Utilizing the tools of history, a nation’s people must choose its leaders wisely or suffer… And this is one of the many answers to that annual high school student question: “Why are we studying this old stuff!” Teachers of history must be able to clearly, confidently and convincingly be able to answer that student question, on the first day that classes begin.
The truth of history can hurt, but it can also heal. And so the question is: what do real people do when unreality overpowers and supersedes reality?
First, an amazing “prophetic word” from Historian Daniel J. Boorstin’s great must read 1989 book: Hidden History: Exploring Our Secret Past. ; Chapter: “A flood of Pseudo-Events”; pg. 283.
“Pseudo-events thus lead to emphasis on pseudo-qualifications. Again the self-fulfilling prophecy. If we test Presidential candidates by their talents on TV quiz performances, we will, of course, choose Presidents for precisely these qualifications. In a democracy, reality tends to conform to the pseudo-event. Nature imitates art…”
“Once we have tasted the charm of pseudo-events, we are tempted to believe that they are the only important events. Our progress poisons the sources of our experience. And the poison taste so sweet that it spoils our appetite for plain fact. Our seeming ability to satisfy our exaggerated expectations makes us forget that they are exaggerated.”
The great misconception about the study of history is that it is the single act and purpose of “looking backwards”; studying old events and people who have long been dead. But learning about the “ancestral” and evolutionary aspects of our customs, beliefs, cultural practices, and ideas, is of major present and future importance.
For, how do we deconstruct, for purposes of understanding our present world, without understanding how it was constructed overtime? And how do we plan to go forward, without an understanding of how poor and misinformed planning in the past created bad outcomes in the future. Whenever I visit and frustratingly try to drive in Atlanta, I always think how different it might be if past political leaders planned roads and highways in anticipation of a clearly foreseeable explosion of new “car driving” residents, emigrating from other US cities? (Sorry, voicing a personal vexation here!)
There is however, another important value for studying history, and that is for its predictive value. By now we should have learned (from history study), that certain ideas and behaviors lead to terrible, and perhaps even horrific outcomes; and we know these things because history has taught us through a pained reality. For example:
• That artificially constructed walls (physical or psychological) built for the purposes of exclusion, discrimination and diminishing the humanity of the “other”. Beyond not working, does greater spiritual and intellectual harm to those on the “good side” of the wall. An example can be found in the biblical story of the “compassion wall” placed between the “clean and good religious people”, who passed by, and did not help the injured traveler. The injured man was ultimately assisted by the “unclean and unrighteous” Samaritan. The message for our purposes here is that those who separate themselves, and refuse to help the suffering victims of injustice; have in effect done themselves a great spiritual disservice, by way of the sin of religious hypocrisy. Walling off our neighbors and fellow humans, ultimately walls us off from our own humanity; and stunts our own faith growth. The walls of separation you build between yourself and those who are suffering, are the walls of your own spiritual tomb.
• History teaches us that “scapegoatism” always ends tragically. Once we say that: The reason I don’t prosper financially, I can’t lose weight, my wife and kids don’t love me, I am, or have too much, or too little of something; is because of some identifiable “other” (Black, Jews, Latinos, Armenians, Muslims, the LBGTQ, Women, liberals, people who read books, those who actually believe in the fundamental principles of science, etc.); stands between me and a happy life. The “natural” next step then is to eliminate those human barriers to my happiness; by punitive and exclusionary laws, and ultimately by acts of lawful and unlawful violence.
• A false and invented historical narrative that suggest that there is a “we” who were once great (Now in America, was that before or after the US Naturalization Law of 1790; where the “enlightened powers”, before and after the law excluded large segments of the population from US citizenship!) And that somehow this “greatness” would still be in place, if not for the previously mentioned “problem” groups (Who keep insisting that their humanity and lives matter; which I interpret as my life mattering less!); along with those other ungrateful developing nations; who no longer accept economic exploitation as the normal way of doing business.
• That the simplest, uninformed and most ignorant solution path is the best way to go. If we pretend that climate change is a plot orchestrated by an international “cabal” of scientist; then why take it seriously. The Russian czars and the guillotined French monarchy; would probably present a lesson in how not to follow a: “don’t know, don’t want to know path”. Also known as the Evillene (of ‘The Wiz’ fame) Principle: “Don’t nobody bring me no bad news!” Historically, ignorance creates a dangerous, not neutral state of existence.
• And what happens when: ignorance, fear, cowardly acts, along with the moral deficiency and absence of the most fundamental collective beliefs in decency, shared concern, empathy and (agape) love, don’t become the driving principles of a national psyche. A leader will emerge, in roach-like opportunism, who will both personify and articulate all of the negative attributes known to man. This leader will in every way successfully represent and promote the very worst of all human traits. And the morally weak will do all in their power to define his behavior as both necessary and worse, normal.
Speaking historically, “bad and evil political leaders” traditionally don’t like:
•A free and independent press.
•Civility and Kindness.
•Any type of public accountability. (Their taxes and business dealings are secret)
•Religion (unless it can be twisted to their needs: See US right-wing Christian Evangelicals)
•Literature, books and reading.
•Real History (they replace it with a fake history narrative).
•Laws and an independent Judiciary.
•The least protected and disenfranchised members of the society.
•Voters (citizens) who think (Thinking is bad).
•Science (that does not support their aims).
•Performing and Creative Art (That does not lie about or glorifies them).
•Information or facts.
•Peace (Because war encourages citizens to ‘rally’ around them); thus the need to have,
•Flexibility in determining enemies (The novel “1984”: “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia”)
•The enemies of the nation are not necessarily their enemies (See: Russian-Trump 2016 elections)
•Fiction-Poetry (Every expression of the leaders depraved personality is found on their pages).
•Anything that questions their legitimacy (especially if their rise to power is illegitimate).
•Standard Dictionaries (because they prefer to invent and reinvent new twisted word meanings).
•The absence of adoration and unprincipled loyalty, to themselves. (See most of GOP leadership)
•Questions (about their behavior and policies).
•Any good works or projects of a previous regime. (“Kill Obamacare why. because it’s called…”)
•Patriotism that does not equate the leader (and his needs) to the state.
Now what part of the present US political picture did the study of history not prepare us for?
And so, one of the jobs of historiography, is to help us as a society to avoid anointing and elevating these ethically morally flawed people to positions of leadership; and then compassionately get them the psychotherapeutic help they need; but under no condition elect them to some local or national political office.
History teachers, you have a lot of important work to do over the next four years; we failed as a nation this time around; but you truly could help America to earn a better grade in the future, by teaching why the era of Trump should never be repeated; and that’s the important history lesson plan of our present age.