Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Four Lessons of History

"We can't change the present or the future. We can only change the past, and we do it all the time."

That's a quote from Bob Dylan's interview with Rolling Stone in the September 27 issue. Like much of Dylan's work, it can be interpreted many different ways. I take it to mean that history is often written to suit the interests of its author. That's why we need to know history; we need to protect ourselves from the warped versions of history that are used to justify destructive politics, science, religion, etc. If we don't want to repeat history's mistakes, we have to know what really happened and why. Unfortunately, our schools teach history in a boring way that reinforces the social order. It's in the interest of the elite to make learning excruciatingly dull and misleading. An ignorant public is easy to manipulate. The truth of history is fascinating, liberating and energizing.

The first lesson of history is that things haven't always been the way they are now. The second one follows from that, though not inevitably: Things don't have to be the way they are now. The third one follows more easily: The reason things are the way they are now is often arbitrary and not always in our best interest. History should explain how the current status quo came into being, because the process is never a natural evolution of institutions designed to best serve human nature. It's a struggle among competing groups who (no matter how strenuously they profess their selflessness) always privilege their own interests above all others' once they come to power. There is no enlightened historical progression in which the best system (e.g., capitalism) eventually comes to the fore. Just because capitalism is the most successful economic system right now doesn't mean it's the one best suited to meet human needs. Capitalism has many benefits, but it has also always had a regime of violence enforcing its demands.

The fourth lesson has eluded many in the modern age: Things don't always get better. We've been led to believe that our society is the fulfilment of history's destiny. All those old civilizations were just experiments laying the foundation for our society, which is the best, most just, most equitable society in history. Granted, we've made significant strides, but we have problems that never afflicted previous societies. Social isolation and alienation are endemic, and racism is a post-Columbus invention. No one dismisses the historical record of civilizational decline, but we've decided the rule that what goes up must come down no longer applies to us. Our technology has supposedly freed us from the limits that pulled our ancestors back to earth. In reality, we're subject to the same limits on natural resources; no matter how sophisticated our technologies become, we'll never be able to extract energy from alternative sources without expending much more energy than we do now pumping oil or natural gas or digging coal out of the ground. We've probably already begun our descent.

Knowledge is power, and the ability to deny knowledge to others or trick them into ignorance gives one power over them. Therefore, I strongly urge everyone to learn history, no matter how difficult it may be to find the truth. Not only do you have to fight the Man's machinations; you have to fight your own conditioned resistance to uncomfortable truths. But it's well worth the pain. (I hope.)