If we don’t know our history, we are destined to repeat it

I read this week from an UPI article that 60% of millennials and Gen-Zers are unaware that 6 million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust by the Nazis in World War II. I use the word “exterminated” as that is what the Nazis did by gassing Jews after they rounded them up. If the brashness of this statement offends – I apologize for the needed candor. It is meant to wake people up.

But, the Nazi genocide of Jews is among too many persecutions around the world and over time. The United States has had three persecutions of groups of people, two of which leading to many deaths. We should never forget these sad parts of our history or white-wash (word intentionally chosen) them away.

– European settlers of the US over time seized land from, killed many and moved Native Americans over the course of three centuries. Even today, Native Americans have to go out of their way to protect the rights granted when they were forced to move or areas dear to them were protected by law. It seems the pursuit of fossil fuel acquisition and transport usurps rights.

– Slavery of blacks in the US is well known and was the principal reason the Civil War was fought. Even the reason for the war was white-washed and taught as a battle for states’ rights in too many class rooms. This propaganda was to get poor whites to fight the battles of landowners to allow their richer neighbors to keep slaves. Slaves were treated and abused as property. Yet, after the reconstruction period was legislated away years later, an ugly era of Jim Crow laws began to suppress blacks and make/ keep them as second class citizens. I encourage you to read “To Kill a Mockingbird” or listen to Billie Holiday sing “Strange Fruit” about black bodies swinging in the trees regarding this hateful period.

– To protect them (and other Americans, as a stated reason), FDR ordered the encampment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. These folks and their families were taken from their jobs and homes and imprisoned in camps during the war. They were not killed, although maybe some were while trying to escape, yet their rights were taken away.

Outside of North America, USSR premier Josef Stalin rounded up and killed far more people as enemies of the state than Adolph Hitler ever did. Yet, it did not get the notoriety of Hitler’s heinous crimes of the holocaust. In the 1990s, Radovan Karadzic and the Bosnian Serb military commander, General Ratko Mladic, were among those indicted for genocide and other crimes against humanity as they captured and killed about 8,000 Bosniaks.

In 1994, a planned campaign of mass murder in Rwanda occurred over the course of some 100 days. The genocide was conceived by extremist elements of Rwanda’s majority Hutu population who planned to kill the minority Tutsi population and anyone who opposed those genocidal intentions.

More recently, in Iran the Sunnis felt left out of the largely Shia governing body in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was toppled. They made the mistake of inviting in Daesh to help them. Daesh conducted genocide against all who stood against them, with beheadings and terror, until they were contained.

Sadly, there is so much more. Often the conquering power or the group in power will suppress people in their own lands. The leaders of the Mongols, Romans, Spaniards, Greeks, Brits, Syrians, North Koreans, Russians, Chinese, etc. have put down dissidents or dissident groups or made them disappear. There is an old saying – winners write the history – so, written history may be kinder than oral history to the strong-arming

These sad events involve two themes – power and fear. The first theme is obvious. The second is an age old practice. Tell people to fear another group, tell them these groups are the reason for your disenfranchisement and the people will do what you tell them.

How do we avoid this? So-called leaders who tell us whom to fear, should be questioned. This is especially true if the voice is not one of reason or veracity. Fear is a lever to divide and conquer – we must guard against its wielders.

25 thoughts on “If we don’t know our history, we are destined to repeat it

  1. Well written Keith, well said.
    For me there is no need for your caveat ” If the brashness of this statement offends – I apologize for the needed candor. It is meant to wake people up.”

  2. One of the main tactics the North Koreans used on American prisoners during the Korean “Police Action” was to use a smattering of history and twist the facts in order to paint the blackest picture of this country they could to “brain wash” those young men. They knew their knowledge of even their own history was practically nil.
    Since the 60s we have been told that “history is bunk” and many, if not most, colleges and universities don’t even require history courses at all these days — not to mention the high schools.

    • Hugh, thanks. As a professor, it is likely disheartening that folks don’t want to know. It is funny, kids want to know their history, so I do think it is of import to know the context. When Henry Louis Gates does his “Finding you Roots” show with two or three celebrities, he often touches on how European Jews just got in time, with members of their family who stayed being killed by the Nazis. Or, African-Americans dealing with the history of slavery.

      On a flip side, one of the tenets of “Built to Last” on successful companies over time is 95% of the CEOs are promoted from within. They know history of the company – what was tried and failed, who are the brown-nosers, etc. Often a new CEO hired from the outside will try something that failed miserably before they got there and no one will tell them that it did not work. So, it fails again.


  3. Reblogged this on Filosofa's Word and commented:
    My jaw dropped when I read the first sentence in this thoughtful and thought-provoking post by our friend Keith. I think yours will too. Trump’s desire to teach revisionist history can only lower us even further in the eyes of the world … it can only be thought of as the ‘dumbing-down of America’. Please take a minute to read Keith’s post and ponder on the direction we are headed. Thanks, Keith!

  4. This is a valuable and timely essay, Keith. Of note, the most recent attempt to pass an anti-lynching law has been 2020, when Rand Paul held up a vote in the US Senate.

    And though you made it clear that your litany of horrors was incomplete, I think the Turks’ genocide of 1.5 million Armenians should be mentioned.

  5. When this PEW poll came out, it was two days after my spouse and I decided the only way today’s situation has come to pass is because not enough people know their history. (Sure, Trump is terrible, but the gist of the matter is that the argument that ‘The other guys is even worse’ is very persuasive and has a lot of history to show how effect this strategy can be). The context involved Hitler’s rise to absolute power by using the dismantling tactics we see being used today as a response to the very real threat similar social justice policies contain. In our conversation about the rise of group identities in law, I pointed out this is how apartheid became a policy, how concentration camps became a policy, how China’s current Uyghurs are rounded up in their millions with hardly a peep of coordinated effort from the rest of the world at this outrage going on right now. More importantly, we talked about the rise and widespread acceptance of this false equivalency youth are indoctrinated with that US is ‘just as guilty’ and so can’t speak up and out when human rights abuses occur elsewhere. Who does that serve? Who benefits?

    Few people, for example, know that Germany had hate laws on the books which were used to silence critics of growing national socialist ideology claiming that such criticism was hurtful and harmful to the nation. Few people know that Hitler’s rise was cloaked in the same doublespeak appealing to liberal voters (centrists) to put down sedition in the name of protecting their freedoms and swept into despotic power by a plebiscite. Few people know that the term ‘fascist’ comes from the Italian fascio, a bundle of sticks wrapped together to symbolize the strength Mussolini advocated to represent a socialist and communal Italy under his populist rule. These were fundamentally left wing social justice movements that had great appeal to a sense of community and unity and justice for the downtrodden, movements that later revealed the totalitarian nature of such ideologies when taken to their logical conclusions.

    And we can see the same movement today towards intolerance by how easily we’re trained to self censor out of fear of being labelled racist or bigot, trained to give away our individual freedoms and rights in the name of group identity justice. That’s what not knowing one’s history leads to, not recognizing the actual threats by the vast swath of centrists who go along with the shrill demand that everyone move to the extremes or be called all kinds of nasty names of the other extreme, censored, cancelled, public smear campaigns on social media, careers destroyed, funding pulled, all in the name of advancing a very particular social ideology that removes individual rights and freedoms and replaces them with some overarching feel-good communal privileges in law for the victim class.

    The red flag to look for is the use of very fuzzy and ill-defined terms that inverts language. Demanding equity in the name of diversity. Censoring in the name of free speech. Cancelling in the name of tolerance. Denying reality in the name of respecting personal truth. It’s all of a kind, namely, bombing the village to save it. And the first casualty is language.

    These anti-liberal social movements are the only fuel Trump has but it’s highly incendiary to the extent millions upon millions of Americans think Trump as a despot and terrible person is a better – or should I say a safer – alternative than the ideologues of these social justice reality-denying totalitarian movements. Are we unwittingly part of the problem or part of the solution?

    What is needed is for liberals to regain the vast center of the political arena and vigorously defend these unifying liberal principles in all cases. It’s hard to get off the bandwagon but it reveals what ML KIng Jr thought important enough to give his life for: demonstrating what quality of character looks like in action.

    • Thanks Tildeb for adding the deeper context. No opportunity passes without the corrupt and deceitful US president blaming some group for something. This obvious character flaw is overlooked or downplayed by a group of spineless sycophants, who deserve to be spotlighted for their acquiescence to this corrupt person. Keith

      • Populists like Trump have to have to have the cooperation of enablers to achieve their power. I hold these enablers in the highest contempt because they pervert public power to achieve personal benefit that costs every institution its ethical authority. The logical conclusion to this abuse of power and capitulation of principle is almost always a desperate response of violence.

    • The issue Trump is quite correct in raising is as I’ve pointed out:

      the rise and widespread acceptance of this false equivalency youth are indoctrinated with that US is ‘just as guilty’ and so can’t speak up and out when human rights abuses occur elsewhere”

      My questions in response to those who promote this false equivalency remain: “Who does that serve? Who benefits?”

      Well, Trump benefits when (as Sam Harris and many prominent liberals from the vilified heterodoxy point out to the deafening silence from the Left) the ONLY people who dare to criticize this false equivalency movement are those from the right wing. This is the kind of fuel – this unwillingness to criticize bad ideas from the Left – that many from the left side of the political spectrum hand over to these populists by their silence. These populists then attract fairly substantial support from the center of the political spectrum BECAUSE they are alone is representing this justified and legitimate criticism.

      • Tildeb, we must shine spotlights on poor behavior regardless of its source and irrespective of anyone’s presumed idealogy. For example, Trump is the most corrupt and deceitful president in my lifetime, irrespective of his party. At the same time, violence is not acceptable regardless of the cause of protest.

        We have to get out of this asinine tribal mindset, as it is unhealthy and rationalizes behavior and words that neither tribe should tolerate whether it is done by Americans or others. Keith

      • Exactly. So how do we do this? By vilifying everything and everyone on the political right? By presenting false equivalencies? By not criticizing bad ideas from the Left? By going along with self censorship and the narrative that everything is racist?

        My solution is to get back on board the liberal foundation of our Western democracies that unifies people back to the individuals they really are, sharing the same rights and the same freedoms and the same responsibilities, and not going along with the clumping of people into groups and awarded political and legal allowance to promote these tribal affiliations as if meaningful identities. All in the name of redressing victimization but correcting nothing.

        It takes belief – a faith-based belief – in the descriptive value of group identities to stratify real people, real individuals, into these tribal camps… camps like people of colour necessary to create Apartheid, camps like Jews necessary to create the Holocaust, camps like Armenians necessary to carry out the Turkish genocide, camps like intellectuals necessary to send to the killing fields of Cambodia, camps like the bourgeoisie necessary to send to Siberia, camps like anti-revolutionaries necessary to hold public struggle sessions by the appointed Red Guard to create the death of millions in China, and so on. Believing in group identity is the foundation of every aspect of today’s social justice movement and it is a malignant belief, one absolutely toxic to your rights and your freedoms and your responsibilities. The ideology is the rot. And Trump is using this fact to empower himself. Doubling down on more group-based ideology and narrative plays into this increase in power.

        It’s a false equivalency to presume liberal Western democracies – because of this toxic ideology that believes in groups that once caused injustice- have been unable to change the institutionalized discrimination that permitted it. This is not true. Yet the ability to change is the vital difference between the US in particular and every other genocidal example. The West in general and the US in particular has unquestionably changed this mob-based approach aimed at actively discriminating against these groups by law and enforcement of them. This is the significant difference throughout the West that is being waved away today by ideologues and believers in the legitimacy of group based identity as if irrelevant, as if only the ascension of the far Left Marxist and totalitarian ideology that groups are real but individuals that constitute them are less than, is behind the entire Social Justice movement today. The believers believe we can confront these historical problems only by giving in and going along with group-based ideology (but without any recognition that they have largely been dismantled in law and by law). There is no comparison with, say, the US civil rights movement and the anti-discrimination laws that have resulted, with any other of the long list of countries that have committed recent atrocities. That means the equivalency is false that the US, because of its history, is in no position of moral leadership today… even though such difficult and challenging and complex change is actually one of the crowning achievements statistically indisputable of liberalism.

        But teachers are not explaining this essential difference to students; instead, they are selling the uncritical group-based belief in the truthfulness of the ideological narrative of, say BLM or the 1619 Project that is factually deplorable ideas, as if only a group-based ‘solution’ is the only means to address largely rectified problems. That’s why we have every aspect of institutionalized liberalism and individual rights and freedoms targeted by ideologues under the heading of ‘systemic racism’ who must rely on the goodwill of others to spread their disinformation and denigrate facts, truth, science, and reason to accomplish this deplorable goal. And far, far too many of us don’t recognize the real world danger such misplaced belief draws to each and every one of us. This is the selling point Trumps profits by: populists like he is may be really bad but they’re nowhere near as bad as these ideologues. And that argument has legs as long as the majority of liberals refuse to stand up and support liberalism in practice but go long helping to sell a totalitarian narrative in the name of justice for victims.

      • Tildeb, there was a great song by Rush called “Subdivisions.” A key line is to go against the mantra of “conform or be cast out.” To your point, we need to understand and have a good foundation, but make our own decisions. People need to feel comfortable in questioning things. Thanks for your comment. Keith

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