There is no Santa and no History. Expect neither presents nor lessons
“Those who do not know the past will repeat it.” — George Santayana
“History does not repeat itself. People do.” — Voltaire
“The chief practical use of history is to save us from plausible historical analogies.”
— James Bryce
Warming to that old theme of mine
This is Arc #39, and having a numerological cast of mind, I am superstitious about the meaning of that number. As you likely know, the number 40 is significant in the Bible and other religious texts, so this column is the penultimate before the appearance of profound revelatory scripture two weeks hence. It is a long one, so read it in bites.
Today I will indulge my favourite tirade, my rant of choice, my pet diatribe, my preferred pontification. To wit – History teaches no lessons.
It would be a fool who insists, “History teaches this!” History is an abstraction, not a person. It doesn’t teach.
This would be a heresy to my schoolteachers of yore, who always fell back on the tired cliché by Santayana (see the epigraph above) and insisted we must learn history because we learn lessons from history. Will and Ariel Durant, authors of a best-selling popular set of volumes on Western history, even published a short book in the 1950’s titled The Lessons of History. But professional historians do not uphold such a view.
Cullen Murphy, in his fine short monograph on the USA as empire, entitled Are We Rome?, puts the point nicely. History doesn’t teach, but people believe it does.
There are suggestive parallelisms. There are no exact replicas. Uniqueness is supreme. History – understood as all that has happened, notwhat historians say is “the” history – is not patterned. It is occurrence, not story.
Historians know that nothing in the past is ever repeated; no leader ever truly copies the action of a past ruler, since no two situations can be identical. Furthermore, every individual with power to act does so with a sense of the unique character of their time, their place, their choices, their own wisdom, intelligence, talent.
Experience, a phenomenon any human can store in memory, is not history. Anyone can take a lesson from a personal, lived experience, any lesson they care to draw. But a person who “draws a lesson” from the history of past people or event is letting other people’s stories substitute for personal experience.
History becomes part of the consciousness of an individual from an exterior source, while experience belongs uniquely to the interior of the person who acted in it and remembers it. Any lesson drawn from history is merely a personal choice. I can tell you what I think is The Lesson of an event. You are correct to say that it’s not the lesson; it’s my lesson, not yours, and you’re free to take a different lesson, or none.
So what’s the point?
This dreary conclusion, that the subject I love to study does not have lessons, is not what people conventionally think. As Murphy remarks, the opinion of the “everyman” or non-professional person about history remains strong, that History must be made to teach us lessons so we can avoid past error. I won’t belabour my own viewpoint; I am happy to admit history can give us very valuable advice about present situations. But it’s painfully obvious, and depressing, that we don’t generally avoid past mistakes.
The reason I am depressed by the failure of people to learn something useful from the past is that it is so obviously harmful to we humans not to learn. Not learning is hurting millions of people. Things we could learn from history, we refuse to apply today, and the result of this ignorance is suffering.
The Lesson of English Industrialization
Over and over as a young student of history, forced by the curriculum of Ontario schools in the 1960s to learn about the English Industrial Revolution, I heard this set-piece sermon:
“Yes, there were terrible things done in the early days of industrialization in Britain, against working men, women and children. Crimes were committed, lives of workers were made short and brutal by the greed of wealthy men, and this inhuman cruelty was not stopped by the Government for far too long. But Reason, and humanity, and Christianity, prevailed.
“Laws were passed. Government had to listen to the voters, who were good people, opposed to the evils of the mines and factories. The democratic British Parliament forced the owners of factories, mines, ships, and land, to cease their brutal exploitation of the wretched masses. Democracy resolved the issues of cruel exploitation of labour. Workers won legal protections. Unions were formed, and then workers’ parties – these defended the workers from the bosses and forced better wages, shorter hours, unemployment insurance, pensions, and better working conditions. Plus, we had less-awful jobs thanks to new technologies. Science invented ‘labour-saving machinery’ to liberate us from miserable physical work.
“Humanity has made progress. We will not ever relive those dark pages in our history. Onward and upward!”
As a Canadian of British extraction, I was made to feel proud of my people, its political institutions and its social conscience. Canada, a rich democracy, was blessed.
Charles Eisenstein has written about it progress in two compelling volumes, The Ascent of Humanity, and Sacred Economics; I cannot recommend them enough.
The Lesson is not for everybody
I’m not going to try and convince readers that a lot of ground once gained by working people has been lost in modern nations as new technology and new ideology has grown immensely powerful. I think it is proven: we work harder now, make less income, and subjectively report that our lives are more anxious, less comfortable, than a generation ago.
It is a truth for me, and I know evidence to support the opinion, that things are not as good for the younger generation in our economy as they were for my generation in the 1970s. Canadians carry much heavier household debt than earlier (a recent report tells us our debt rate is 160% of our earnings.) Indebted graduates struggle as they start life after university; many young people have to live at home because they cannot live independently with their low wages and student-loan-interest charges to pay, a situation not faced by my age cohort. Quebec students famously fought this trend, and won their battle to keep tuition low.
I will not argue it, if the reader does not know the evidence of our declining standards of living. I hope the reader will do the research.
I’m confident no one will doubt that in “developing countries” working people are being subjected to the same inhuman regimes of politics and economics as the working poor of Britain in the early Industrial Revolution. I consider it self-evident that investors, corporations, our governments in the developed world, and our consumers of imported goods from underdeveloped lands, are the human cause of this exploitation of the poor. If you buy products of exploitation, you are complicit.
Factories in Dacca, Beijing, and Jakarta, mines in the Congo, abuse workers, killing them by neglect and by design, to make profit for the rulers of those lands. The goods sell to us “at prices The Market dictates.” Fairness has nothing to do with it.
Anyone using a cell phone is using a tool with coltan (columbite-tantalite) as a key ingredient, and much coltan comes from Congolese mines. Do the research — see why buying Congolese minerals contributes to terror, war, rape, and death.
Perhaps your coltan comes from the Australian mines. No slaves are worked in Australia – but the corporation owning the mines there is guilty of the usual attempts to dodge social responsibility to Australian workers, to break the trade unions and evade taxes and ask for government subsidies while making swollen profits.
You know that buying cheap import clothes exploits Asian, African and Latin American children. Again, the evidence is there, if you choose to search it out.
Yes, I drive a car, I am complicit in Canadian petro-crime against our land, but I do not have a cell phone or laptop. Most of my clothes are bought in secondhand stores.
Canada’s spy scandal in Brazil
One has to be amused by the spectacle of Canada, a rich nation, spying on Brazil, an emerging economy (“developing”) to gain advantages for our economy. But it’s grim humour. Brazil is rife with social inequality, it rapes the Amazon rainforest, it traps masses of impoverished people in misery, but Canada is spying on its industries…
What is the Canadian response to this espionage? Not embarrassment, it seems. Nor apology, yet. It is instructive to hear experts offer the opinion on CBC that in the ruthless global economy, espionage is the natural order, not an exception. Canadians need to spy for our national security, as one professor said, but not only is “security” measured by protection of Canada from invasion or defense of our military’s secrets. Security means economic security. Jobs, in layman’s terms. We need jobs. If you lack a job, you are going to have a bad life; no one would question that in the state of today’s conventional thinking. Canada has jobs only if we have competitive production of goods and services. If we have a weak economy, jobs are lost. We suffer.
So spying to keep our economy strong is not reprehensible. It is just good business sense. Market morality. The Hidden Hand of the market determines what is fair. If the reader has never heard of Adam Smith, these remarks are missing my target.
Our Prime Minister: Economy trumps Ecology every time.
Stephen Harper is an articulate speaker for the absolute predominance of economy over all other national interests. One would have to be deaf and blind, ignorant of his acts and words, and forgetful of all his past record, not to know Harper’s order of values. The paramount nature of pay cheques, employment, and the ownership of material things, is almost a brand for this prime minister. He speaks to the new reality. When his Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty, tosses off the comment to media in public that “There is no such thing as a bad job” – one knows Harper approves.
Our PM has taken Canada on a new path, one that declares that economy trumps ecology.
As the fight over a pipeline to link the tar sands of Alberta to the Gulf Coast of the USA is debated in American government hearings, there are Canadian scientists (e.g. Dr, David Suzuki) opposed to the pipe telling US audiences that Canada now is different, and not in a good way. Canada is not what it was before Stephen Harper perverted our former reputation for environmental protection. Scientists in the public sector are forbidden to publish research without government vetting, and censorship is common.
In the past, peoples of nations far away have thought of Canada as a treasure-house of unspoiled natural beauty and resources that are not pillaged for profit. Harper has challenged the truth of that imagery. He also has changed our reputation as world peacemakers and peacekeepers, as we no longer supply the UN with significant aid for that, while our army invades lands like Afghanistan, or our air force bombs lands like Libya, to protect our interests. We rank #57 for contribution to UN peacekeeping; poor, tiny nations like Togo, Nepal and Fiji have surpassed us! (US is #62, UK #45).
Conscience and Consciousness
Conscienceis a word we use to describe an internal ‘voice’ telling us what is right and what is not. Experience informs conscience, along with what we learn from parents and other authoritative sources for good behavior, such as “Love thy neighbour.”
Consciousnessis a word I use a great deal, without rigorously defining it, to talk about the totality of “mind” in one person, or in a civilization. I have written in past columns about theories purporting to prove that humanity has evolved throughout historic time through “stages of consciousness.” I wonder — Is mind progressing? I want to say yes.
The French language has only one word for both these concepts: conscience. That fact suggests a conclusion. History cannot teach lessons to our conscience, so humans can repeat the worst actions from our past. What we do to maintain the supremacy of economics over humanity is not subject to conscience. Human consciousness is being submerged in matter, not evolving upward to spirit. Passion for material things fuels the trend. Love of people can reverse the direction.
Charles Jeanes is a Nelson-based writer. The previous edition of Arc Of The Cognizant can be found here.