Condemned to Repeat

EX PRAETERITO PRAESENS PRVDENTER AGIT NI FUTUR- ACTIONE DETVRPET

History is a living thing.

I first saw it come alive in Roz Ashby’s and Ken Meier’s hands. On the first day of Western Civilization I, they handed out a quote and asked us to date it. It was a typical “kids these days” rant, full of complaints about their manners, their dress, and their stunning lack of respect toward their elders. Most of the class guessed it had been written in the 1950s or 60s. Professor Meier revealed, with a delightfully sardonic smile, that we were all wrong. The rant had been delivered by Socrates more than two thousand years ago.

I still have the handout they gave us that day: “The Value of History” by Robin Winks. I’d signed on as a history major because I love the past. I hadn’t, until then, thought of it as something of urgent importance. But the professors’ prank, followed by their impassioned lecture on the vitality and relevance of history and Winks’ case for its value, changed my perception entirely.

History wasn’t just curiosity. It wasn’t simply tradition and heritage, important to preserve for its own sake. It was also essential in order to understand the present, and to navigate the future.

Image shows a painting done in dark colors. Three faces, two in profile and one centered, are above a wolf, lion, and dog who are likewise facing in the three directions, with the lion centered. An old man with a white beard wearing a red cap gazes to the left, above the wolf. A man with black hair and beard stares out from the center, above the lion. A young man with reddish-brown hair wearing a red tunic dotted with white gazes out to the right from above the dog's head. Above them are inscribed the words EX PRAETERITO/PRAESENS PRUDENTER AGIT/NE FUTURA ACTIONẼ DETURPET, barely visible in dark brown ink against a slightly lighter brown background.
Titian, The Allegory of Prudence.

“From the past the man of the present acts prudently so as not to imperil the future,” Titian inscribed on his famous painting. We should chisel that saying into every monument. Those who don’t take the past seriously, who treat history as a trivial handful of facts, interesting stories, and events that have no bearing on today, won’t have the wisdom to create a better future.

“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” George Santayana wrote in The Life of Reason. Too many of us refuse to listen to that warning. How many times have we weathered a crisis only to discover that we’re repeating prior mistakes? Individuals, organizations, entire nations have rushed themselves over cliffs that others fell from before, when a safe way down had already been discovered.

It’s true that things change, and no situation is exactly the same as another. Some people seem to believe those cosmetic differences mean there’s nothing to learn. And so, mistakes get repeated. Safeguards get torn down because no one seems to remember why they were put in place to begin with. Blinded by the present, looking toward the future, we don’t see what history is trying to show us. We strip away the protections that people made wise by the events of their own day put in place in order to protect the generations to come. We’re seeing the effects of that now, in a myriad of ways: our failed imperial experiment in Iraq, the erosion of our Constitutional rights, the crisis in our banking industry brought on by the repeal of regulations enacted to prevent another Great Depression, the rise of a despot and the fall of a democracy. That was another age, those who disregard history say. Things are different now. We are different. And they plunge in, believing they’re blazing new trails when they’re traveling down well-worn roads.

The past is never truly past. “Great events have incalculable consequences,” Victor Hugo said in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Some of those consequences echo down through ages. You can’t understand what’s happening now if you don’t understand what happened then. The effects are still being felt. What we do now will impact generations to come. What our ancestors did centuries ago set the conditions for our time.

“This black page in history is not colourfast / will stain the next,” Epica warns in their song “Feint.” We can’t prevent that stain, but history can give us advice on how we might limit its spread.

Some things, perhaps, we’d rather forget. But as Chaim Weizman knew, “you cannot deny your history and begin afresh.” History comes with us, whether we will it or not. Denying it gets us nowhere. Embracing history, knowing it, allows us to accommodate its effects.

Image shows a painting in warm golden colors, showing an old man naked except for a strip of red cloth flowing around him, holding a scythe. A woman with angle wings, wearing a harvest orange dress, is floating in the sky behind him, resting a heavy book on his shoulders. She holds a pen in one hand and is looking over her shoulder.
Andrea Casali, The Personification Of History Writing On The Back Of Time

History is of great practical value, then. But that’s not the whole of its worth. It offers perspective and proportion. Knowing what others survived gives us hope for a future in dark times. It can put current events in context, just like your old dad giving you the yarn about having to walk to school barefoot in the snow uphill both ways as a kid. I often take comfort from that when the world seems like it’s coming apart at the seams. It has frayed, often torn, before. Not all of us make it. Things get worse before they get better. But we always manage to patch it back up somehow. Civilization has been through hell a thousand thousand times. As long as we avoid following the same paths that led other societies to grimmer outcomes, we’ll probably do just fine. I tell myself that a lot these days, and I have plenty of history to prove it. From history comes hope. Sometimes.

And sometimes, there’s delight in seeing ancient people behaving the same way we do. We tend to get only the broad brushstrokes of history in school. We don’t get the enchanting, everyday bits, the ones that tell us people are people everywhere. Read Socrates griping about the durned kids in ancient Athens, or Abu Nawais looking for his next drink, and you realize that they were people like us. There were fart jokes in the cradle of civilization and risque graffitti in Pompeii. The more you learn of history, the more you realize that the things we consider larger than life arose not from some golden age of supermen, but from mostly ordinary people doing their best to deal with times that were no more or less challenging than now. The best days are indeed behind us – but they are also now, and they are ahead. How much easier it is when we can pick the brains of our ancestors, pluck up their best ideas, and avoid their worst mistakes. It’s practically cheating!

“He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth,” Goethe once said. When we neglect our history, we risk ourselves. History gives us a chance to live securely. When we can draw on thousands of years of knowledge and experience, we’re no longer condemned.

A version of this post appeared in En Tequila Es Verdad’s past.

Condemned to Repeat
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The Nazi Conscience: Introduction

We do ourselves a disservice in the way we talk about atrocities. When I was in school, genocide and totalitarianism were taught as things that happened “long ago” or “far away” (or both). Dictators, we piously pretended, could never rise to power here in America: our robust systems of checks and balances, plus red-blooded freedom-loving citizens, would never allow it. Genocide was presented as something done by very different people than us. Of course Americans would never ever do that! (Never mind what happened to indigenous Americans, that was all war and disease and totally different because reasons.)

Atrocities committed by white people were considered aberrations. Something extraordinary must have caused them to happen. My teachers were very uncomfortable trying to explain the Holocaust. They had to turn the Germans into people strangely hypnotized by an exceptionally evil man. The whole thing was a regrettable freak occurrence. Ordinary Germans weren’t really involved – it was those monsters in the SS. They didn’t actually know the extent of what was happening until after the war, when the camps were liberated. Ordinary people could never do such things, would never condone such things.

Only, they could. And did.

We are not well served by the way history is taught in America. The national myths pounded into our brains are adept at covering up our bloody hands. We did bad things in the past, but it was a different time. We did bad things in the past, but they weren’t that bad. We did bad things in the past, but we fixed them and everything’s fine now. We did bad things in the past, but that was just a few bad apples. We did bad things in the past, but those other people did things that were so much worse, and so we are good and noble. Let us talk about how good and noble and just we are, and how because we are good and noble and just, we fixed the bad things, and liberated the oppressed, and are the best in the world. By no means let us talk about the bad things we are still doing. We are good people, and good people don’t commit atrocities.

Only, they do. We are. And these myths we’ve told ourselves prevent us from seeing that.

We believe that nothing like the rise of Hitler and the horrors of the Holocaust could happen here in America. And because we believe that, we refuse to see the parallels between us and the Germans in the early 20th century. Because we refuse to tell ourselves the truth, we have left systems in place that arose from oppression, and rely on oppression, and those systems have now been utilized by a fascist con man and his white supremacist friends and followers to seize power. Because we refused to be honest with ourselves, admit we are just as fallible and racist and prone to do terrible things as those infamous others, we let the conditions here breed the kinds of beliefs necessary to make people think a bigoted blowhard is just the man this country needs to make it great again.

And now we’re in a situation where survivors and historians of Nazi Germany are experiencing a horrible deja vu.

We like to believe, perhaps need to believe, that only monsters can commit atrocities, and because we don’t see a monster when we look in the mirror, we’re fine.

The Germans who allowed – often helped – the Nazis seize power didn’t see monsters in the mirror, either. Continue reading “The Nazi Conscience: Introduction”

The Nazi Conscience: Introduction

(Repost) Adventures in Christianist Earth Science Education V: Wherein We Map for God

Honestly, you’d think something as prosaic as mapping could avoid Godification. Science of the Physical Creation doesn’t even bother with a chapter on cartography: maps are maps, and they’ve nothing to say about them.

Earth Science 4th Edition, however, devotes a whole chapter to the subject. And yeah, it gets goddy.

Image is a pastel-colored hand-drawn map of Jerusalem from 1650. ZION is printed in the bottom center-right.
Yes, possibly even as goddy as the Thomas Fuller map of Jerusalem. Image courtesy Geographicus Rare Antique Maps via Wikimedia Commons.

The chapter starts out fine: instead of a creationist cartologist, we get a nice demonstration of the power of maps, using, of course, Dr. John Snow’s cholera map. And the BJU staffers who wrote this chapter, at least, aren’t completely anti-vax. They discuss how government agencies use maps to track down areas with high disease rates, and say that targeting vaccination programs toward “areas with high rates of infections” is “far more effective and costs less than vaccinating a whole population.” Which may be true with rare or not easily transmitted diseases, I suppose, but I do wish their emphasis had been on getting everyone vaccinated for the common stuff. Herd immunity is an important thing. Still. At least they’re not taking this opportunity to say never vaccinate. Small mercies.

They do a fine job explaining what maps are, and scale, and perspective. But for some reason, there’s a textbox on Progressive Creationism right smack in the middle. I have no idea why. It’s nothing to do with maps, and they don’t even try to relate it. They just yammer. And it’s obvious they don’t like those progressive creationists, no sir. You can tell from this question: Continue reading “(Repost) Adventures in Christianist Earth Science Education V: Wherein We Map for God”

(Repost) Adventures in Christianist Earth Science Education V: Wherein We Map for God

(Repost) “My Baby and I Were Dying” – Escape Chapter 20: “Warren’s Rise to Power”

In our last installment, we saw Merril being a horrible, abusive ass. But we’ve not yet seen the depths to which he’ll descend. This chapter will make you rage so hard.

Content Note: Life-threatening pregnancy complications, medical neglect, spousal abuse, child abuse and neglect, spiritual abuse.

Carolyn is pregnant with her fifth child. She experiences what seems to be menstrual bleeding, which Shirley, the nurse practitioner at the clinic, says isn’t that abnormal. The baby’s heartbeat is fine, so they don’t start truly worrying until Carolyn wakes up in a pool of blood two nights later. Most people would have gone straight to the hospital, but this is the FLDS, where pregnant women are taught to suck it up and deal with whatever God hands out. Carolyn takes a shower, the bleeding stops, and she basically shrugs it off, figuring she’s miscarried. She doesn’t even take the following day off work. The only reason she goes back to the clinic a week later is because she’s still experiencing her horrible morning sickness. Continue reading “(Repost) “My Baby and I Were Dying” – Escape Chapter 20: “Warren’s Rise to Power””

(Repost) “My Baby and I Were Dying” – Escape Chapter 20: “Warren’s Rise to Power”

New at Rosetta Stones: Trump’s Disastrous Education Picks, and More!

Between Aunty Flow and trying to read up on Nazis, I’ve been a bit lax on blogging. But in case you missed them, here some spiffy recent Rosetta Stones posts for your reading pleasure: Continue reading “New at Rosetta Stones: Trump’s Disastrous Education Picks, and More!”

New at Rosetta Stones: Trump’s Disastrous Education Picks, and More!

Books for the Resistance – Taking Suggestions!

Absent a miracle, Cheeto Hitler and Il Douche will be taking over the country in January. We’re going to have to work our utter asses off to hang on to any of the advances we’ve made. And considering how Republicans in general feel about democracy these days, coupled with a con man and a Christian Dominionist, we’re going to have to fight to the finish if anything resembling our country is to survive.

In order to be effective, we need to know what we’re dealing with, and how to counter it. So please suggest any and all books you’d recommend for people needing to learn about fighting the good fight. Subjects can include, but are not limited to, the following subjects:

  • Civil Rights and Resistance movements
  • Organizing
  • Fascist, totalitarian, and other despotic forms of government
  • Famous dictators such as Hitler, Mussolini, and others whose behavior mirrors Chitler and Il Douche.

I’ll be gathering your recommendations into a  special edition of the Super Gargantuan Book Guide for 2016. Gracias! Continue reading “Books for the Resistance – Taking Suggestions!”

Books for the Resistance – Taking Suggestions!

New at Rosetta Stones – Cyber Monday Discounts!

Check out the awesome geology gifties you can get! For cheap! All designs are discounted.

Incidentally, if you’ve been waiting to buy yourself that nice Really Terrible Bible Inspirations print for your cubicle, those are discounted too! Use the code CYBERMON to get 20% off!

Image is another sunset, this one with the sky all orange and red. Over the dark forest at bottom is printed Genesis 38:24. "And it came to pass about three months after, that it was told Judah, saying, Tamar thy daughter in law hath played the harlot; and also, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt."

New at Rosetta Stones – Cyber Monday Discounts!

Two Quotes that America Needs to Take to Heart Right Now

With white supremacists now waltzing into America’s highest offices to the cheers of neo-Nazis and the KKK, I think it’s time to republish a couple of quotes I’ve used on this blog in the past. Too many in this country seem to have forgotten that America was supposed to stand against fascism. Too many have forgotten the cost of letting fascism gain power. Too many have forgotten that fascism is a monster that must be fought at all costs.

There is already a lot of blood on America’s hands, but the amount of blood and shame will be incalculable if we don’t stop this.

Whoever refuses to remember the inhumanity is prone to new risks of infection.

Richard von Weizsacker

Especially now, it’s critical to remember the true horrors perpetrated in the name of an ideology. Richard von Weizsacker, President of Germany from 1984 to 1994, gave a speech on the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II that speaks of the importance of that remembrance. Here’s the above quote in context (CN: casual ableism): Continue reading “Two Quotes that America Needs to Take to Heart Right Now”

Two Quotes that America Needs to Take to Heart Right Now