History, from Historians to Hobbesians

by Milo Clark

January 28, 2002


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We are told that people want peace above all.

And yet, invariably, those who hold power choose war. If there are, let us say, three sides to conflict, then naming those sides, if you will, determines attitudes among those whom we are told want peace and invariably get war.

In the early to later 1940s when Britain controlled Palestine under a post-WW I League of Nations mandate, Zionists blew up Brits at every opportunity. Brits returned the favor. Yesterday's Zionists whom the Brits named "Terrorists" are today's Israelis who name the Palestinians "Terrorists." Today's Brits tend to mumble in their chins on the subject of Israel.

Palestinians happen also to be mostly Moslems. Today those Moslems may be yesterday's Jews. All are mostly Semites. Moslems residing as citizens or resident aliens within the US have yet to develop commensurate political power and influence.

I would not like to be either Palestinian or Israeli as among either side there is little prospect for peace. We can wander through now numerous similar situations around the planet: Hutu-Tutsi; Green Catholic-Orange Protestant and so on and so forth.

Zionists in the USA discovered politics and became a strong political force with great, some say disproportionate influence in contemporary American politics. Through actualizing this discovery, American support for British actions in Palestine gave way to sponsorship for a Jewish state in Palestine. The Jewish or Zionist "Terrorists" became instant "Freedom Fighters." Most subsequent Prime Ministers, Generals and Presidents of Israel belonged to one of those organizations once terrorist and now freedom fighters whose namings changed with circumstances and political perspectives.

Daniel Quinn writes novels which display historical insights in fictive forms. Quinn has done an excellent job of going through the related historical processes in his books Ishmael, The Story of B, The Story of Civilization and others. Locking up the food and lusting for another's land, etc. breeds conflicts, i.e., wars. So-called religious or ethnic conflicts tend to mask underlying economic and demographic processes. Simple and relatively accurate.

Historians are human beings in spite of what many may think. They obey the exigencies of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs just as we do. They crave security and long for self-actualization. They pull on their pants or slacks just like we do. Historians to be historians rather than waiters or burgerfloppers need a job in which they are named "historian."

Given the decline in popularity of liberal arts or humanities, historians have job security problems and no union. Their jobs tend to be in academe which may, in these times, be an institution of "Higher Learning," a "Think Tank" or "Foundation." All these variants of the academy have one characteristic in common, i.e., "Publish or Perish." Another characteristic is that funding for these institutions tends to come primarily from sources which would be named "Conservative." There is a pronounced correlation between "Conservative" and "anti-union."

Historians write fictions which will insure their continued enjoyment of the privileges and perquisites of being named "historian" rather than "waiter" or "burgerflopper." Historians who write less fictively may continue to enjoy minor positions within The Academy but, not selling well, remain relatively short of material affluence and prestige accorded those enjoying royalties, grants, honoraria, etc. to supplement salaries.

There are those afflicted with the need to write for publication who are also relatively decent business people. They understand how to be published and what can be published which will also yield significant royalty income. They have names like Tom Clancy et al., and such. Tom Clancy et al., and such write engaging fictions which some will name "Propaganda." Other people will be puzzled thereby. Most outside academe and related groupings will never know the difference.

There are also those outside who are afflicted with the need to write and who will choose fiction to express themselves. Eve Bunting wrote a very simple narrative about war and peace called Gleam and Glow [Harcourt, Orlando FL, 2001, ISBN 0-15-205596-0]. It is normatively a children's book--hard cover, large format, large type, simple vocabulary, beautifully illustrated by Peter Sylvada.

She begins:

"When Papa left to join the underground, Marina cried. To be truthful, Mama and I cried, too. "I don't want Papa to be underground," Marina sobbed.

"Shh, Little one," Mama said, "It just means he's fighting secretly with many of our men. On top of the ground."

I gave Marina a pitying glance. She's only five and doesn't know much. I'm eight, and I know a lot.

Before he left, Papa tried to explain things to Marina.

"Why don't those people like us?" she'd asked.

I didn't know why, either, but I rolled my eyes and pretended I did.

"We're different from them," Papa told her. "They think this is their country and they don't want us living here. But this is our country. I will fight with the Liberation Army to stop them from pushing us out of our own land." He put his hand on my shoulder. "Viktor, you are the man of the house now. Be a strong help to your mother."

So, as you probably expect, war comes. Miserable people flood by heading for safety over a border. One man comes by with a small tank holding two gold fish which Marina names "Gleam and Glow." Unable to carry them, Marina puts the fish in a nearby pond. Soon Viktor, Marina and Mama are in the miserable flood of people walking toward the border. The family makes it across the border into a camp. Papa finds them there. Some years later the war ends. It is safe to return home now. Going back, all is found destroyed, reduced to rubble. Their house is a skeleton. Marina rushes to the pond. It is full of gold fish.

Why do I weep?"


"A note from the Author of Gleam and Glow

"There is a village called Jezero in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In 1990, before the Bosnian war, a villager named Smajo Malkoc gave his son two golden fish in an aquarium.

"When the war came, Malkoc's family fled from the Bosnian-Serb forces. In an attempt to save the fish, his wife released them into a nearby lake.

"In 1995, when the family returned home after the war, they found their house and village in ruins. The lake, however, was teeming with life—it was filled with shining golden fish. Left alone, the fish had fed on the underwater lake life, thrived and multiplied.

"Hearing of the remarkable fish, people came to admire and to buy. The fish turned out to be not only beautiful but valuable. Prosperity and fame came to the Malkocs and their neighbors, and the village was rebuilt.

Gleam and Glow was inspired by this true and magical story. Yet my version is not only a story for a particular country or people—it's for people everywhere who have been forced from the lives they have known, and who find hope in the most unexpected places."


Should I note that the return of the displaced, dehumanized people, the Malkoc's, from their years in diaspora resulted in a diaspora for the golden fish? Those humans released from a captivity return to create a captivity for the fish released. Is this a simple Hobbesian choice?

Shall we wander a bit among Hobbesian thought? Hobbes, who lived in the mid 1600s, mostly in England, challenged the divine right of kings while favoring monarchy as a proper and efficient exercise of powers derived from the people. Sam Adams, early American President,* is known to have been influenced by Hobbes. W (Bush II) is, in turn, an admirer of the monarchical tendencies of Sam Adams.

To Hobbes, absolute autocrats created or mirrored the circumstances for nasty, brutish and short lives of dehumanized peoples in a state of nature (pessimistic is the word generally applied to Hobbes). Autocrats are accepted by most peoples partially or mainly out of ignorance, take your choice. Therefore, it pays autocrats to keep their people ignorant, deluded about actualities.

Viewing humankind in a nasty, brutish and short life, Hobbes also wrote that people tended to be individualistic mechanically-behaving animals constantly at odds with others, whether humans or non-humans. In that sense, given Maslow's Hierarchy, in a state lacking stability or personal security, humankind exists in a context of warring for advantage, however ephemeral. Given fear as normal, fear of death as constant, people are willing to accept or to create a higher authority or state to which, in exchange for a degree of security and stability, they surrender their natural rights and submit.

Quite a mix of possibilities emerges through scanning Hobbes in the light of present events. Hobbes may be responsible for an itch which afflicted successor theorists such as Locke, Spinoza and Rousseau, not to mention the great moral philosopher, Adam Smith. Together and with others, these folks are seen as advocates for a Civil Society, which may be also named a liberal society.

In connection with Gleam and Glow, we may be confronted with a moral conundrum worthy of these great worthies. The state of nature for the released-from-aquarium golden fish was quite marvelous, I assume, in their terms. This quite marvelous situation for them, while bringing a degree of joy, material benefit and, perhaps, hope to Malkocs and other returning people of Jezero meant suffering for the fish which, in many ways paralleled the circumstances which drove the people from their homes and community into five years of misery.

From Hobbesian perspectives, then, the golden fish, given the choice, might prefer the humans to stay someplace else. That is, to leave them alone.

In earlier pieces for Swans, I have suggested that most of the people in the world would dearly love to be left alone to be what they are where they are. As a society, one can observe that the one alternative which we seem never to choose is to leave any one or any thing alone to be whatever they or it may be.

Hobbesian choice unexercised?


*  [ed. Correction added on February 23, 2005: Sam Adams never was "an early American President." He was a delegate to the Continental Congress who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and the Governor of Massachusetts from 1794 to 1797. His cousin, John Adams was the US second President, and his son, John Quincy Adams, the sixth. A careful reader, Doug Cross, caught the error on February 18, 2005 and we thank him for letting us know.]  (back)


       Milo Clark, a founding member of Swans, had it all: Harvard MBA, big house, three-car garage, top management... Yet, once he had seemingly achieved the famed American dream he felt something was missing somewhere. As any good executive he decided to investigate. Since then, he has become a curmudgeon and, after living in Berkeley, California, where he was growing bamboos, making water gardens, listening to muses, writing, cogitating and pondering, he has moved on to the Big Island in Hawaii where he creates thought forms about sunshine. Milo can be reached at Swans.

       Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Milo G. Clark 2002. All rights reserved.

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Published January 28, 2002
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