Condemned to Repeat


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

How to Stand with Standing Rock – And Why We Must

Long story short: white people have spent centuries trying to eradicate Native Americans in order to get their land, their resources, and their wealth. That hasn’t stopped. It’s ongoing today. It’s probably happening in your community without you even realizing. It’s happening in North Dakota, and if you’re not aware of the situation, please remedy that right now.

The Standing Rock Sioux are trying to preserve their land and their water from a pipeline that (overwhelmingly white) Bismarck refused to have passing through their city. You know why they don’t want it: pipelines break. They explode. They spill. And for women, there’s a whole other set of horrific problems that come along with a pipeline.

Image is a map that shows the current Standing Rock reservation and the much larger boundaries of the 1851 treaty.
We have taken so much from these tribes, and now we’re trying to take more, and this is where it needs to stop. It needs to stop for the health and safety of our indigenous peoples. It needs to stop so that corporations and governments no longer assume it’s no problem to take what they want from the reservations without regard to the residents. It needs to stop for the sake of our land, our water, and our air.

This is one of the most important movements for Native American self-determination and survival in our lifetime. The people of Standing Rock need you to stand with them. Here’s how you can do it: Continue reading “How to Stand with Standing Rock – And Why We Must”

How to Stand with Standing Rock – And Why We Must

“One Official Document”

This article on transitioning and surgery. Go read it. If you haven’t got time to read it just now, read this paragraph (CN: Mention of suicide):

The latest research shows that it’s discrimination and stigma, not surgery itself, that causes the high suicide and attempted suicide rates. A study published in Ontario in 2015 revealed that those who have a supportive social environment (the most important social support being parents) were far less likely to seriously consider suicide. Other factors, like having one official document properly identifying your sex, also correlated with lower suicide attempts and rates. [emphasis added]

We have such a long way to go in making the world a better plans for trans people. And it kills me that it’s just simple things that can mean the difference between life and death. One document. Just one. Why can’t we manage just one? Continue reading ““One Official Document””

“One Official Document”

A Helpful Article for Those Unclear on the Concept of Consent

I’d like to draw your attention to this excellent article, written by a law professor, explaining consent with a series of scenarios that should be suitable for even dudebro-levels of reading comprehension. One thing becomes clear by the time you are finished reading it:

There’s really no excuse for being unclear on the concept of consent.

Continue reading “A Helpful Article for Those Unclear on the Concept of Consent”

A Helpful Article for Those Unclear on the Concept of Consent

Yes, Trans People Need to be Included in Abortion Discussions

Ophelia Benson recently harassed an abortion doctor who used inclusive language when advocating for abortion rights on Twitter. It’s pretty rich: a supposed champion for women’s rights decided it was far more important to pester an abortion doctor for using the term “pregnant people” than defend her against the howling anti-choice crowd attacking her for providing pregnant women, trans men, and non-binary people with a functional uterus. You can see the whole sordid exchange here.

As a cis woman with a (probably) functional reproductive system: No, Ophelia. You’re not doing a thing to help me avoid being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. Abortion doctors using inclusive language doesn’t set women’s rights back a bit. Having trans rights included with mine doesn’t hurt me – it helps. If we could see trans people as people with full rights to bodily autonomy, it would be easier for everyone to see women as people with those rights, too. So let’s just get that clear right now.

People like Ophelia do more harm than good. Cis women like me aren’t going to get better and shinier rights by shitting all over trans people. We’re not going to better protect abortion rights by denying a place at the table for trans folk who are in need of reproductive services. All it does is further harms a minority that’s already quite harmed enough. Women have a rough time getting the reproductive care they need, true. Trans men and non-binary people with female-assigned reproductive organs run into the same obstacles we do, and then have to deal with even more barriers to care: Continue reading “Yes, Trans People Need to be Included in Abortion Discussions”

Yes, Trans People Need to be Included in Abortion Discussions

Some People of Color Bernie Sanders Fans Would Do Well to Listen To

Dear Bernie Sanders Fan Who is Outraged! Offended! by the Black Women Who Interrupted Him:

You’ve been all over my Facebook timeline with a wide variety of claims. As a fellow white person, I must beg you: please stop defending Bernie for a few minutes and listen to what people of color are saying. Look, I’ve even gone to the trouble of collecting a bunch of convenient links for you. And it’s important you listen up, because you know who’s going to make Bernie lose the Democratic nomination?


Yes, you.

Okay, Bernie might fail to shut up and listen himself, and torpedo his own chances, but if all of you band together to make him understand he’d best be listening or else, we won’t have to worry about that. He’ll incorporate racial justice and excellent ideas on how to achieve it into his already awesome platform, he’ll make it a centerpoint of his campaign, and we’ll all be absolutely golden. (Look! He’s already started!)

But you’re the ones who will ensure he loses, if you keep trying to shush people whose lives depend on making this old white man understand what they need from him. You’re the ones who will sow division and disharmony in the ranks. I’ll tell you a secret about people of color I’ve learned by listening to them: They don’t need us, children. We have failed them time and time and time again. We need them to win. So I’ll appeal to that need to see another Democrat in office (a need I very much share), if I can’t appeal to your innate sense of justice and your progressive wish for the downtrodden to no longer be down and trodden: if you fail to listen to these voices that are telling you and your favorite candidate exactly what they need, you are the reason Bernie Sanders will lose.

It’s within your power to ensure we all become one big, happy progressive family.

So let’s lend an ear, shall we?* Even when – especially when – people are speaking in anger, let’s listen. Let’s listen like Seattle for Bernie Sanders’s admin did, right here. Continue reading “Some People of Color Bernie Sanders Fans Would Do Well to Listen To”

Some People of Color Bernie Sanders Fans Would Do Well to Listen To

“The One Thing No One Seems to Want to Remember is How Much Opposition There Was to King”

David Futrelle reminds us that Martin Luther King, Jr. faced plenty of violence, frenzied opposition, and attacks by police and public. Sometimes, we recall the speeches without recalling the chaos. We hear “civil disobedience” and “non-violent opposition,” and forget that those opposed to civil rights used the power of state and terror in an effort to maintain white supremacy.

We should never forget that he didn’t back down in the face of those arrests and attacks. We should never forget his work isn’t finished.

It takes a lot of courage to change the world.

Image shows MLK Jr. in a pale suit and hat, sitting at a counter, surrounded by police.
AP photo of Martin Luther King Jr. getting arrested for loitering, Montgomery, AL, 1958.
“The One Thing No One Seems to Want to Remember is How Much Opposition There Was to King”

Martin Luther King, Jr.: “A Riot is the Language of the Unheard”

Sixty years ago, the color of your skin determined your treatment on Montgomery, Alabama busses:

Under the system of segregation used on Montgomery buses, white people who boarded the bus took seats in the front rows, filling the bus toward the back. Black people who boarded the bus took seats in the back rows, filling the bus toward the front. Eventually, the two sections would meet, and the bus would be full. If other black people boarded the bus, they were required to stand. If another white person boarded the bus, then everyone in the black row nearest the front had to get up and stand, so that a new row for white people could be created. Often when boarding the buses, black people were required to pay at the front, get off, and reenter the bus through a separate door at the back. On some occasions bus drivers would drive away before black passengers were able to reboard.

Rosa Parks wasn’t the first person to challenge that treatment. Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t the only community leader who fought for an end to Jim Crow. But they rightfully become icons of the Civil Rights movement. We remember them for their peaceful protest. MLK Jr., especially, we remember for nonviolence and civil disobedience. So much so that he’s now thrown in the faces of angry and upset protestors in an effort to shut them up.

On this day, let’s remember more than “I Have a Dream.” Let’s remember that King also said that “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Let’s remember “The Other America.” Continue reading “Martin Luther King, Jr.: “A Riot is the Language of the Unheard””

Martin Luther King, Jr.: “A Riot is the Language of the Unheard”

Racism and Society Week: The Unequal Opportunity Race

This past year saw a warranted wave of anger at white oppression, as the people of Ferguson, Missouri demanded justice for yet another unarmed black teenager murdered by police. Mike Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, and far too many others didn’t get justice last year. But I hope history records 2014 as the changing of the tide.

It won’t happen unless we take a stand.

Image is the British crown on a red background atop the words "Stand up and fight racism."

Continue reading “Racism and Society Week: The Unequal Opportunity Race”

Racism and Society Week: The Unequal Opportunity Race

Happy 25th, Fall of the Berlin Wall!

Twenty-five years since that wall came down. I was a teenager, watching on teevee as citizens pulled it apart, climbed up on it and celebrated, uniting Germany. I remember being astonished that it was happening in my lifetime, and feeling giddy as I watched people reach out and grasp freedom with both hands. It was awesome.

The Scorpions captured the mood of the late 80s and early 90s well, as people in Eastern Bloc countries wrested political control from their masters, and embraced democracy. Winds of change definitely were blowing. Continue reading “Happy 25th, Fall of the Berlin Wall!”

Happy 25th, Fall of the Berlin Wall!