He Who Forgets

I wrote this in October of 1997 and although much is different in the world these ideas seem to me to continue to be relevant and timely.

There are many assumed truths in our world brought to us as slogans; a seemingly innocent package. One that I thought of as truth was “He who forgets history is condemned to relive it”. I don’t even remember who said it. It’s not very important now. What is important is the impact it and many other slogans have on the way we think.

I began to question this one a few years ago when I could no longer deny that the history I was taught was, at best, flawed and more likely, simply untrue in many areas. Native Americans were presented as savages. Christopher Columbus was said to have discovered America. The fathers of our nation were called benevolent slave owners. The books never mentioned that my Irish ancestors were scorned and told they need not apply for many jobs. Britain was never pictured as the horrific dominator of foreign lands it actually was and still is. The so-called third world was somehow subtly pictured as threatening so it was OK for us to protect ourselves. I am taught to fear young African American men and the result is they die younger here than in Biafra. The list is endless and includes every powerful corporate, government and religious institution.

We Americans are always portrayed as giving and caring and yet millions of people starve and thousands are killed or maimed by land mines manufactured here. Our politicians live for loopholes in the letter of the law instead of honoring its spirit. It’s not only the politicians it’s all of us living under a shroud of denial. We hear and accept the term liberal media while most of us know the media is owned and controlled by the most conservative corporations and people in the land.

I now believe that he who remembers history as it is taught might more likely be condemned to relive it. I also believe that it’s not a simple coincidence. I believe we are being manipulated and led. It is time to stop it. We can only be led if we are willing. It is time to admit that we know what’s going on. We have been taught to fear what we don’t know and that our nation is morally superior. We cannot call ourselves a moral people when we ride the backs of the poor both here and in other lands. We are not a moral people when we pollute the world and use most of the natural resources of the planet.

If we remember the history that tells us we are superior we are condemned to relive it. If, however, we forget it and learn the truth we have a chance to become the people we claim to be.

Posted May 14, 2007


I recently read a series of books by Bernard Cromwell (sp?) written from the perspective of a soldier in the Confederate army during the Civil War. Very entertaining books, but I also liked it because I realized it was the first time I had looked at history from the perspective of the side that did not win. We always are taught history from the winners perspective. But as Phil has pointed out the people that did not win do exist. The children in our inner cities have lost. And we certainly treat them like losers.

Humans are competitive, it is in our DNA. Which makes us look ahead, not thinking about the people that are not in competition with us, or what we leave behind when we win. I always thought the government and our laws were supposed to represent our conscience, making sure we play fairly and not abuse the rights of the victor. Sometimes I think we let the ultra competitive side of our society run the government for a little while. The rest of the world and our own poor suffer as we try to prove we are the best.

One last thought, any great coach, manager or leader will tell you that you are only great by including, making everyone else better. Not excluding and beating down. Until the leaders in this country realize this we will continue to allow our policies and companies to take advantage of the losers instead of working with them to try and improve the whole.

Thank you Phil.

I have studied history most of my life. At first, I believed that everything I read was absolutely true—it came with a built-in seal of authenticity. I then began reading other accounts, studying the history of slavery with Staughton Lind, who was (very briefly) a visiting professor at Yale, and who I suspect found the WASP culture of the Ivies in the early 60’s a bit hard to take. He attempted, though not very successfully—because polemically—to uncover, or discover, a history that was not written by the winning side. I think this was turning point of sorts, at least for a wider perspective. But sad to say it didn’t get me marching in Selma or even Washington. Too apathetic? I don’t know.

The next big history lesson came during a tour of duty in a Paris law office. Looking at America from the perspective of 3,000 miles and from the point of view of what Rummy called “Old Europe,” the scales fell from my eyes, and I became agnostic on the existence of a Pax Americana, or the possibility – or desirability – of a New World hegemony. We have much to learn from the sources of our peoples, white, black and otherwise.

So Phil notwithstanding, I still adhere to George Santayana’s maxim that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” One look at Mesopotamia ought to be enough to convince anyone.

I think I am beginning to agree with the character Rudge in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, who in answer to the question, What is History, replied, “History is one fookin’ t’ing after another!”

As humans, I think we have progressed, or learned, if you will, much in the area of law. We are more civilzed, due in large part to the general agreement between humans that living under a code of laws is better than the alternative. Regarding America, I think we did act rightly on the lesson that governments granting rights to its subjects is backwards - our government is based on the idea that it is the individuals that grant rights to the government. But it was flawed from the beginning in that the so called “individuals” had to be landowners - which pretty much cut out women, slaves, the poor, native Americans, and so on (I know that is a big simplification but it makes the point). It took almost 200 years to seriously address total equality in this country, and we are still struggling mightily despite clear constitutional language and law. Every time I hear a politician make the claim that we are the moral leader of the world I just want to shake them, and remind them they were probably born when we still practiced overt discrimination.

So where does that leave us? What no one (as a people) has learned is that there is no basis for superiority between humans, whether at the individual, group, or government level. Offhand, I can’t think of an example of claimed superiority that is based on anything other than what the claimant made up in their own head(s).

Here’s a question - what is the wording of “The Golden Rule?” Is it “Do unto others……..,” or is it “Do not do unto others….?” If it is the former, western civilizations are probably doomed to repeat superiority-based hisory for quite a while longer. If it is the latter, and everyone believed that, maybe we have a chance.

The past that i have found most helpful is my own. When looked at with the help of other it teaches me where to go.

It seems that the the truest of heroes are killed by the rest of us out of fear for what they are saying and that that this has gone on for a long time.

i have today. That is all I have. I try to fill it with as much love and kindness as I can. Often I don’t do as well as i would like, but life is remakrably sweet and precious.

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