Everyone knows this quote:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
It’s usually paraphrased as something like this:
“Those who don’t learn from history are bound to repeat it.”
Virtually no one can tell you who said it. It was the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana. Billy Joel at least made mention of Santayana at the beginning of “We didn’t start the fire.” I bet well more than half the people who listen to that song can’t identify the events mentioned it, especially when you ask people who were born after that song came out.
I find that song rather accurate in that is pretty harsh condemnation of the Whig Theory of History as well as the Marxian Theory of History. Both of these theories posit that history is pointing in a particular direction.
Now, you’d think that history would be pointing in a particular direction. So many things have happened over the course of human existence that you’d think we would have learned from our mistakes by now. We’d actually have a good idea of how to behave so that the greatest amount of good could come from our actions.
And you’d think we would.
But there is another quote that is sort of a corollary of Santayana:
“There’s a good reason why nobody studies history, it just teaches you too much.” — Noam Chomsky in 2003 at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Chomsky sort of believes in a direction toward history. He once said that anarchism is an historical trend within the story of human existence, but I don’t believe he thinks of it as a trend in the way the Whigs and Marxists do.
But in that quote he shows that Santayana was correct.
We just live in a world full of historically illiterate people.
I am amazed at how many people think that the United States was founded upon Judeo-Christian values, when the truth of the matter is the greatest thing about the United States is that it was actually the first country that was founded upon the intellectual and philosophical postulates that came out of the Enlightenment.
It’s certainly true that various British colonies that eventually became part of the United States were founded as theocracies. Massachusetts, which currently has a larger population of Roman Catholics than protestants, once banned any church that wasn’t Puritan.
There is a famous story that the first English settler of Boston, William Blaxton, had his house burned down when the Puritans thought he was trying to establish the Church of England in the territory. Blaxton was an Anglican, and the Puritans considered it a wicked “Roman” church.
But any objective reading of history shows that the founding of the United States as we know it today came from people who were rejecting that sort of theocracy.
Virtually all the former colonies that became the United States had their own established churches, and when they became part of the US under our current constitution, they had to disestablish them, which caused quite a bit of friction.
But the revolutionaries who created this country were driven by Enlightenment ideals, not the Christianity that gave us the Salem Witch Trials or the Crusades or the Inquisition.
The religious right in this country has waged war against the Enlightenment. That’s their shtick.
And the best way they’ve done it is to deny the Enlightenment values that are at the base our national identity. One of the worst things one can do to one’s country is to deface its national identity, but these guys get away with it because they say Jesus a lot.
It’s so bad that there are large sectors of the US that have no idea what the Enlightenment even was, and they believe whatever their preachers and Fox News say about the founding of the US.
Here’s a very good example of what these people have come to believe. It’s a typical low information voter tirade, but this time it’s in a country song:
Never mind that most of the solutions outlined in this video are crap. Cutting taxes will not lower the deficit. (The Laffer curve is not an absolute!) But cutting spending and raising taxes will. Drilling for oil here won’t lower the price of gasoline unless we either build a bunch of new refineries here or (heaven forbid) cut back on speculation on crude prices in the commodities market.
But those things are pretty easy to debunk.
It’s that last verse that is quite sickening.
This country was not built upon “faith in God in heaven.”
It was not.
You have to know not a blasted thing about the history of this country or our secular constitution to think that this is true.
It just isn’t. This country does provide for religious freedom, but our guiding principles of our nation come from eighteenth century England, Scotland, and France, not first century Palestine.
The Republican Party as it is now constituted relies upon a large sector of the population not knowing these facts.
It’s a faith-based political party, which has made a bizarre unholy alliance with the Wall Street barons, most of whom believe in Jesus about as much as they believe in unicorns.
A major political party in this country became a faith-based institution, and this strategy helped it win more than a few elections.
But not the last one. In this last one, all the Jesus talk and all the anti-abortion mongering actually cost the Republican Party dearly.
It got what the Scots call a “good hiding” at the polls.
And for all the people who believed that the Republican Party was destined by God to win that election, it was like the whole world exploded.
All these people now want to secede or secdee or whatever.
If this last election had a subtitle, it would be “The Enlightenment Strikes Back.”
And I’d like to think we’re on the way to returning to these great traditions that really did make this country special.
But that would assume that there is a direction to history and that people would learn from it.
I know fully well that nearly half the country thinks the earth is 6,000 years old.
And yes, this is the same country that put a man on the moon.
But we still have utter imbeciles, like Rep. Paul Broun, on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. He’s apparently a medical doctor, but I wouldn’t let him operate on a cat that I hated. He announced that evolution and the big bang theory were “lies from the pit of Hell.”
And so it is because of our historical ignorance that we slouch back towards those early colonial theocracies.
If the Republican Party as it’s currently constituted were ever to hold political power again in the same way it did in the first decade of this century, it would be a dangerous organization.
I voted Democrat almost entirely upon that understanding.
I don’t want to think what these loons (a name that is something of an insult to the birds the British call the divers) would have done if they had taken the Senate and had a right-wing, Cleon Skousen-following Mormon bishop for president.
This is not to say that the Democrats don’t have their own anti-rationalist and anti-skeptical inquiry constituents.
But they haven’t embraced in the same way. If Obama had being running as the Jesus candidate in the Democratic primaries in 2008, Hillary would have eaten him alive.
It wouldn’t have even been close.
But you better be anti-science if you’re going to run for president in the Republican Party these days.
“To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.”
This was a Tweet by a Republican running for president.
Guess how well he did?
He probably would have now been President-Elect Jon Huntsman had he been able to make it through the Republican primaries.
But publicly accepting science was the kiss of death.
Things are so bad in the Republican Party that even Pat Robertson wants them to cool it:
He’s just one step away from endorsing “evilution,” but I bet if that happens, Part Robertson will lose all his clout because he’s now a “liberal who doesn’t believe in the bible.”
We’re seeing the bitter fruit of historical illiteracy all around us.
History helps us put the events of the day in a proper context, but if you don’t understand it very well, you will fall for whatever cocked analogy some demagogue can throw at you.
It is this part of historical ignorance that leads to us constantly repeating error.
And no one wants to know the real history.
It’s actually often discouraged in schools, which is something that rather shocked me with graduate school. I was shocked that people with doctoral degrees in political science had never heard of the various interventions that the US had engaged in in Latin America.
It was like those things never happened.
But they most obviously did.
If you don’t understand history, you can never really discern the present.
And the powerful rely upon historical ignorance for that very reason.
Don’t read history. Don’t be objective.
Just do as you’re told.
I think that’s one reason why so many of us who study history are so depressive.
All we read is a catalog of horrors– and so many of these horrors are repeat performances.
We wonder when people will try to learn from the mistakes of the past, but all we see is error compounding upon error.
In the US, we have a chance now to correct errors.
Maybe we will.
I can only hope so.
Obama ran on hope.
And honestly, that’s all he’s ever been able to deliver.
If hope’s all we can have, it’s certainly better than despair at another Dark Ages looming.
But it would be nice if some hope would be realized.
The thing is Obama can’t give it to us.
No politician can.
We have to demand it.
We have to fight for the Enlightenment.
We have to fight for decency.
We have to fight against barbarism.
It is the human struggle for these things that has made life bearable for the vast majority of the population.
It is the struggle that never will be finished.
It is a struggle where there will always be setbacks and defeats.
But it’s one in which we only totally lose if we give up entirely.
And I don’t know how we can live with ourselves if we do.
The odds are against us, and they always were.
But it’s one thing to stand for decency against the barbarians and know you’re going to lose and just let them win.
We can still do amazing things.
But it’s not going to be easy.
The fires will continue to burn so long as human ignorance exists on the planet.
The true progressive battle must be the fight for rationalism.
It is the real culture war right now. Without rationalism we cannot solve problems or even recognize what the problems are.
It’s only been in the past few years that progressives have recognized this reality.
But that’s the real struggle right now. The decent societies we might create need to go on the back burner for now.
We have to fight for the Enlightenment, for without the Enlightenment, there can be no progressivism.
Our entire political movement is based upon people recognizing reality and coming up with realistic solutions to solve problems.
Ours is not based upon religious texts, though one can find progressivism in the bible, if you dig around very carefully.
But I don’t think we serve ourselves very well if we try to use the bible for that purpose. If we selectively quote the bible to support our politics, we aren’t doing anything different from what the fundies do. It is the same logical process that validates and legitimizes those parts of the bible over others that empowers the fundamentalist that also empowers the Christian liberal.
I don’t think we can win an argument on religion texts.
But we can win an argument based upon reason and objective facts.
That’s why the struggle is not just against those who choose not to learn history.
Our struggle is against those who reject rationalism altogether.
That’s where we must start.