Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. - George Santayana
History is more or less bunk. - Henry Ford
WELL, I'M WITH HENRY. Billions of people are sincerely trying their damnedest to learn the lessons of history, mostly for that most elemental of reasons: to make money, and they're failing. You show me somebody who can predict the future, using the only valid test that I can think of: turning a profit on it, and I'll revise my beliefs accordingly. Meanwhile, I don't think that the lessons of history are worth, in the immortal words of vice-president John Nance Garner, a pitcher of warm piss. History just plain changes the rules on you all the time.
See, it's an illusion: you think that you should be able to predict the future from learning about the past because you can look back along the inevitable path that events actually took and see what made them happen. But, looking into the infinitely branching tree of the future is quite another matter, if I may say so.
You're in 1970, OK? I ask you to predict, to foretell the general sexual climate of 1994. Boy, would you have been wrong. And, you had all the data right under your nose, too. Syphilis, influenza, the Black Death. Two-thirds of the native populations of the Americas wiped out by imported diseases. People aren't the only thing that travel about on ships and airplanes.
Another big problem is that history is constantly being re-written to suit the fashion of the day, becoming, in the words of Matthew Arnold, "that huge Mississippi of falsehood." How can you learn anything from something that isn't even vaguely reliable? Was Columbus a saintly adventurer or a satanic creep? Does it matter? Did he discover America by accident or by design? Are Native Americans indigenous in any proper sense of the word or were they just here longer? Do the descendants of Sioux Indians have any valid prior claim to any of this real estate? Are the descendants of Europeans responsible for the bad stuff that their ancestors did? Are the descendants of Black Africans entitled to some sort of reparation for things that did not happen to them personally? Is an understanding of history of the slightest assistance in any of this wrangling?
August 18, 1994
Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. - George Santayana A Life of Reason, Book One: Reason & Common Sense, 1916)
History is more or less bunk. - Henry Ford (interview with Charles N. Wheeler, Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1916)
John Nance Garner (1868 - 1969) held office from 1933 to 1941.
"People aren't the only thing that travel about on ships and airplanes." echoes a remark made by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover in reference to Communists, "A good many things go around in the dark besides Santa Claus." Address to the John Marshall Republican Club, St. Louis, Missouri, December 16, 1935. Matthew Arnold (1822 - 1888), "On the breast of that huge Mississippi of falsehood called History, a foam-bell more or less is no consequence." Essays in Criticism (1865) "Literary Influence of Academies" (1864)
The subject recalls the song by Sting, "History Will Teach Us Nothing," from the album Nothing Like the Sun (1987).
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