Scrambling to prepare some formal reflections on my original academic field, United States History, I recently found my notes from a 20th Century US History class I taught in the Fall of 1998. Here are my exact notes — talking points really — from the first class meeting, for what became my standard bit on Why Study History, a topic that receives amazing neglect from professional historians:
“1. Reason #1: to learn from and not repeat past mistakes (yes, old Santyana), like:
A. Quick wars myth….amazingly recurrent: policymakers tell populace and themselves that this current projected or ongoing war will be over rapidly. Rarely the case. Examples.
B. Myth of permanent economic boom without busts. Rising tide to life all boats indefinitely. Sorry, but capitalism does not behave like that. Mention business cycle theory and recurrent necessity of capitlaist crises. Give examples (1920s).
C. Assumption that overall economic growth and “good” stock market indicates a healthy economy. May actually reflect savage wealth inequality and related imbalances likely/certain to undo boom. Over-valued stocks come back to earth and speculative bubbles are burst, at no small cost (essentially a repeat of point 1B).
D. Trying to impose your imperial will on other people and nations breeds bitterness and violence, inviting ugly attack. Pearl Harbor is just one example. Explain.
E. Severe inequality of wealth undermines democracy. Say how. Quote Jefferson and Aristotle. Give examples past and present.”
I guess these seemed like unduly dark reflections at the pinnacle of the grand Clintonian “bell epoque,” when supposed permanent peace and prosperity permitted great intellectuals to gaze in self-satisfied wonder at the glorious, globalization-induced End of History: the past’s supposed culmination in the universal spread of liberal-capitalist “freedom,” peace, and abundance. Empire and war were ancient and otherwise distant concerns and nobody imagined how Osama bin Laden and a messianically militarist “Project for a New American Century” would dominate the first decade (and perhaps more) of the next millennium, joined at their shared barbarian, petro-fundamentalist, and arch-authoritarian hip.
Six other big reasons followed in my oddly dark (for 1998) lecture, making a case for History done right as (among other things) a weapon of anti-authoritarian ideological self-defense.
Quick review seven years later:
1A: look at US war on/invasion and occupation of Iraq. Anyone remember DUMMY (my affectionate shortening of Donald+Rummy [Rumsfeld]) giving the resistance no more than five weeks or, at the most, five months? Cheap oil was supposed to be flowing from “liberated” Iraqi pipelines (helping pay for the expensive and illegal invasion) by now. The war on Iraq has now been falsely and then somewhat self-fulfillingly conflated with the officially semi-permanent “war on terror” (itself not a new phrase).
1B and 1C were validated, of course, by the overdue implosion of the high-tech stock boom, the related discrediting of global neoliberalism, and the onset of an official recession and subsequent mild recovery at and after the turn of the millennium.
1D (with specific reference to US policies vis a vis the Arab world) is relevant to 9/11 and subsequent escalation of extremist Islamic terror attacks, now fueled also by American occuption of Iraq, widely perceived in the Middle East as the latest example of America’s arrogant and imperial ambitions in that region.
1E is an obvious introduction to what plagues what’s left of popular governance in “America, the best democracy money can buy,” where there is a shocking disconnect between the generally social-democratic policy sentiments of the populace and the regressive corporate-plutocratic and related imperial nature of policy.
There’s nothing especially brilliant or mysterious in what I had to say on the first night of that 1998 class. My notes reflect merely some half-intelligent common sense reflections from someone (me at the peak of the Clinton “boom”) who tried to keep current on historical literature and sought to connect his sense of the past to current events. For anyone who bothered to study the historical record in a reasonably honest and careful way, they weren’t much more complicated than the realization that 2 + 2 = 4.
They seem practically clairvoyant in retrospect only because of the mind-deadening mass amnesia imposed by dominant ideological authorities proto-totalitarian American System whose masters know that, to quote Nineteen Eighty Four, “those who control the present, control the past. Those who control the past, control the future.”
For dominant authorities, common-sense historical knowledge and lessons are unacceptable. Two plus two equals five if they need it to. And they do, in practically every era of interest and concern….not just history.
What’s troubling in my old field is the willingness of so many comfortably entrenched professionals to let the “powers that be” own the lessons of the past. Never bothering to explain the vital contemporary relevance of history — why study history — is part of that surrender.
Meanwhile the Orwellian ship of state is headed by a former History major (at Yale) who seems intent on dramatically escalating the pace at which the United States repeats the mistakes of past hegemonic states that also sapped their remaining power with a destructive militarism that reflected and exacerbated their economic decline.
“The past is never dead, it’s not even past” (William Faulkner)
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past” (George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty Four)
A. Introductory comments/warnings
B. Why Study History?
1.Santyana: “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (learning from past mistakes). Examples: (a) “quick wars”; (b) imperial subjugation and all-too mysterious attacks; (c)boom and bust.
2.Positive lessons: what’s right with the past.
Frederich Douglass: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress…power enver convedes without a demand.” Many examples from American Revolution through the present.
3.Where Contemporary Issues and Problems Come From: Getting to the Root of Current Day Difficulties. Examples: (a) contemporary racial disparity, race-based slavery (1619-1865) and the origins of the U.S.; (b) contemporary class inequality and economic insecurity and the history of capitalism; (c)the contemporary disconnect beween policy and opinion and the U.S. Constitution
4.De-Coding Propaganda. Examples: (a) the misuse of the Founding Fathers and other great historical persohalities (e.g. , Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jesus): (b) the identification of all official state enemies as Hitler; (c) the myth of supposedly “suicidal” (and alleged al-Qaeda ally) Saddam; (d)“We [the U.S.] are Good…and never did anything to provoke anyone’s hatred;” (e) the U.S. as homeland, headquarters, agent, and epitome of the principle of “FREEDOM” (liberty); (f) the conflation of capitalism with democracy; (g) history as progress; (h) history as pure chaos (“shit happens”… “the wheel in the sky keeps on turning”); (i) nothing changes: “same as it ever was”
C.Explaining the United States of Amnesia: generallybad high school (and K-12) history (especially textbooks) as part of why Americans tend to be so indifferent to and ignorant of the past.
Conservative Lies Our Teachers Told Us: history as “facts;” the dangerous and boring myth of “objective” and “value-free” history; whitewashed butchers; downplayed slavery; authoritarians as democrats; America as “the land of opportunity;” invisble racism; Uncle Sam as Mr. Good guy; U.S. Government as neutral.
One reason so many America hate history: they’ve got good “bullshit detectors” (Hemingway)