Because historians have all the fun this week, I have been reading Francis Fukayama’s article The End of History? Now, this post is not going to be my opinions on that particular piece, for the simple fact that the first decade of the twenty first century proved that the answer to that question was a rather emphatic ‘no’, but rather my reflections on another popular opinion which, when expressed, makes me twitch with involuntary anger, and that is the idea that history is a cycle of constant repetition.
Do not get me wrong, I am not saying that current affairs are not similar to past events, or that we cannot learn anything from history. There are lots of lessons the past can teach us that are still relevant today. To take a not-at-all worn out example, if people knew more about World War Two and the rise of Hitler (and for that matter Stalin) than “Britain won it”, we would be far more concerned about protecting our rights and liberties against government and corporate interests; and that we would also seriously question whether the way in which the media portrays issues such as immigration and people on benefits contributes to a meaningful discussion, or is little more than fear-mongering. This is not to say that the U.K. is Nazi Germany reincarnate, that would be silly; but merely that there is some historical precedent for what happens when central government is given too much power without any adequate civilian or legal oversight; or demonizing certain sections of society, and seeing them as inherently suspicious.
No. What really gets me is when people claim that the present is simply a repetition of the past. Again, this is not criticising people who draw parallels between the past and the present. To say something like, “the U.S.A. should have learnt lessons from the Vietnam war before it invaded Iraq” is a perfectly legitimate opinion, as there were several similar circumstances in the two cases. However, the crucial word there is ‘similar’. Not identical. Similar. As in, some things were the same but a lot of other things weren’t. Yet Iraq was frequently referred to as “the Vietnam of the twenty first century”, a view which seems to argue not just that the invasion was flawed, if not a failure, on its own terms; but that it was a mission that was, historically speaking, doomed to fail, and that anyone who did not realise this from day one was either ignorant, arrogant, or both.
Now this may be a case of semantics, but even if saying “X is the new Y” is shorthand for “X is similar to Y”, it needs to stop, and it needs to stop for two reasons. Firstly, it is just plain lazy. One of the things I truly love about history is its nuance. Certainly, there is a degree of continuity: for example, you can clearly trace the evolution of institutions over time; and you can see how certain events resemble and influence others.
But at the same time you can see how one idea is interpreted in radically different ways at different points in time or in different regions, or how two seemingly identical institutions are in fact substantially different; just as you can also see the same mistakes repeated time and time again, with nobody apparently any wiser about the lessons these episodes can teach us. Furthermore, what we can learn from a subject changes radically depending on how we choose to look at it, and the fact we can learn so many different things from one historical event means that for someone to reduce their historical analysis to “X is the new Y” is not just unimaginative, but is bad history, pure and simple.
However, what is most worrying about this opinion is that it can lead to a situation where we see history as a cycle which is doomed to repeat itself, and over which we have no control. What those historians (and journalists) who constantly try to frame current affairs as carbon copies of past events are arguing, inadvertent or otherwise, is that we are not just unwilling but unable to learn from the past, as if we were able to, what is happening now would not be happening. This is a genuinely dangerous view, as if enough people believe that what has happened before will happen again regardless of their attempts to prevent it, they have no reason to try, and as a result what has happened before will happen again.
Of course, I am not arguing that this is the current state of affairs. Whilst we all occasionally resign ourselves to some sort of doomed, “history is repeating itself” state of mind, we still have enough belief in our own ability to influence the present that we continue to try to do so, even if it does not achieve all that much. Nonetheless, I still feel that people who try and portray the present as a repeat of the past need to stop, not only because such a view is tired and clichéd, but because it can create a degree of pessimism and apathy which is toxic to a democratic society, as it results in a population which sees the present as inevitable and the future as uncontrollable. Arguing that we have failed to learn from the past is good; presenting it as something we are constantly reliving is not.