Mark Twain liked to say that history doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes. If that is true, what do we do with a generation that prefers free verse?
This thought arises from the recent e-mails generated by my essays on Christmas Past, available here and here. While many people of various philosophical persuasions wrote to thank me for the essays, a few were scandalized. They argued that this review of history worked at cross-purposes with the laudable Christian endeavor to salvage Christmas from impending oblivion. Silence on this history, they argued, would best help the Christian cause.
In times past, the common history of a community was kept by the story-tellers: Homer, Thucydides, the prophets of old, the bards and the wandering minstrels of the Middle Ages. Whether through oral or written tradition, the culture resonated with men who told the story of where we came from so that none would forget who we are. Times change. So do cultures.
Americans are no longer very good at history. Our culture is built around our economy, and our economy is future-oriented. No one wants us to fixate on what we have now or what we had before, except insofar as it compares badly with what we could soon have. A culture built on marketing, as any relentlessly capitalist culture must be, is relentlessly future-oriented. It is also relentlessly unwilling to consider that the future holds only one certainty: death.
As a result, Americans are caught in a continual twilight of illusion wherein we don’t recall our past nor do we dwell on the realities that awaits us. Rather, we try to construct a temporary shelter against the coming storm by amassing our goods in rows around us, creating the illusion that we are safe, or soon will be if only that last product is purchased.
This loss of historical sense, this loss of contact with reality, must eventually destroy any culture it permeates.
The Memory Hole: Example One
Everyone knows the Civil War was fought the twin issues of slavery and states’ rights, but how many Americans know the Revolutionary War was fought to stop corporations? As Thom Hartman points out, the revolt over the Tea Tax was not a revolt over the fact that the tax had been raised, but rather, over the fact that it had been lowered.
The new, lower tea tax allowed a multi-national corporation, the East India Company, to flood the American market with cheap tea, thereby driving small mom-and-pop tea shops into bankruptcy. In that respect, the Boston Tea Party was akin to an attack on the local Super-Walmart, the Founding Fathers were dedicated in part to destroying the ability of corporations to operate on American soil. Do any of today’s commentators, liberal or conservative, mention this? Aren’t these facts relevant to any discussion of the Founders’ original intent?
The Memory Hole: Example Two
Or what of the way America and Britain invented the science of eugenics, and thereby invented Hitler? It is a matter of historical fact that virtually every major eugenicist prior to 1930 was either British or American: Galton, Davenport, Sanger, Stopes – it is a roll-call of the some of the most prominent people America and Britain produced.
America was the first country to institute mandatory involuntary sterilization of “defectives,” the first country to ban marriage between whites and blacks. Eugenics was one of the few things Theodore Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler agreed on. Yale was the home of the American Eugenics Society and Harvard graduates traveled to 1930’s Germany to help them draft laws modeled on the sterilization and anti-miscegenation laws of Protestant America.
Everyone knows Hitler was a eugenicist, but who remembers that Neville Chamberlain, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, was a member of the 1935 English Eugenics Society or that Marshal Pétain, who led the Vichy government in France, was a member of the French eugenic society in the 1930s? As for the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were all ardent eugenicists, while Herbert Hoover was, in 1921, on the committee that sponsored the Second International Congress of Eugenics in New York.
In short, every American president from 1901 through 1945 agreed with Hitler on the importance of eugenics. Is it any wonder that International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), the organization started by American Margaret Sanger, spent the first seventeen years of its existence rent-free in the headquarters of the English Eugenics Society and was a member of that organization in 1977? Americans lambaste the Germans for their past inhumanities, but we taught them how to think eugenically.
The Memory Hole: Example Three
And let’s talk about thinking. America’s modern mass compulsory school system actually created riots and armed insurrection in many parts of the country when it was first instituted. Why? Because parents recognized even then that it was inferior to the one-room schoolhouse and homeschooling. Parents recognized even then that it was an attack upon the family. They understood that it degraded learning and separated children from adults, thereby stunting every child’s growth. But not a word of this leaks out into the grade school, high school or even most college texts. No one remembers it. Why not? Wouldn’t the roots of this conflict have some bearing on today’s education conversation?
John Henry Cardinal Newman, the famous theologian and historian who converted to Catholicism through his thorough study of Church history once remarked, “knowledge of history is the death of Protestantism.” Protestantism, corporate America, modern education – each in its own way encourages amnesia. The facts of history are dangerous things. They call to mind ways of thinking, ways of living, that are inimical to the modern American way of life.
So, we can forget and argue endlessly, pointlessly.
Or we can remember.