Friday, January 18, 2013

The Lessons of History

I trust everyone is familiar with the old platitude about how those who don't study history doom themselves to repeat it. In fact, the platitude does not go far enough. Absolutely everyone is doomed to repeat the so-called mistakes of history. There are no exceptions. The historically enlightened, in this instance, are no better off than the historically ignorant. The mere possession of knowledge does not always lead to action. Knowledge of the human past likewise rarely yields clear actionable directives.

The lessons of history lie elsewhere. On the weekend of the US Presidential Inauguration, for example, an obvious lesson to be learned every time someone makes use of the word like historic or historical to describe the significance of the event is that you may be confidant that they are telling an untruth. (Wolf Blitzer, I am talking at you.) Judgment about historical significance needs the advantage of hindsight, hopefully at least a couple of decades, but preferably a few centuries. It does the rest of us no good if commentary on the epochal significance of something happening right this very moment is being offered up willy-nilly. And it ought to reflect badly on the person making the gross overstatements. Goodness knows claims to the sort of god-like prescience needed to determine whether this particular event, occurring right here and right now, before our very eyes, will be decisive to the unfolding of the history of a people, a nation--lo, the human race itself!--should give us pause.

The problem is that it rarely does. Intellectual modesty proportionate to the human dimensions of our lives is largely absent from public discourse. It enough to make a person cry for Heaven to restore Karl Marx from the grave to teach us once more his analysis of the production of false consciousness. The gods, in everything but the name, walk among us once again. A new bourgeoisie foists its vision of impossible greatness upon a mass of slack-jawed proletariat. Against their better socio-economic interests, the proletariat embrace the intangible feeling of belonging to something larger than themselves. Crushed under the burden of an economic order designed to squeeze them for every possible penny, freedom is dangled like a carrot on a stick, held out for them to taste, if only they work just a little harder to reach it. The circle is vicious, terminal even.

One lesson that might be learned studying history may be summed up in a formula. The level of histrionic content in any assignment historical significance is indirectly proportional to the temporal distance between the event and the judgment passed. Which means the closer those two are together in time, the greater the chance that our would-be historian is a liar--in the strict sense of holding up something as truth that corresponds to nothing in reality.

Another is that Nietzsche was wrong: there is no twilight for idols, if the sun never sets.

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