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
{advertisement}

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!

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

The Real Story of Thanksgiving

When I was a schoolkid, we were taught all about Thanksgiving. Pretty much everything was wrong.

We were told the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. Nope. They first landed at Cape Cod. They came to Plymouth about a month later, but they didn’t land on the Rock.

Then our teachers said the Pilgrims nearly starved that first winter. They didn’t. They weren’t exactly healthy, but they weren’t starving to death. They had plenty of seafood, and they also had all the food they stole from Native American winter stores.

Our teachers said the Indians (my school hadn’t caught up to terms like Native American or indigenous people yet) saved the Pilgrims that winter by feeding them. Well, if you consider theft to be a form of giving, then yes, I suppose the Wampanoag indirectly fed the Pilgrims. Truth is, they were hanging back through the winter, watching the white folks who’d moved into one of their abandoned villages. They’d already been hard hit by Europeans, who just a few years before had been busily enslaving them and giving them diseases that wiped out alarming numbers of them. They knew that white folks could be dangerous. But this batch had women and children with them, which made the Wampanoag think they were peaceful. Continue reading “The Real Story of Thanksgiving”

The Real Story of Thanksgiving

“Let Us Not be a Community Who Says, ‘We got ours so fuck you.'”

Gregory Gadow gave me his kind permission to repost his very incisive Facebook post here. This is so important.

A friend of mine made a very good point. Thanks, Calvin Hipps!

Dan White murdered San Francisco mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk on November 27, 1978. Charged with two counts of first degree murder, he was eventually convicted on two counts of “voluntary manslaughter,” the lightest possible sentence given the evidence. It was later shown that the jury gave him that sentence because A) White had been a SF police officer, and thus jurors presumed that he was acting against evil-doers, and B) because Supervisor Milk was an openly gay man.

When the verdict was handed down on the afternoon of May 21, 1979, the gay community went ballistic. San Francisco’s gay community had long been a target of SFPD’s bigotry, and many saw this verdict as police literally getting away with murdering community members. What originally started as an angry but peaceful protest quickly changed when the police tried to stop the demonstration. Police were attacked, and damage was done to SF government buildings. After several hours, the rioting subsided.

Black and white image shows a ghostly building with high windows and balconies in the background. There is a line of skinny trees whose trunks end in a puff of branches. Below the trees is a line of silhouetted figures standing in a line. The scene is lit by a streetlamp whose light seems to be diffused by smoke or mist.
Rioters outside San Francisco City Hall the evening of May 21, 1979, reacting to the voluntary manslaughter verdict for Dan White, that ensured White would serve only five years for the double murders of Harvey Milk and George Moscone. Image and caption courtesy Daniel Nicoletta (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Then the police staged a massive round of retaliatory raids in the Castro District. Cops in riot gear swarmed into gay bars and assaulted patrons, without even a pretext of claiming the mantle of law.

Sound like anything in recent events? Continue reading ““Let Us Not be a Community Who Says, ‘We got ours so fuck you.’””

“Let Us Not be a Community Who Says, ‘We got ours so fuck you.'”

Black History Month Extravaganza #4: The Long Journey Towards Equality

We give the shortest month of the year to black history, so please excuse me if I say “Fuck that” and extend our history into March.

In this edition, I’ll be introducing you to some incredible folks. These are people who survived slavery, and then thrived. These are folks who made the civil rights movement happen. Continue reading “Black History Month Extravaganza #4: The Long Journey Towards Equality”

Black History Month Extravaganza #4: The Long Journey Towards Equality

Black History Month Extravaganza #3: Business and Pleasure

Welcome back to another installment of black history you may have never learned! Today, we’re going to meet some enterprising entrepreneurs, discover that some of our most important STEM breakthroughs have been due to people of color, and admire black artistry.

Continue reading “Black History Month Extravaganza #3: Business and Pleasure”

Black History Month Extravaganza #3: Business and Pleasure

Black History Month Extravaganza #2: Social Justice Express

Black History Month is still filling my Facebook feed with extraordinary people and events. Today, we’ll focus on some social justice aspects, including many people who fought and are fighting for justice.

Image shows a grayscale photo of Frantz Fanon, looking toward the right with an intense and serious gaze. Caption says, "We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe." Frantz Fanon (July 20, 1925 - Dec. 6, 1961)
Frantz Fanon, via Sincere Kirabo

There are so many incredible black folks who did and are doing amazing social justice work, large things and small things and all things in between, that we could fill libraries with them. Here are just a few who have crossed my feed this month: Continue reading “Black History Month Extravaganza #2: Social Justice Express”

Black History Month Extravaganza #2: Social Justice Express

Black History Month Extravaganza #1: Wonderful Women and Girls

If you went by my history books in school, there was a mere handful of interesting black people in history. I can count the women we learned about on the fingers of one hand – and that’s even if I’ve had a mishap with a rock hammer and had to bandage a couple. Lessee… there was of course Harriet Tubman*, and definitely Rosa Parks, and Sojourner Truth got mentioned, and… yep, we’re done.

Teachers never even bothered to mention there was a girl who didn’t give up her seat before Rosa Parks. Continue reading “Black History Month Extravaganza #1: Wonderful Women and Girls”

Black History Month Extravaganza #1: Wonderful Women and Girls

A Victorian MRA Interlude: Coverture

I’ve fallen a bit behind in fisking our Victorian MRA dude, but never fear! I shall persevere until the end. Eventually. After finishing mah bad Bible stories book, doing up some hawt geology posts and working on this amazing backlog of nature photography I have got. In the meantime, there’s this very concise (and potentially rage-inducing) post on coverature by Cerys Gruffyydd for your history-of-how-horribly-women-were-treated needs. Trigger warning for marital rape. Continue reading “A Victorian MRA Interlude: Coverture”

A Victorian MRA Interlude: Coverture