Small World: In with the old

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Last week, I had a full day of servings for the intellect:  a lunch-time lecture, in the afternoon reading history, an evening DVD followed by  (most of) a television documentary. Plenty of ideas to mull over and put forward as profound concepts (particularly as they were ones I have long held). And the lunch wasn’t bad either.

The lecturer, dealing with “Bridging the Divide Between Islam’s Sunnis and Shia Sects,” emphasized the importance of observing differences and making clear distinctions when challenged by unfamiliar groups or ideologies.

The book I am reading is Return of a King, The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-41, by William Dalrymple. It describes the crushing defeat — massacre, really — of British occupying forces by independence-minded, fierce — wild, really — tribesmen. And then the brutal revenge inflicted on them by the British, also an ancient society.

The film, A Man for All Seasons, portrayed a ranking personality under Henry VIII who was brought down by his steadfast adherence to principle — even when that rule had become obnoxious to his king.

And finally, the documentary discussed the great challenge and achievement in building the Pennsylvania Railroad and its terminal in New York City, only to have that architectural masterpiece torn down when the railroad ran into hard economic times.

So what is to be made of these servings? Any common threads to tie the day’s explorations together? Any guidelines for the future?

If we have to limit the choice to a single idea, I would say it is to treasure the old, the work of our predecessors that can give purpose and guidance for our lives. Religion is, of course, the primary beneficiary of what went before, of ideas that were worked into a creed for those of us who followed. It is important, however, that outsiders pay attention to the details that distinguish separate divisions within larger frameworks.

We speak of Shia, for example, as if it is a monolithic structure. Actually, there are at least three main divisions (Twelvers, Zaidis and Ismailis) and a host of other sub-units in the countries where Shia populations live. Some may respect the Iranian, Khomeini-build model, but none outside Iran have chosen to replicate it. By insisting that “they’re all alike,” we push them into uncomfortable connections where they don’t belong.

Similarly, each society has evolved organically over long periods of time and cannot be quickly forced to change. Senior British diplomats, spies and generals stupidly thought they could impose their standards, methods and will on the primitive Afghan tribesmen and were repeatedly and disastrously proved wrong. This is hardly a new lesson. Those who ignore history, they say, are condemned — like modern Israelis and Americans — to repeat it.

What about the man of old principles, Sir Thomas More? He teaches a lesson as well, but not one many would care to practice. He gave up honors, treasure, his family and, ultimately, his life because of his devotion to his church. A man of uncommon faith and bravery, More retains renown as a symbol of principled strength and of the mark a lone human can leave in the world.

Leaving something for posterity: that is the work of architects. When Charles McKim designed and built the old Pennsylvania Station he adhered to classic principles and the world marveled at his accomplishment. But the building was privately owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad, which after World War II fell on hard times, needed money and decided in 1963 to replace the station with Madison Square Garden. About the only good that came of that decision was public outrage and the formation of a historic preservation commission in New York that has the power to prevent such a crime in the future.

Bridgton houses quite a few people with the character of Thomas More, perhaps even some with the spirit of Afghan tribesmen. I wish it had rules and a commission to preserve what is special and fine architecturally about the town and, we hope, might inspire the ideas of those yet to come.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.SourceURL:file://localhost/Users/wayne/Desktop/website%20stories/EP%20w9%20precht%20column.doc @font-face { font-family: "Times New Roman"; }@font-face { font-family: "Times-Roman"; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: "Times New Roman"; }table.MsoNormalTable { font-size: 10pt; font-family: "Times New Roman"; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }

EP w9 precht column

 

In With the Old

 

Last week, I had a full day of servings for the intellect:  a lunch-time lecture, in the afternoon reading history, an evening DVD followed by  (most of) a television documentary. Plenty of ideas to mull over and put forward as profound concepts (particularly as they were ones I have long held). And the lunch wasn’t bad either.

The lecturer, dealing with “Bridging the Divide Between Islam’s Sunnis and Shia Sects,” emphasized the importance of observing differences and making clear distinctions when challenged by unfamiliar groups or ideologies.

The book I am reading is Return of a King, The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-41, by William Dalrymple. It describes the crushing defeat — massacre, really — of British occupying forces by independence-minded, fierce — wild, really — tribesmen. And then the brutal revenge inflicted on them by the British, also an ancient society.

The film, A Man for All Seasons, portrayed a ranking personality under Henry VIII who was brought down by his steadfast adherence to principle — even when that rule had become obnoxious to his king.

And finally, the documentary discussed the great challenge and achievement in building the Pennsylvania Railroad and its terminal in New York City, only to have that architectural masterpiece torn down when the railroad ran into hard economic times.

So what is to be made of these servings? Any common threads to tie the day’s explorations together? Any guidelines for the future?

If we have to limit the choice to a single idea, I would say it is to treasure the old, the work of our predecessors that can give purpose and guidance for our lives. Religion is, of course, the primary beneficiary of what went before, of ideas that were worked into a creed for those of us who followed. It is important, however, that outsiders pay attention to the details that distinguish separate divisions within larger frameworks.

We speak of Shia, for example, as if it is a monolithic structure. Actually, there are at least three main divisions (Twelvers, Zaidis and Ismailis) and a host of other sub-units in the countries where Shia populations live. Some may respect the Iranian, Khomeini-build model, but none outside Iran have chosen to replicate it. By insisting that “they’re all alike,” we push them into uncomfortable connections where they don’t belong.

Similarly, each society has evolved organically over long periods of time and cannot be quickly forced to change. Senior British diplomats, spies and generals stupidly thought they could impose their standards, methods and will on the primitive Afghan tribesmen and were repeatedly and disastrously proved wrong. This is hardly a new lesson. Those who ignore history, they say, are condemned — like modern Israelis and Americans — to repeat it.

What about the man of old principles, Sir Thomas More? He teaches a lesson as well, but not one many would care to practice. He gave up honors, treasure, his family and, ultimately, his life because of his devotion to his church. A man of uncommon faith and bravery, More retains renown as a symbol of principled strength and of the mark a lone human can leave in the world.

Leaving something for posterity: that is the work of architects. When Charles McKim designed and built the old Pennsylvania Station he adhered to classic principles and the world marveled at his accomplishment. But the building was privately owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad, which after World War II fell on hard times, needed money and decided in 1963 to replace the station with Madison Square Garden. About the only good that came of that decision was public outrage and the formation of a historic preservation commission in New York that has the power to prevent such a crime in the future.

Bridgton houses quite a few people with the character of Thomas More, perhaps even some with the spirit of Afghan tribesmen. I wish it had rules and a commission to preserve what is special and fine architecturally about the town and, we hope, might inspire the ideas of those yet to come.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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