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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss


No doubt you are familiar with the quote from George Santayana, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It is often cited with a knowing nod by those who are witness to a disturbing or reprehensible act for which no other explanation suffices. It’s as if we humans are nothing more than Hamsters stuck on a wheel of endless historic déjà vu. But there is more to this phenomenon than a glib summary of our limited memory for unspeakable actions.

We might begin by examining the chain of events that follow from our past. Actions carry consequences and they resound through the ages. Students of relatively contemporary history might point to the outcomes of the first world war and see with excruciating clarity the actions which led to a second world war, the current conflict in the Ukraine and the on-going instability in the Middle East among many other events. The deeper question, however, is why we do not see the greater pattern leading us down an inevitable path.

Santayana’s observation suggests it is our failure to learn from our mistakes that leads us to their repetition. As far as it goes that seems all too obvious but perhaps an insufficient explanation for our propensity for disastrous repetition. It is not that we have failed to learn, but that we believe the outcomes can be changed, that the next time we can achieve what we failed to do before. Moreover, the lessons we do take from our past belie our present circumstance. We are limited by a lack of vision, an inability to imagine alternatives that we have never before experienced.

Abetting our limited imagination, we shape the present narrative in terms of the past. So, the events of January 6 are viewed by one faction as a latter-day Boston Tea Party, and by another as the Beer Hall Putsch. These similes are facile at best, but equally dangerous because they ignore the true dynamics at hand and create a false context to justify what has occurred. So, when we hear participants in the Jan 6 events describe themselves as patriots, we should be alert to the fact that this is as manufactured as claims that it was the fruit of budding Nazism.

Now I want to be absolutely clear that there were and are those who absolutely believed they were acting as patriots and that some of the participants undoubtedly embrace white supremacy and fascist ideology. But packaging it in those convenient terms fails to give us any real understanding of what transpired or why and far worse deepens the divide that has been present in our country from its inception.

Lest we forget, our country was founded in revolt and has been waging war ever since, on others and ourselves. If we see every issue as a nail, it is only because our single tool is a hammer. Diplomacy, negotiation and healthy compromise are largely tools we employ once conflict has reached some end, or all else has failed. They are not typically what we reach for first, or if we do it is with the other hand grasping the sword.

Why then should we suppose that those who acted violently on Jan 6th were anything more or less than a pulled together agglomeration of aggrieved and frustrated people whose fuse had been lit with a lie, but were already primed by a well scripted and entirely phony set of stories about our history as a nation. How we see ourselves is not at all how we have acted, but telling that truth is a crime in many parts of our country and even among historians an uncomfortable reality.

We see ourselves as rugged individualists, as claimers of righteousness, a faithful land of Christian believers, and holders of the moral high ground. Writ small there is some element of truth in those tales, but it is far from all of who we are or what we have done. We are also a people who committed genocide against the native population of our country, slavers, war mongers, manipulators of the free will of an endless list of foreign peoples and many other despicable things. Sadly, we are not alone, and the same charges could be made of many other nations in the past and the present.

We cannot claim the torch of freedom or the moral high ground without acknowledging this reality, which is why those who would strip our schoolbooks of the truth and ban the teaching of our real history are setting us on the path to the deadly repetition Santayana described. A foundation of lies is shifting sand, nothing durable can be built on it. Those who perpetuate characterizations based on these fictions regardless of their party or ideology do us no service. It is time for us to cease celebrating our fictional past and become the people we claim to be.

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