Post-election upheaval has mirrored the unsettled feeling many people have nursed throughout the duration of the last election. Many have pondered and postulated about America’s political situation—a famine of character, intelligence, and civic competence.
Americans have the luxury of being disillusioned, having lived in a nation that has enjoyed relative prosperity or at least held, no matter how tenuously, the promise of representative opportunity. Although there are those who have responded to political disappointment with careful thought and neighborly intent, there have been just as many responses of blinded rage, fracturing fear, and disengaged disillusion. These multifarious responses, while not surprising, illustrate a substrata of American societal thought that has built its foundations on a severe misunderstanding about the world and human nature. Ultimately, the resounding issue can be traced back to an improper view of history.
The manifest result of this lack of historical understanding is a peculiar and inconsistent form of hero worship. Far too many people have been taught a neatly bubble-wrapped form of history that clearly and wrongfully denotes and explicates the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, and the black and the white, leaving them crippled and grasping for answers when they find that their historic heroes made mistakes and those they loath most grappled with issues they have never considered. This approach to history has completely incapacitated many people’s ability to hold certain views, stories, and persons with tension and nuance—a sign of intellectual maturity and humility.
History itself is the narrative of mankind, the summation of the human experience, the greatest pedagogical corpus on human nature. As G.K. Chesterton so winsomely posited, “the story of human society is the only framework outside of religion in which everything can fall into its place.” (https://www.chesterton.org/history-versus-the-historians/) Within its framework exists the greatest potential to understand the world and people in all their muddleheaded glory. It is real, unflinching, and raw. An appreciation for history is ultimately an appreciation of context to its highest extent.
This unfortunate hero worship can be clearly seen in responses to the phrase “the Greatest Generation,” the title of a book by Tom Brokaw which posits that those who fought in World War II were “the greatest generation any society has ever produced.” (https://books.google.com/books?id=rQagD17IFS4C&q=the+greatest+generation&dq=the+greatest+generation&num=100&cd=1). Some people have ventured to scoff at this phrase, pointing out the many atrocities that occurred during that tumultuous time by those considered to be on “the right side of history” (itself a problematic phrase). This is an unfortunate and immature response.
The response to the atrocities committed by those on “our side” should not be utter dismissal of them and their acts that are worthy of veneration, because those exist as surely as their abominable acts do. A much more fruitful response would be to take a serious internal look at our own actions and nature, and not to fall back onto the misplaced, self-aggrandizing facade of our own militantly professed moral superiority. It should be a resolve to move forward with the resolution to be painfully aware of our own immoral propensities and the determination to combat them at every turn. The takeaway is this, that if such people, because people they were, were capable of such good and bad deeds, then we, who are made of the same physical and mental fibers, even with our advanced knowledge and resources, are capable of much more. When we have the most capacity for good, we also have the capacity for ultimate evil.
History can serve as an arbiter of justice. It is also the greatest form of context for understanding present circumstances. Charles Sumner, one of the leaders of the abolitionist movement in pre-Civil War America, gave a rousing lecture before the Boston Mercantile Library Association in February of 1847 arguing that American slavery was solely based on white American racism. Although it backfired at the time, he dexterously attempted to capitalize on American outrage over white slavery in Algiers in order to illustrate the overwhelming societal hypocrisy of American slaveholders, effectively demonstrating an intricate applied understanding of historical context and human nature. The following excerpt from his rousing lecture illustrates a remarkable understanding of the nuance of history:
“History has been sometimes called a gallery, where, in living forms, are preserved the scenes, the incidents, and the characters of the past. It may also be called the world’s great charnel-house, where are gathered coffins, dead men’s bones, and all the uncleanness of the years that have fled. As we walk among its pictures, radiant with the inspiration of virtue and of freedom, we confess a new impulse to beneficent exertion. As we grope amidst the unsightly shapes that have been left without an epitaph, we may at least derive a fresh aversion to all their living representatives.
In this mighty gallery, amidst a heavenly light, are the images of the benefactors of mankind—the poets who have sung the praise of virtue, the historians who have recorded its achievements, and the good men of all time, who, by word or deed, have striven for the welfare of others. Here are depicted those scenes in which the divinity of man has been made manifest in trial and danger. Here also are those grand incidents which have attended the establishment of the free institutions of the world; the signing of Magna Charta, with its priceless privileges of freedom, by a reluctant monarch; and the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the annunciation of the inalienable rights of man, by the fathers of our republic.
On the other hand, in ignominious confusion, far down in this dark, dreary charnel house is tumbled all that now remains of the tyrants, the persecutors, the selfish men, under whom mankind have groaned. Here also, in festering, loathsome decay, are the monstrous institutions or customs, which the earth, weary of their infamy and injustice, has refused to sustain—the Helotism of Sparta, the Serfdom of Christian Europe, the Ordeal by Battle, and Algerine Slavery.” —Charles Sumner, “White Slavery in the Barbary States.”
We should not be optimists when it comes to the nature of people. If you break them down to their core, strip them of community (ie. accountability) and let them run wild, they are prone to the most disgusting and deplorable actions. Humans have been, are, and will probably always be horrible and depraved. Truly, the history books have done enough to demonstrate that technology merely makes people better armed, horrible individuals. This is where historical knowledge serves as a combatant against evil.
In any regime where people have been highly oppressed, the frequent motif is a suppression of knowledge. Dictators do not want people to figure out their value as human beings. Attempts to control the masses with totalitarian power stem from a fear of ideas. In most cases of moral degeneracy and deliberate exploitation, the common theme is the restriction of information. Where ideas can be freely exposed, people are held accountable because they are no longer the sole moral judge of their own actions. Where good history is accomplished, both in the gathering of information and the study of that information, discussions are formed, and ideologies are subjected to much stricter scrutiny. The careful study of ideas throughout the span of known time has proven to be the greatest weapon against extremism. Societies are like coral reefs, skeletons building upon skeletons, carrying in them the potential to create something bigger and beautiful, but you cannot have the top without the bottom. Beneficial progress is not inevitable. Let’s use our understanding of history and human nature and the way these have played out throughout known time to not only examine ourselves, but to hold others accountable in a mature and humble way.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Let us all be watchmen. It is our duty as human beings and as neighbors.