Those Who Forget the Past: Why Must We Relive Our Failures?

The year is 217 B.C, approaching the high point of the 2nd Punic War. Hannibal Barca’s mixed force of Carthaginian, African and Spanish soldiers ransacks northern Italy. He destroys Rome’s outlying towns, terrorizes their allies and deftly avoids confronting the Roman army. Finally, under pressure from the Roman people and unable to contain his own temper, the impetuous Roman consul Gaius Flaminius set out to attack Hannibal’s armies at Lake Trasimene without gathering further forces.

It was a catastrophically stupid decision. Outnumbered and ambushed against the side of the lake, half the Roman force was destroyed and the other half captured or driven back to Rome. After a breathing period under the command of the more cautious and calculating Quintus Fabius, the Roman people became angry that Hannibal had not already been driven back. Fabius was discarded in favor of Gaius Terentius Varro, who promptly led a force of 80,000 to a crushing defeat at Cannae, in which anywhere from 50,000 to almost the whole force were killed on the field. Finally, the Romans turned back to Fabius, who stabilized the ailing Republic.

During the Crusades, antsy knights try repeatedly to chase down and engage Arabic horse-archers in close combat. Again and again, their enemies scatter until the Crusader’s heavy warhorses are blown, then close in and pelt them with arrows. Though the light bows rarely pierce Crusader armor, it doesn’t matter: the baking desert forces most to surrender or die of heat exhaustion. When the Mongols invade Eastern Europe by way of Russia, the knights once again allow themselves to be drawn off and slowly destroyed by horse archers. In this way the Mongols easily shatter armies of almost a hundred thousand. The Europeans stubbornly refuse to adapt long after it becomes clear that their “charge and forget” cavalry tactics are useless against the Mongols. These “Steppe-Nomad” tactics are not defeated once and for all until the widespread adoption of gunpowder.

As the 20th Century opens, a wave of Nationalism sweeps the Western World. Rising fervor drives the whole of Europe into the First World War, then ignites the Second as both Italy and Germany succumb to Fascism, shamed by their failures twenty years prior. Now it’s 2017. In the United States and elsewhere, mindless “patriots” demand that their countries’ sovereignty be respected, that other nations stop pushing them around. They want less welfare and stronger militaries. They want to penalize immigrants with ever-harsher regulation, while ignoring their own failings completely. The only difference? America’s president is genuinely incompetent. For all their flaws and grandiose delusions, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and the others understood government. Their grass-roots beginnings made them adept at manipulation by virtue of having no choice.

With populist sentiment running rampant, we once again find ourselves in a period of history where mobs rule. On the Right, xenophobia, isolationism and (for lack of a better phrase) corporate fetishism froth to a boil. On the Left, runaway Social Justice thinking and anti-Capitalism. If this continues, History tells us where we’ll end up next: tensions will reach a point of barely-tenable strain, and the whole mess will devolve into open warfare on a global scale. As as a bonus, we’ve developed and proliferated nuclear weapons since the last time. Both the United States and Russia were to disarm during the Obama administration.

Neither has.

Driving all this are two simple facts: we’re not conditioned to have a grasp of the facts, and we’re taught it’s normal to disregard history. Think about it: do our media, our social interactions with those who oppose our views, and the messages we receive tell us to argue logically? The answer is no. From cartoons to drama, both protagonists and their opponents argue through emotional reasoning. They sling insults, jibes and jabs back and forth with inhuman abandon. We don’t agree with the protagonist’s vitriol because it’s more valid, we do it because in fiction the protagonist’s side is ours. Our parents tell us from a young age never to discuss politics or religion with strangers or acquaintances. In effect, we’re told: never try to talk with people who don’t already agree with you.

In the same vein, we’re told constantly that we’re supposed to be bored by history. We’re bombarded with images of characters sighing and tired in history class, slumped over their desks, or dodging the class entirely. There are just as many boring English, Art, Music and Science teachers, but they never get the “dusty fart” treatment. We’re told that “we live in another time” as if somewhere before we were born the world was destroyed and remade. We’re taught that the past has no continuity with us, and act accordingly. As is so often the case, any person will try to answer rationally: of course the past matters, of course we wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for those who came before. Don’t listen to how they answer the question when you ask. Watch how they act when they’re no longer thinking about it.

Watch them ignore the failures of their own ideals and contribute their own bile to the ever-belching upchuck litany about the failures of their opponents. See how they’re happy to adopt the academic view that people and movements change as long as it defends their beliefs, and then reach 70 years into the past to discredit their contemporaries. Observe how easily they miss reliable, unassailable counterarguments in favor of emotional rants. On the other end of the spectrum, look at all the “rational” people who act as if it’s effortless to separate emotion from logic. Note how neatly they divide themselves from everyone else, feeding off the idea that people are born one way or the other.

The human brain is the most malleable part of us. It had to become that way for us to survive. We have our inherent bents, but there’s more to us than those things. But we’ve been instructed that it’s natural to let any or all of our instincts run rampant. “Be yourself,” we’re told, as if we have some static “true” self that can’t be improved by effort. Or, in other words, that we won’t worsen if we allow it.

Back to the matter at hand: we’re taught to look for any reason to discard the words of our opponents (rational or no), but conditioned to accept hypocrisy from our allies. Both of these are natural responses, and both of them are negatives that society strengthens instead of weakening. Think about war: how often do soldiers do awful things purely because they’ve been conditioned to follow orders, not do what’s right? After every pivotal conflict in human history, there’s a brief time where we try to be better. But the effort peters out before it has time to affect a new generation, and so, year by year, the good of the past is undone. Helping this along even as it’s helped along by it, we’re taught (at every point in the political spectrum) that it’s acceptable to reject information we don’t like. This is another natural human inclination that we should try to fight, not foster.

Consider the question, “Is this bread poisoned?” If you say the bread isn’t poisoned when it is, and someone eats it, you’ve effectively killed that person. On the other hand, if you said it was when it wasn’t, they’d go hungry when they didn’t have to. Now let’s say that you have a test to prove it one way or the other. Would you really disregard the test results just because you’d already decided on the opposite answer? We’re often taught that our political decisions don’t matter, even as we’re told to get out and vote. The result is that people wield power irresponsibly. Questions of national identity decide the course of lives, often being life or death themselves. But we treat them the same we pick what bag to buy or what to eat for dinner, acting as if our preferences determine what’s right or wrong.

Conservatives are taught to read history in a way that reflects well on the U.S. Liberals are taught to do the opposite. Both groups end up rejecting large portions of the truth in order to support their own worldview. Because this happens a piece at a time, it’s easy to miss the larger pattern. Now, I don’t want to absolve Conservatives of fault: Trump is their doing. To counter a bunch of pampered blowhard politicians, they chose a pampered blowhard businessman. Trump has not yet and never will provide them the things he said he would. If Trump were Liberal, they’d have seen instantly what a fraud he was. As I said, the human brain is malleable. Ultimately, we have Trump because a large portion of the population chose to give into xenophobia and paranoia (two deeply unAmerican sentiments).

But maybe, if their enemies had been less bitter, if we’d offered them more truth instead of splattering ad hominems across the Internet, if all the Liberal academics I know had used facts instead of condemnation from the start… maybe this could’ve been different.

Maybe it still can.

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