Who Started the Fire?

In 1989, Billy Joel released his song “We didn’t start the fire,” a song that catalogues the events that took place throughout Mr. Joel’s lifetime. The overall message of the song is clear: the baby boomer generation—of which Mr. Joel himself is also a part of—was not to be blamed for the downsides and shortcomings of society. After all, these societal ills were around before the baby boomers were born, so thus, argues Mr. Joel, his generation should not be held accountable for historical responsiblities.

The song’s lyrics references dozens of historical accounts, events, and people all the way from Marilyn Monroe to the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion at a dizzying speed, adding to the songwriter’s case that societal events occur in such a manner that no particular generation can be singled out and found at fault.

Two decades have passed since Mr. Joel’s song charted #1 on the U.S. billboard top 100, and now a new generation of people, most popularly christened the children of the “digital age,” have come into existence. Though there has been an easing of finger-pointing over the years, the question still remains: are historical responsibilities inter-generational?

This question was proposed this year on August 25th at The University of Tokyo by Harvard professor of philosophy Dr. Michael Sandel. He asked the mostly Japanese audience of 300—picked by NHK out of an 8,000 strong applicant base—whether or not today’s generation of Japanese have any responsibilities for the crimes committed by previous generations.

Dr. Sandel, of course, was talking about the wartime atrocities committed by Japanese forces during World War II.

The audience found itself divided into two camps: one claimed that historical responsibilities are inter-generational, since each generation is built upon the achievements and faults of the previous one. In contrast, the other camp asserted that there are social paradigmatic shifts brought about by galvanizing change, which makes the idea of a Darwinian-Marxist model of an “evolutionary path of society” untenable.

This question is particularly interesting because the interpretations of the link between the concept of time and the concept of society clash most often at the country-level.

Both views of historical responsibility based upon a particular interpretation of time raised at Dr. Sandel’s lecture at The University of Tokyo were mentioned by Benedict Anderson mentions this in his book “Imagined Communities.”

 “The idea of a sociological organism moving calendrically through homogenous, empty time,” he observes, “is a precise analogue of the idea of nation, which is also conceived as a solid community moving steadily down (or up) history.” (p.26)

Which lies in stark contrast to the argument against this notion, namely a “more Foucauldian sense of abrupt discontinuities of consciousness.” (p.28).

The crucial fact that we must realize here is that historical responsibilities where the parties involved are at the nation-state level are mostly issues of restorative justice, and have little to do with the true academic inquiry of the time-society link.

What we ought to be analyzing, therefore, is whether or not restorative justice really eases the pain of the victimized party, or rather leaves the victimized party grinning after he has successfully capitalized on the descendants of the relenting aggressor.

Historical texts seem to indicate that events in history underscore man’s ineptitude to have amicable relations at the nation-state level. Large-scale wars have only been decreasing in the past half-century because of the deterrence offered by nuclear weapons and the birth of supranational organizations, however infantile and largely powerless they may still be.

The case for time-society links and the larger philosophical context in which it ought to be analyzed should be done, first and foremost, by consulting the notions of collective memory forwarded by Maurice Halbwachs, a French philosopher. Whereas “history” shared by nation-states inevitably introduces politics, shared experiences and collective memory of mankind as a species are factual and actuary.

Perhaps then, the notion of collective memory may be the nitrogen that finally extinguishes the “fire” Mr. Joel had mentioned in his masterwork song.

//By Ryo TAKAHASHI

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