Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. – George Santayana
The future is down a tunnel or off in the horizon, beyond where the eye can see; the past is a grainy photograph, blurring as years go by. We aren’t learning lessons from the past, and we stubbornly seem to be ignoring the future consequences of our current actions. Does it matter? I have been watching the appalling present, contemplating the past, and imagining the future while swinging back between bouts of hope and dread.
We can’t even get quotes right. I had always heard Santayana’s famous expression quoted as: “Those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.” That could be just me paraphrasing, but I don’t think so. If you Google “doomed to repeat it” (as I did to chase down the quote’s proper origin), you get references to this saying. Some attributed to Edmund Burke. And probably Einstein.
This week — like last week — has been full of reminders of the past. We walked out of the movie Detroit yesterday, and my daughter mumbled in shock and anguish, “Nothing’s changed in fifty years.” (Go see the movie. Please.) As we walked in the house and my wife said, “Did you hear about the press conference–” my first explosive thought was, oh what is it NOW? It was about yet another statement justifying violence and hatred. Another time, another place, same old.
This Time it’s Different
There is a curious myopia in reviewing such current events. People are shocked, surprised, and disgusted. No one can imagine how this happened. Masses of angry white men converge on a place with torches and weapons. As some of their photos are spread across our now very wide social media, a few express shock at….? being there? “I didn’t think that was going to happen; it was a disaster…” Nazi Millennials. “When I was chanting ‘Jews will not replace us,’ I didn’t realize those words would come out of my mouth.” (OK, I made that last part up; please don’t misquote me. Too late.) Who knew that people chanting hate would be photographed? And yet, have we not seen this before?
Leadership lays the blame for social ills at the feet of outsiders. Where have we seen this before? This was the core strategy for the Nazis. They weren’t the first. Edward I taxed and borrowed heavily from the English Jews of 1280 and solved his financial debt problem by then expelling them from England, fostering some of the earliest propaganda campaigns about Satanic practices and other anti-Semitic lies. It is also a successful strategy for the rich in power to maintain their financial gain by claiming some single group is the cause of everyone else’s poverty. They’re taking your jobs; they’re eating babies in the night.
But history is full of dead people. Why learn all those names and dates? Don’t we have enough information in the NOW to keep us occupied? A few voices out there honor the past and those who helped establish the ideals that make this a free and thriving society, but it seems like very few. Although I do appreciate Norwegian Airlines’ campaign to remember key heroes from America, like Sojourner Truth.
Other Ways to be Human
A perspective on this theme was offered in this month’s Harper’s article by Rebecca Solnit. In “Now and Then,” she writes of this tension between past and present while musing over the viewpoints from a 98-year old friend. Nothing like a survivor — all 98-year olds must be survivors of multiple lessons from history — to provide appropriate perspective.
One of the problems, Solnit writes, is that in the present we constantly move the scenarios around to make comparison difficult. Statisticians (oh! I love those) call this the problem of shifting baselines. If you keep moving the starting measurement, you can never tell whether you are improving, and all comparisons become impossible. All situations are unique. Actions never have consequences because the consequences are unpredictable. In theory.
This principle [of shifting baselines] goes far beyond ecology. If history and intergenerational memory give us social and political baselines, amnesia renders us vulnerable to experiencing the present as inevitable, unchangeable, or just inexplicable. – Rebecca Solnit, Harper’s
We recognize this in the “debate” about climate change. Every time a graph is depicted showing the temperature increasing worldwide, a response is generated that claims the current data is unique because… the world never had quite this set of circumstances in prior measurements, rendering them moot.
On the other hand, the voices of friends and survivors who have lived through that change can provide hope. Police brutality still exists, but when I watched that movie about the Detroit riots, I thought about how the legal system and media might have intervened in a positive way based on our current practices. Public defenders are engaged. There are cameras now. Some hope is possible. Change does happen. As Solnit writes:
The sheer differentness of the past, the reminder that everything changes, has always felt liberatory to me; to know that this moment will pass is freeing. There have been, there will be, other ways to be human.—Rebecca Solnit, Harper’s
Hope and Dread in the Pulses
I am also immersed in reading New York: 2140, the latest futuristic novel by Kim Stanley Robinson about the coming impacts from climate change. This is not Robinson’s first story about the likely consequences of our inability to reduce the carbon burning that is melting the ice caps; he’s already written a trilogy on the subject. This one takes place a century later and is either more dire or more optimistic, depending on how you look at it.
New York is under water, as a result of two giant increases in sea level which bury the coastlines that come from two huge “Pulses,” fifty years apart. Chunks of Antarctica melt in the mid 2040s and sea level rises a dozen feet with severe effects. People do act, but the action is too late to avoid the Second Pulse that comes a few decades later, even stronger, with massive changes to the world.
Yes, the First Pulse was a first-order catastrophe, and it got people’s attention and changes were made, sure. People stopped burning carbon much faster than they thought they could before the First Pulse. They closed that barn door the very second the horses had gotten out. The four horses, to be exact…despite “changing everything” and decarbonizing as fast as they should have fifty years earlier, they were still cooked like bugs on a griddle. – Kim Stanley Robinson, New York, 2140
Robinson’s books on this topic and others, like the colonization of Mars, alwayd suspend me on that pendulum, swinging between hope and dread. The thought that, in the future, social justice advocates and intrepid police detectives (many strong female characters) are a key part of the future story, even after the climate apocalypse, carries feel-good moments. Humanity survives and occasionally eats dessert, even if it’s rationed. We can do this! Even if we’re doomed! We’ll figure out a way to create walkways between superscrapers and to turn the streets and avenues of New York into waterways like a futuristic Venice.
But Two Pulses? The underlying message is clearly that we today can do virtually nothing to keep this from happening. I could reduce my carbon footprint entirely but it would not be enough. I can write a post denouncing white supremacist groups but I don’t expect it to change the mind of single white supremacist. What acts can I take that would truly change the future of consequences from such large scale actions? Controlled by people stubbornly putting their hands over their ears and clasping hold of a blindfold to ignore the atrocities? This is the despair I have felt reading this book and wondering whether it ought to be classified as horror rather than science fiction.
When All Else Fails, Think of G’Kar
The problem with dread is paralysis. The problem with thinking of history as cyclic and full of fate and doom is that it leads to inaction. These things never change; what can be done? Yet even the students who witnessed the torchlight walks at the University of Virginia or the carnage from a speeding car in Charlottesville spoke about the underlying good in the people around them.
But for all the vitriol and hatred, there was also something deeply human happening in downtown Charlottesville. People were offering each other water, masks, earplugs and gloves.–Aryn Frazer, What U.Va Students Saw in Charlottesville
So, the quote I come back to most often is from an alien on my favorite TV science fiction show, Babylon 5. G’Kar, my 2nd favorite alien, helps write a set of principles to apply to all species — truly universal. The principles contain the one grain of truth that overlays all actions. This is a universal salve to all of histories’ horrors, no matter how many times those horrors are repeated.
We agree to recognize this singular truth and this singular rule:
That we must be kind to one another
Because each voice enriches us and ennobles us and each voice lost diminishes us.
—Declaration of Principles, Babylon 5
We can’t see the future, but we can hand round earplugs and masks. I can’t reduce my carbon footprint to zero, and even if I did it probably won’t ward off the Pulses, but I can still use less energy. As a parent, I can try to raise a different kind of human. As a writer, I can call attention to what is wrong. I can try to make it a better world to live in.
I can try.