedence over the practical, disaster ensues.

The mirror of time can indeed be instructive – but only if one bothers to consult it.


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