#History #lesson #Dont #rinse #dont #repeat #Opinion
Many of us are familiar with the quote “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.” That quote is not entirely accurate, as the original quote from philosopher George Santayana is, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Regardless, both versions capture an important point about remembering the lessons of the past.
With each passing year, we move further and further away from the lessons the 20th century might have taught us, whether we’re talking about the excesses of Wall Street, the horrors of two world wars, or the folly of an arms race. I thought of this recently while browsing in a used book store and skimming an old book titled “The Ordeal of Power” by Emmet John Hughes. Its subject is the Eisenhower administration.
Dwight Eisenhower served two terms as president from January 1953 until January 1961. His first term coincided with the height of McCarthyism. It was in the early 1950s that U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a Wisconsin Republican, went on his anti-communist crusade. To hear McCarthy tell it, there were communists and communist sympathizers all over the U.S government, under every rock, and in all walks of American life.
It was a scary time, as many people had their lives ruined after being accused by McCarthy — often with no evidence — of being communists or having communist affiliations. Once the charge was made, these people were “blacklisted,” meaning they often lost their jobs and careers, and sometimes their their friends and even members of their families. Once they got that stink on them, it was difficult, if not impossible, to get it off.
In describing McCarthy in “The Ordeal of Power,” Hughes wrote that McCarthy “possessed only a crude and confused conception of what he actually was about. He never devised any grand design or cunning scheme for attaining political power. To fear him as a potential dictator…was rather absurd: he lacked the steel and stamina to stay fast on any course.
“To perceive him as a fascist was equally fanciful: he knew and cared nothing of political philosophy, good or evil. Essentially, the only kind of political life that he knew and relished was a wildly flailing show of knees and elbows, knuckles and nails. Often when he caused the most spectacular hurt or harm, he had merely closed his eyes and blindly swung. He knew and understood no political tactics but the most primitive reflex and impulse, improvisation and revenge.”
Reading this description, I had to ask myself, does this sound like anyone we know today in national life? Each person will have to decide that one for themselves. But the fact that we’re a couple of generations and 70 years removed from all of the fear and dread that McCarthy brought leads me to believe that we are making the same mistakes now that we did back then.
Maybe this repeat of past mistakes can’t be avoided as our collective national memory gets shorter and shorter, along with our attention spans. But that’s precisely why history matters. It’s why we need a steady diet of history taught by talented people in our classrooms. Lacking this, it’ll be just a matter of time before we walk headlong into yesteryears’ mistakes, conflicts and upheavals.
This is not happening just at home in America. Look across the pond and we can see where Europe is headed. The British broke away from continental Europe economically through Brexit. Now, the Russians have invaded Ukraine. Soon, it might be Poland, and things will start looking as they did in the 1930s, providing the makings of another world war. Soon, we might forget the lessons of the cold war and find ourselves in an open arms race with China.
Not knowing the lessons of the past, it is easy to think that the rhetoric about draining the swamp or taking the country back signifies something new, a change of direction, or real progress. But, as Solomon states in Ecclesiastes 1.9, there’s nothing new under the sun, what has been will be again and what has been done will be done again.
Motives matter a great deal. For the sake of our children and our grandchildren, I hope we can break that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” chain.
Albert B. Kelly is mayor of Bridgeton. Contact him by phone at 856-455-3230 Ext. 200.
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