A History of the Third Dimension: Past Future Visions of 3D in Movies

3D Glasses

The future would be brilliant, glowing, and rich in color. The future would be lifelike on the screen as much as off. The future, Hollywood attempted – and attempts – to tell us, is 3D.

Watching Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One in 3D a few days ago, I was once again struck by how bad a deal 3D is for cinemagoers. Despite a discount for a weekday showing, I paid an extra three Euros for the privilege of seeing the movie in 3D. It felt like less for more. I am not alone in that assessment. Vice‘s Meghan Neal summed it up succinctly:

The problem is, 3D is often not a premium viewing experience at all. For many people (myself included) it’s a far worse experience than seeing the movie in regular 2D, so now you’ve paid extra money for two hours of unpleasantness.1

Two years earlier, in 2014, Jeff Bakalar, writing for CNET.com, had come to the same conclusion:

As much as the movie studios would like the opposite to be true, 3D movies are handicapping the theatergoing experience and there’s almost never a time you should pay extra for it.2

I paid more money in order to see a movie that was, as the overwhelming majority of so-called “3D” movies are, shot in 2D. Ready Player One, chock full of CGI scenes set in a futuristic, immersive alternative reality, was nonetheless exposed onto Kodak 35mm film stock in Panavision cameras whenever actual actors took the stage. This is not a bad thing. In fact, though I am perfectly happy to record 4K video on my iPhone for home videos and low budget cinematography using DSLRs and mirrorless cameras has opened doors for many creatives, movies shot on film still to me look “right.” A preference, for sure. But one that was informed by over a century of motion pictures that were naturally captured and presented this way since there was simply no alternative.

Patent for a 3D Movie System
Patent for a 3D Movie System

If you go into a movie theater today you will, unless you happen to live in a place where an IMAX theater is available and playing the film you want to watch, see a 3D presentation that uses the same projectors as 2D movies use. Since 3D, however, has to display two distinct images which are then filtered by a pair of unwieldy and seemingly always already smudged plastic glasses to create the 3D image, the brightness of such a presentation is about half of what you’d see if you were watching a 2D movie.

To be fair to the technology, this isn’t inherently a problem with 3D. In the age of high-powered Laser projection, this loss of brightness could in theory be compensated for. A general lack of care in cinema projection rooms the world over, owing to cost-cutting by cinema owners by hiring less, and less qualified staff than would be needed to run projectors smoothly and without a hitch, is most often to blame here.

In the words of Den of Geek‘s Brendon Connelly:

The 3D format doesn’t inherently result in darker, dimmer, less focused images, but the typical multiplex has a terrible track record in taking the few, neither difficult nor expensive steps to make sure 3D is being presented properly.3

In essence, then, through a combination of technology, marketing, and the economic bottom line, 3D today means you a) pay more to b) watch a movie that was not captured in 3D. To see it you have to wear c) a decidedly non-futuristic and often uncomfortable pair of plastic goggles which d) make the picture significantly duller. The 3D effect, in most cases, does not make up for this. I’d prefer to see a brilliant, colorful image instead of a dull excuse for a presentation in which sometimes, maybe, something pops out of the screen.

Not everyone is bearish on 3D, though. Michael V. Lewis, in a 2017 piece for Variety argued that “3D will continue to transport our imaginations light years ahead.” Then again, Lewis is the CEO of RealID, which bills itself “the world’s largest 3D cinema platform with more than 32,000 screens in 72 countries.”4

Past Futures of 3D

3D for decades has meant the promise of a better, more immersive medial experience. Of a narrative world that would not only be presented to you, but envelop you. Without fail, it has been, for the most part, a disappointment. This is despite 3D image projection having a long history dating back to the middle of the nineteenth century, and the technology to make it work reasonably well as projected still or moving pictures has been around since the 1920s.

The 3D in use today is essentially the same basic technology developed by Edwin H. Land and others at Polaroid. Incidentally, the company that became synonymous with instant photography, first produced polarizers that split light. Since a polarizer lets through only light of a certain orientation, by using one on each eye with their polarization offset by 90 degrees, one can filter out the unwanted parts of an image. A projection system that works in sync with these glasses can thus project two images onto one screen at the same time, and the glasses will feed only the image meant for the right eye to the right eye and vice versa.5

The first big push for 3D came in the 1950s. Much like Cinerama, Cinemascope, and other widescreen formats, as well as the ever-elusive Smell-o-Vision, it was born out of the confluence of technological progress and the advent of television.

My own father recalled how his parents, financially stable but far from rich in Post-War West Germany, calculated one day the cost of the many times they went to the cinema, and decided that amortization for what was then a splurge of an investment, a black and white tv set, would not be too far off. Their case is typical. People who had become accustomed to being entertained by the big screen several times a week traded in the size of the movie screen for the convenience of their own couches. The movie industry reacted with complicated, expensive, impressive, or simply different ways of presenting movies. This is what gave us Cinemascope widescreen motion pictures, and improved definition and depth from 70mm projection. And it gave us 3D.

Ultimately, the technology was brought down by some of the same issues that surround 3D today: price (studios wanted to rent out two copies of a film for 3D, since each eye needed to see one), and the sloppiness of projectionists.6

3D had another straw fire in the 1980s. This, too, did not last.

The current 3D craze dates to 2010. To be more exact, it dates to one movie (and, some might argue, the only movie) which showcased what the technology was capable of: Avatar. With studios riding the coattails of Avatar‘s success and hastily converting movies to play in 3D that gained little or no benefit from the technology, audiences quickly became fed up with 3D – again. Although 3D has not died, the hype fizzled pretty quickly.

You may have noticed that there is essentially always something like twenty-five years between these attempts. Time for a generation to have grown up that does not remember 3D was ever a thing, and that does not remember the problems that come with the technology and/or its lackluster implementation. Enough time, too, to hope that technology has moved on to obsolete the issues with 3D that led to the end of the previous wave.

You Don’t Want 3D (Yet)

All 3D Systems suffer from drawbacks. Most importantly, that all of them require specialized capture systems if the 3D effect is to be convincing, and that none of them work with just 3D projectors alone. You, as the viewer, also have to do something. You have to put on 3D glasses. Unless this limitation goes away, and leaves behind with it the headaches (literal, in the case of 3D cinema, as well as virtual), 3D will not become the default option for screened entertainment.

Technologies fail, over and over again, if they are not able to insert themselves successfully into the everyday habits of people. Despite being ostensibly higher quality or more convenient than what came before, media formats of all kinds have failed because they were too expensive, incompatible, suffered from limited availability, or a combination of all of the above.

8-Track cartridges lost out to the smaller, cheaper, cassette tapes. The APS photo format, pushed by camera manufacturers in the 1990s and 2000s, offered more flexibility than the 35mm film then typically used for snapshots at the cost of somewhat reduced quality. But not enough. It never gained a strong foothold in the market, and was eventually doomed by a technology that had almost all of its advantages, but none of the disadvantages: the digital photo camera.

Augmented reality (AR), too, has been much more successful to date than virtual reality (VR). Augmented reality only requires you to use technology you already own in a somewhat different way. The Pokémon Go craze of a few years back was made possible because many people had the necessary technology – a smartphone – already in their pockets. VR, in contrast, requires us to buy expensive, specialized displays in the form of unwieldy glasses that, even if one owns them, one doesn’t just carry around.

This wave of 3D, too, seems to be cresting. IMAX, the company behind many a giant-screen nature documentary and some of the better 3D projections around, announced in 2017 that its future plans include fewer 3D showings. Instead, it plans to capitalize on IMAX-ready 2D movies, such as those shot in large film formats. According to IMAX CEO Greg Foster:

Consumers in many markets are showing a clear preference […] It’s apparent that the demand for 2D film is starting to exceed that of 3D in North America, and we’ll be looking to keep more of our films in 2D as a result.7

If your preferences are similar, you can go see Ready Player One not in 3D, nor as a digital projection, but in the grand scale 70mm format that made 2001 look outstanding fifty years ago. In glorious 2D.


  1. Meghan Neal, “Why Are 3D Movies Still a Thing?,” Vice, May 12, 2016. https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/8q8xy3/why-are-3d-movies-still-a-thing
     
  2. Jeff Bakalar, “Here’s Why Watching 3D Movies Is Miserable,” CNET.com, May 30, 2014. https://www.cnet.com/news/heres-why-watching-3d-movies-is-miserable
     
  3. Brendon Connelly, “How the Film Industry Blew It with 3D,” Den of Geek, June 24, 2016. http://www.denofgeek.com/uk/movies/3d/41729/how-the-film-industry-blew-it-with-3d
     
  4. Michael V. Lewis, “3D Shows Enduring Value, Delivering Entertainment Not Found at Home (Guest Column),” Variety, August 24, 2017. http://variety.com/2017/voices/columns/3d-movies-audiences-1202535879
     
  5. For the technical side of things, see: Eddie Sammons, The World of 3-D Movies. Delphi, 1992. https://thefsu3dproject.files.wordpress.com/2010/02/sammons-two3dm-300dpi-c.pdf
     
  6. John Hayes, “‘You see them WITH glasses!’… A Short History of 3D Movies,” Wide Screen Movies Magazine. Last revised September 14, 2014. Esp. subsection “Decline and Fall…” http://widescreenmovies.org/WSM11/3D.htm 
  7. Ashley Rodriguez, “The reign of 3D is over in US cinemas,” Quartz, July 27, 2017. https://qz.com/1039936/imax-says-no-too-the-reign-of-3d-movies-is-over-in-us-cinemas 

Past Prologue: In Between Conferences

Past Prologue

Easter saw me returning from a trip across Europe for two back-to-back conferences, the biannual conference of the International Association of Inter-American Studies, Reinventing the Social: Movements and Narratives of Resistance, Dissension, and Reconciliation in the Americas at the University of Coimbra, Portugal, and Imagining the History of the Future: Unsettling Scientific Stories at the University of York in England.

York
York

I presented two very different papers. One, concerned with the idea of the outlaw in the American West that I gave at Coimbra connected to my dissertation research on the nineteenth-century American Southwest. One on the history of the future in York was tied to my current project on the history of popular books describing and diagnosing society in Germany and the United States during the 1970s and 1980s.

Coimbra University
Coimbra University

Hindsight is indeed 20/20 (which, sidebar, is a wonderfully accurate expression because 20/20 vision is not perfect, but average). What I could not see during the past years became clear and now is obvious: one is quite influenced by one’s surroundings. In this case, my presentation on legality and extralegality in the American Southwest benefitted from a recent volume that emerged out of my former employer, the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies (Jens Beckert and Matías Dewey’s The Architecture of Illegal Markets: Towards an Economic Sociology of Illegality in the Economy).

Though it is concerned with markets, I found the ideas presented in this volume a very useful jumping-off point for thinking about legality and legitimacy in the American Southwest. The American West has, bewilderingly, been described at the same time as especially lawless and violent, and as relatively tame compared to the cities of the US East Coast.

Much of this is, of course, down to how one interprets sources and which statistics one deigns to trust. There is a fundamental discrepancy here, though, which to me comes down to how people perceived the place they were living in as opposed to how it compared to other places in terms of recordable data. It would not have occurred to me that this work, despite being done in close proximity to me, could so directly influence my thinking on something entirely unrelated.

As for my paper at York, at what was the most singularly insightful and fascinating conference on the broad topic of “science” and “future” I will likely attend during this Saturnian year, it benefitted from recalling a comment by Roger Launius that he was reminded of Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth when hearing about my project. At the time, four or so years ago, I filed this away as interesting, but couldn’t quite place it. In the York paper, things had finally congealed and came together.

 
None of this is especially surprising, but it bears reminding oneself that research is a strange and meandering journey, and that those of us who embark on it should sit in the crow’s nest scanning the horizon, but also climb down and talk to people every once in a while.

In ten days, I will head off to the next conference, The Production of Information: Technologies, Media Markets, and Labour in the Twentieth Century in Hamburg. This will be the third new paper I’ll present in as many weeks, and I’m especially excited because I will be talking about Amazon’s analog forebears. If the past is any kind of reliable prologue, this meeting, too, should be very much worth the trip.

Deactivating Facebook

You may have landed here because you were looking for me on the internet. If you looked for me on Facebook, you may have noticed I’m not there. I’ve deactivated my account. That’s not the same as outright deleting it. I’m not saying I’ll never be back. But I’m not there now.

Here’s the message I put on my Facebook account upon leaving, for reference:

Dear all:

Facebook. Ok, I’m exhausted.

There’s a new development in the Facebook data kerfuffle every day or so. This has been a long time coming. Facebook has never been forthcoming about data sharing and what exactly it’s doing, or really cared to inform us. This is nothing new, but so far it’s always been a “I’ll suck it up because everyone’s here and this is a useful platform” kind of thing. But I’m just too annoyed and tired now, and I’m deactivating my account. For a bit. Or forever.

Why am I out now? I’ve been on this platform since 2006, and it’s been fun. It’s been enlightening at times, but it’s also been a giant timesuck. I am not above a timesuck, but honestly it’s just not as much fun anymore.

I’m not turning into a luddite or lobbing sabots into machines. I’ll keep other social media accounts, some of them even with companies owned by Facebook.

You can find me on Twitter. Not that Twitter doesn’t have its own problems. But for now, it’s more useful to me. And more fun. I’m @torstenkathke there in a professional capacity, and @ictusoculi for private stuff. The line between the two is thin, admittedly.

You can find me on WhatsApp using my phone number, which is in my Facebook profile (since WhatsApp is also in the Facebook universe, you probably won’t have a hard time finding me there) and I’ll try to create a Facebook Messenger account that’s not tied to a Facebook account. Not sure how useful that’ll be, but I’ll give it a shot.

I’m on Instagram as @ictusoculi as well. There’s another Facebook property I’m not leaving. I’m not out of the world. I want to be findable and responsive. Just not here, not all the time.

I also will try to use some of the time I get back from not procrastinating on Facebook to procrastinate some blog posts on thushistory.com into existence. That’s a WordPress blog, so if you have an account with them, I’d love to see you follow me there. The Facebook pages for Thus, History! and IctusOculi will also stay up, so if you’d like to follow my activities on those sites on Facebook, follow those pages instead.

I’ll be deactivating my Facebook account. For now. Maybe there will be a time when I feel differently again, and I’ll be back. For now I just need to take a breath. I’ll leave the account up for a bit so you have a chance to see this.

I’m not slipping out quietly, and I’m not making a huge scene. I’ll just be somewhere else for a while or a year or a life. We’ll see.

–Torsten

Interview with Mediendienst Integration

Mediendienst Integration recently interviewed me. It’s a German site that acts as a clearinghouse for all kinds of news and information related to the topic of migration, as well as everything related to it. I discussed past visions of the future and how they may affect how we see our present and future today.

The interview (in German) can be found here: “Vieles wird uns im Rückblick absurd erscheinen”.

Out Now Everywhere: My Book ‘Wires That Bind’

Wires That Bind - Image

I am very happy to announce that my book Wires That Bind: Nation, Region, and Technology in the Southwestern United States, 1854–1920 is now available worldwide, including at retailers in the US, UK, and Australia.

Find it at Transcript Verlag, Columbia University Press, Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and many other places.

Decide: The French Election and the Untenable Position of Abstention

Dark Prospects. Storm Clouds over the Eiffel Tower. Photo by Benny Jackson.

Slavoj Žižek bemoans in The Independent that the upcoming French run-off election means no choice at all because between Le Pen and Macron, the French people face a choice between right wing nationalism now and its return to the political forefront five years from now.

He recommends abstaining.

No.

Predictions Are Not Certainties

Didier Eribon has a similar argument. They both forget that voting in Le Pen now means Le Pen now. It means an anti-European nationalist French president from a party still suffused by unrepentant fascists wants to have a vote about exciting the EU before the effects of Brexit have truly begun or even been begun to be understood. Eribon and Žižek make no distinction between Le Pen’s openly race-baiting statements that would, even without any legislative changes, directly and direly affect people of color, and Macron’s uncomfortable capitalist centrism.

We have seen the emboldenment of the far right after the British Brexit vote and after America’s election of Donald Trump. When feelings of hatred against the other become normalized by a country’s leaders, there are always consequences. If you try to stay pure above the fray, you’re unlikely to be thanked by the people on whose side you’re ostensibly on, but for whom you won’t incur the inconvenience of a vote for the less reprehensible candidate.

Slavoj Žižek in 2015. Image by Amrei-Marie
Slavoj Žižek in 2015. Image by Amrei-Marie / Wikimedia Commons.
The argument Žižek and Eribon make is that voting for Macron now would mean only prolonging the status quo, and would then most likely mean a president Le Pen in five years. That may be, especially if people really do sigh in relief and stand back from politics after Macron’s election, as Žižek contends will happen. It may be, that’s the point. It also may not. It’s speculation about a future that might happen, adduced as an argument in the here and now.

A Thought Experiment

Here’s a thought experiment: If people really think there’s no choice between Le Pen and Macron, why not be honest about it and flip a coin for the vote? Is anyone seriously considering that? Say you are a left-of-center French voter. Say you flip a coin and it comes out Le Pen. Would you vote for her, as after all it makes no difference because there is no choice? If you wouldn’t, you have your answer what to do.

Dark Prospects. Storm Clouds over the Eiffel Tower. Photo by Benny Jackson.
Dark Prospects. Storm Clouds over the Eiffel Tower. Photo by Benny Jackson.
If history teaches us anything, it is that contingencies and circumstances matter. Often, outcomes that define the lives of millions for decades or even centuries rested on flukes of weather, communication, or personality. The European idea and its corollary of continental peace are facing opposition now, and whatever you think five years may bring, they may be decisive years. Years in which cooperation between European nations will either falter or be resuscitated. Years in which a hard Brexit could serve as a warning to those who elsewhere would risk the fate of their countries, and of all others in the EU, by attempting to go it alone.

It is beyond hubris to pontificate inaction on the basis of predictions you base in naive forecasting of the past and present. It is also a position drenched in unrecognized privilege. As Eleanor Penny astutely observes in Huck:

Once again, Žižek happily coronates himself as latest champion in an illustrious line of white male accelerationists who glibly gamble on the lives of people of colour for the possibility of their pure revolution, while they kick back in comfort and wait for utopia.

Voters should not abdicate their responsibility as citizens because they do not want to lower themselves to the down-and-dirty depths of realpolitik. Voting blank or not voting means letting others decide. Voting blank is obviously a popular position among the left who have long railed against the neoliberal capitalism that Macron makes a pretty good poster boy for. They understandably do not want to support it. In their view, a blank vote means a vote of protest against both untenable candidates. It is not. It is a vote to absolve oneself while letting someone else make hard decisions about the future of the country.

Decide

If you wash your hands of the election, you may find it easy to pretend you are blame free if something does not go your way later. But that is the petulant child’s way out. There’s a naive idealism about the stance. The belief that you can have all, or most of the things you want from politics with a vote, when in reality it’s almost always a choice of the lesser of two evils.

Thankfully, there are some influential voices on the European left who understand the stakes. Yannis Varoufakis makes the case for the left to vote for Macron with the same passion and conviction with which they should then oppose his policies once he is in office.

If you are a French voter, you should heed his call. Otherwise, be honest and flip a coin.

Video: My Talk at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies

Zukunftserwartungen im Rückblick

Back in November of 2016, I held a talk at my former academic home, the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies. I’ve only recently come across it in easily shareable form, as a video on Vimeo.

The talk was part of the institute’s annual “Institutstag” which showcases the research produced there. The video is in German. If you understand that language, you can watch it here:

Art Is Worth Fighting For

Sir Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577 - 1640 ), The Fall of Phaeton, c. 1604/1605, probably reworked c. 1606/1608, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art.

Science, we march for. The humanities, however, have not fared well lately. That is, the way we talk about the humanities has not been much in the way of appreciative. Call it utilitarian, or neoliberal, or just the way the world works these days. We do not value sitting down to philosophize. We do not value art for art’s sake, finding it somehow frilly and extra, not central and worthy of celebration. We therefore do not value the people who study art, who look at it in detail, and try to explain what it means and what it can do.

I’ll back up a stretch. This is not a typical post. It is not about historic events and how they relate to today’s world. It’s not about events in the present that have ties in events in the past. Well, it is in the sense that everything is, because everything does in fact have a history. This post does not wear that association on its sleeves, though. Here are, instead, a few thoughts about art.

Edward Hopper, Haskell's House, American, 1882 - 1967, 1924, watercolor over graphite on paperboard, Gift of Herbert A. Goldstone. National Gallery of Art.
Edward Hopper, Haskell’s House, 1924. National Gallery of Art.

There appears to be a notion floating about the thoughtsphere in Western societies that art is somehow something we can do without. That art is somehow not valuabe and not hard work. Let’s leave aside for the minute that out fetishization of “hard work” for its own sake is a decidedly fraught concept. There is necessary work and there is hard work, and they are not automatically commensurate. There is no logical reason why necessary work must always be hard. Dedication matters. Getting it right matters, whatever your definition of right is. But if that comes easily it is not less valuable. The fetishization of hard work also perpetuates a nobility of plight: it’s character-building to struggle to make ends meet. This is valued. Why it is valued at the same time that so many of those who have the most never have to do it is not explained.

But I digress. Art. Art matters.

Recently, I have been moving my life into and out of boxes. There are many tedious tasks to be performed when you are on either side of a move. Sometimes you just sit and sort things. When I have to do this I often sit in front of a playing radio or television. I have used these times to watch a few documentaries lately. If your interest – or even degree – is in American Studies and cultural history as is mine, many of these documentaries turn out to be documentaries about art, and about the people who make, like, and appropriate art.

There are documentaries about those who make food and drink and put craft and thought and love into it. It gives them meaning and it gives us things that enrich life. There are movies about the devotees of this movie or that series, of comic books and video games. All this is culture. All this is art. All of these things are the things that make life worthwhile for a huge number of people. On some level, art and culture are at the basis of everything humans do. The mistake, all too often, is again to separate the necessary from the hard, though the knife cuts differently here: we have trouble telling what is necessary for survival and what is not. Survival even just a nudge above the basic needs pyramid is bound to mental health, and mental health needs relationships and things to live for. It needs art to inspire. It always, anywhere, needs art.

At the Water's Edge – Piegan. Edward Curtis. Library of Congress.
Edward Curtis, At the Water’s Edge – Piegan. Library of Congress.

Art is human. Nothing is more human than art.

A quotation about this has been making the rounds, attributed to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Asked to cut arts funding to aid the war effort in World War II, the meme goes, Churchill supposedly responded: “Then, what are we fighting for?” This, as most any quotation that appears to good to be true, is not true.

There is, however, a passage Churchill actually wrote which may have given rise to the myth. It was both more stilted and less quotable, but the sentiment remains: ”Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which are their due.” (And yes, ill fares the mid-twentieth-century writing that casually employs the word “race” in a non-critical manner). Churchill wrote this in 1938, so he wasn’t yet fighting any wars. His words should matter at any time. Ill we fare, all of us, indeed, if art is derided and made fun of. This is not the controversial bit.

Art Supplies.
Art Supplies. Image by Khara Woods.

What is controversial is that societies should make room for art that many people don’t care for or don’t understand. What is controversial is that governments should collect and distribute money in the service of the arts. It’s fine to argue whether you like this artist or that painting, the installation over there, that photo or that movie. That’s a level of discourse we should be engaging in. What we shouldn’t question is the existence of art for art’s sake as useless. In fact, the whole phrase may be a misnomer. If there is no art for art’s sake, there is no one who can build on it with other art. There is no one who can question its motives and its quality, and its execution.

Those who attack one of the most human, most fundamental efforts as something that does not improve the bottom line are sadly ascendant, and they are very unfortunately not able to see the whole of the picture: that if you think of a society worth living in and worth fighting for, you always, always think of a society in which a culture is venerated and upheld. There is no culture without art.

Those, then, who study the products of these cultures, the accidental and purposeful works of art they create, have something incredibly valuable to contribute to that society. They keep alive the old and they support the new in art. They tell us who we were and who we might be and may become. They, in a fundamental sense, are us.

And we are something worth fighting for.

The Center Must Hold for a Peaceful Europe

Europe's Ties. Photo by Andras Barta.

It is not an exaggeration to say that with the upcoming French presidential election, the future of Europe hangs in the balance. To wit, Europe, not simply, not “just” the European Union, hated neoliberal juggernaut to some and hated overreaching government without legitimacy or legitimation to others. It is not an exaggeration to say that peace hangs in the balance.

Marine Le Pen and the Le Penites the world over seek to return us to protectionism, high nationalism, and generally a much rougher world scene under the banner of base appeals to pride and pages from the playbook of populism. This is not uncharted territory. This is the playing field of nineteenth and twentieth century European history until the founding of what was to become the European Union. I am not being coy. I am not being dramatic. The simple truth is that Europe, the continent to bring forth two world wars, the only world wars, within the space of a generation, has for the most part known unprecedented and luxurious peace for over seven decades.

The difference is the EU. It’s a maddeningly stubborn thing, a creature sui generis without precedent and without comparison. It is of itself and it’s far from perfect, but perfect is not a real world expectation. Not for a construct that affects more than 500 million people. But it is the thing that today and tomorrow guarantees peace amongst the many small nations and small interests of a famously war-torn mass of land.

France in Europe.
France in Europe. Image by Pixabay/FotoshopTofs, CC0.

The French left and center-right have done their damnedest to make this election easy for Le Pen, the candidate of tempered fascist rhetoric. Though there is trouble brewing, again, for the right-wing candidate, her chances are real, and the potential consequences of a Le Pen presidency are most dire. So this is not the time for fights among those in the center and on the left. The simple call to arms is this: the center must hold. The center must hold. If it does not, the star-crossed galaxies of perceived national interest and us-against-themism will  spiral ever farther apart.

What starts as a Brexit-like protest against regulation and against big money and against the ever-scary other that one thinks has taken up too much room in our midst knows only one trajectory: toward the tiny, the petty, the spiteful. That way, and may I be forgiven the broad strokes necessary here, history has demonstrated, lies conflict, lies chaos and suffering, death. What peace, you may say, are we defending? A peace in which so many still do not have a voice, and in which unfairness persists on all too many levels? This is a pertinent question, but a question that can only be asked at a time of relative comfort. With peace, we may not have everything. Without peace, we have so much less.

The French election, and its upcoming counterpart in Germany, will decide the fate of the European Union. They will mean the difference between continued peace and resurgent war. Not today, perhaps, not in the next year, or two, or even longer. Eventually, however, if the EU withers, so withers an understanding of what is possible and impossible between the nations that comprise it, and that can be only for ill. Eventually, these nations well may return to the ultranationalist templates, to patterns of force and friction that for thousands of years reigned supreme. If that is the case, we will record these seventy-odd years as a fluke, a naively happy reprieve from the inevitable darkness. As a historian and as a citizen, this is not a story I am eager to one day write.

In terms of real choices, it’s true, the alternative candidates may not be to your liking, in this election or really any election. But for the sake of hundreds of millions, there are enemy’s enemies to be befriended, temporarily, to not run the ship aground. If your job is to swallow a frog, Mark Twain once philosophized, it’s best to eat it early in the morning. Morning is nearing. As voters and as citizens, wherever we stand, we all have a job to do: to hold the center. The center must hold.