We all know the paraphrase, if not the real quote by George Santayana:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfill it.”
And we seem to believe it. Sort of.
Considering the ease with which we warn each other that such a leader as our own is the second coming of Hitler, it seems as if we embody the quote. And yet, I have a far greater fear that we actually do remember the past: through a glass darkly. It seems a much greater problem that we only remember part of the past, and it is that which causes us to fulfill it.
Since World War II is our go-to favorite, I like to use it to remind myself which part of the past is the lesson, hmm? The Holocaust? That seems to be all we really care about. That part in which Hitler’s megalomania and the sweeping tide of history was uncontrollably moved toward supreme conflict such as humanity had never yet glimpsed. We speak of the Second World War as if its singular importance took place between 1942 and 1944.
Or perhaps, in our classic American egocentrism, we should focus only on the part that deals with the United States, so we dwell on Pearl Harbor. We speak of it in this surprisingly self-righteous tone of inevitability, like a school boy explaining to his parents why he got in a fight at school: “But Ma, he knocked the books right out of my hand! What was I supposed to do?” That the aerial assault would inevitably lead to the dropping of the atomic bomb. “We had no real choice, since the Japanese cast that die. We were helpless actors,” we convince ourselves.
So what then of the rise of nationalism in the early 1930s that brought Adolf Hitler to power? What of French and British bloodlust that so humiliated Germany in the 1920s that it would feel justified in reclaiming their rightful place in Europe? What of all of the seemingly small events that took place between 1933 and ’39 that led to the rise of the Third Reich? Shall all of this be painted as insignificant and unimportant?
What if remembering the past requires our remembering all of it: not just the “important” bits?
What has struck me over the last few weeks in all of the media’s fumbling over their confusion with the #OccupyWallStreet movement is their display of a shocking lack of historical understanding of not only this event, but of the past thirty years, and really, all but a few years excepted from the last one hundred and thirty years.
The worst age in American history is no doubt the Great Depression. But the decades preceding it were no picnic. The first two decades of the “Turn of the Century” (isn’t that a quaint phrase now?) were the age of the robber barons, when the 1% screwed the 99%, much like we are seeing now. Of course, we are always reminded that back then it was much worse. [Here is where you and I thank the labor unions.] What preceded that? The two most shameful decades in American politics.
Now, the four presidents that preceded Abraham Lincoln were lousy, and the two decades before the Civil War were rancorous and divisive, but I wouldn’t call them shameful. People were ruled by fear and conviction. One could make a similar argument for the early part of the 1920s. What makes the 1880s and 90’s so shameful is the blatant abuse of power for financial gain that would set the blueprint for more than a century.
Most troubling, and where the Occupy Movement comes in, is that this was also a time in which the Supreme Court not only ignored precedent, but pushed for a political ideology foreign to the American spirit: what we now refer to as corporate personhood. There was an attempt to pack the court with corporate-minded justices in the post-war period, and it took years until a line in the headnote, inserted into the court decision by a corrupt court reporter in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886) was then used in a later case to establish precedent for the here-to-fore unpopular understanding of the 14th Amendment. This decision would have been particularly unpopular with the founders who so unanimously opposed corporations that could rival any one state, let alone the federal government, because they understood that threat to democracy from the East India Company, whose abuses were condoned by England due to that country’s inability to stop it.
We approach the currents in our political and spiritual lives as if they are singular, with singular responses. “Hey, I’m hungry. I should eat.” And sometimes, if these currents cross at the right time, we can see their relationship and respond accordingly. “Hey, I’m hungry and I crave a Big Mac. I should go get a Big Mac.” But then we find ourselves in the midst of so many currents at the same time, that may or may not include financial hardship, interest in losing weight, no time to drive to McDonald’s, etc. and we find the ability to make those decisions incredibly challenging.
By approaching our political and spiritual lives like a collection of singular and unrelated currents, and only deal with them when decisions are required, we only get a small glimpse of history, often at a point in which the only choice we recognize is to panic! If we remember all that led up to and developed during WWII, we are less likely to fulfill it, just as our full remembering of our economic history will allow us to weather the recession, just as remembering all of our history with food, eating, and exercise, will inform our approach to nourishing ourselves.
Otherwise we’re just always going to be stuck in a rut of consuming half-truths. And the 1% depend on our consuming what they have to sell.
© 2011 Drew Downs. All rights reserved