There I said it.
History. Repeats. Itself.
I’ll say it again.
Most historians balk at this notion with a series of well-intended but nonetheless vehement objections. In my experience, we respond, “No. Absolutely not. History doesn’t repeat.”
Before continuing, we have to interpret what “repeat” means.
According to the dictionary:
According to the denotation of “repeat,” history can’t repeat itself. (And if you want to get technical and into chaos theory, neither can anything else.) Unlike lab-controlled experiments that can be exactly replicated (although not really), humans are life is always evolving and unpredictable and involves incalculable symbiotic relationships.
BUT, if we consider “repeat” as both a metaphor and in terms of its connotation, we can understand what people mean by “history repeats itself,” and it actually emerges as a useful conceptual tool. As Mark Twain put it, “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
The vast, vast majority of people don’t in anyway think that history literally, exactly repeats itself. Such would violate celebrated philosophies of free will. When people say that history repeats itself, they are generally thinking of broad patterns. Another way to describe these patterns or relationships would be to describe them as cause and effect relationships. They are thinking about the existence of and continuation of
- Classism, or
- Social movements, to list only a few of the repeated/unending phenomena of human history.
A more specific example could be that every step forward in the long African-American Civil Rights Movement has resulted in new forms of discrimination. Lynching, disenfranchisement, and neo-enslavement (collectively called “Jim Crow”) replaced codified plantation and urban enslavement after the Civil War and Reconstruction era. Today, the “New Jim Crow” (a system where by at least 1 out of every 3 black men are confined in the Criminal Justice System) replaced Jim Crow after the Modern Civil Rights Movement of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.
People remain “babies” on the evolutionary ladder – we are greedy, shortsighted, and quick to buy into fear of “the other.” Spending time trying to argue that history doesn’t repeat is ultimately not very productive for historians, a debate primarily involving semantic differences.
Furthermore, if nothing “repeated,” it would quickly become impossible to study anything. Much of what we study is about relationships between times and places. On the other hand, if we “dig deep,” language repeats all the time per se. If we had to relearn language every day, we would never progress. By saying “history repeats,” we are recognizing the ways in which we are bound to this world and products of it. This is not to say that nothing ever improves or changes.
As historians, we can and should use the real meanings behind notions that history repeats to help students enjoy and embrace the study of our world. Indeed one of the many reasons I enjoy studying History, as I tell students in my “What is History?” lecture, is that history is comforting and allows us to see the world as a more steady place. According to the news and Joe public, crime, poverty, you name it, are worse now than it ever has been. If we look at historical evidence, we can find that such fears are unnecessary. Likewise, every generation says the previous generation had it better or older adults long for the time when they were adolescents when the world was a better, safer place (I call this the Myth of the Utopia Past).
Finally, although human events can never come close to any kind of true replication, History belongs to both the liberal arts and the sciences. That History is a liberal art needs no explanation. That History is also a science, however, is where I tend to meet objections.
Scientists follow the scientific method. They follow a series of steps to ensure their work is the best it can be given current resources. Don’t historians do this? Historians come up with questions, look for evidence, analyze evidence, weave in secondary material, write and edit, edit some more, and then go through peer-reviewers both informally and formally. This is indeed the historian’s equivalent of the scientific method. Historical narratives or theories about the past are no more or less theories or narratives as human evolution or the big bang, for example. All scholarship involves theory and explanation based on evidence.
Likewise, for reasons I haven’t fully grasped or studied yet, science tends to have more credibility with the public. People tend to perceive history as always changing, unstable, and inherently biased by “crazy, liberal academics.” In reality, science changes just as much, is just as unstable, and has just as many biases. In other words, History and any of the specific branches of science are all social constructions- both the discipline themselves and scholarship produced. By promoting the study of the past as a science, perhaps historians would have more automatic credibility.
Be sure to check out: The Nature of History and the History of History, I am many things but a “history buff” is not one of them. – Hidden Power of Words Series, #14, and my other postings about history, too!
“Angry Cat” always makes the day better! 🙂
This posting in particular is intended to generate stimulating conversation. Thanks, as always, for reading. I also love all of the comments that you provide here on WordPress and on Facebook, Twitter, and Email.
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Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives
Tags: academia, does history repeat, Education, historiography and philosophy of history, history, history repeats itself, humanities, learning, philosophy
There is an abandoned coal mine beneath the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, where a fire has been burning for more than fifty years. Sometimes it breaks through the surface and creates an event by setting fire to something before going back to its long slow burn underground. Before the town was abandoned to the fire, the event might have been recorded in local history.
If you didn’t already know, or if it never occurred to you that a fire could burn underground, you might go for quite a while without knowing it was there. Maybe your whole life (or more, since they say it could burn for another 200 years). And if you made a study of these events, without knowing about the mine, you might come up with a theory—the work of an arsonist, perhaps, looking for revenge or trying to scare people off the land.
What we take for history is often something like that fire, at least the part that we can see, events popping into view one after another for us to explain in terms of what people say and do. And we are largely oblivious to the rest, even the possibility of what is going on down below.
When what happens has bad consequences—pain, suffering, death, destruction, loss—we typically look for someone to blame and, if their intentions were good, we file it away in history as a mistake. And if it has happened before, especially more than once, someone invariably reminds us of the philosopher, George Santayana’s famous warning that those who fail to study and learn from history are bound to repeat it.
Every time I hear those words, I think, how obvious, that we are supposed to learn from our mistakes, and yet it seems almost a matter of routine that we do not.
One day, for example, I was listening to the car radio when the news came on with the story that since three months of bombing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria wasn’t having the desired effect, the United States had decided that the thing to do now was to bomb them even more.
I have lived long enough and read enough history to know that we have been here before, more than once, and with what result.
During World War II, for example, the Allies carried out a massive bombing campaign over Germany, figuring that unrelenting suffering and terror would beat them into submission. After the war, researchers were surprised to discover that it had just the opposite effect by stiffening the German people’s resolve to hold out as long as possible. The finding was no secret, especially in military and political circles, so there was no need to dig in some dark corner of history to know of it.
And yet, some thirty years later, the United States figured it could force the Viet Minh and North Vietnamese to give up by bombing the hell out of them, which, yes, made them all the more determined to hang on, which they did long enough to make the Americans give it up and go home.
And now, it seems, here we go again, and not for the first time since Vietnam. If a little violence doesn’t work, use more, and if that is not enough, give them Shock and Awe. Taken far enough, as a last resort, you would probably have to kill them all, which is what Vietnam-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara concluded it would have taken for the Americans to win, and which is, in effect, the strategy of nuclear war.
In the inevitable post-mortem analysis known as history, we are told that mistakes were caused by some unforeseeable combination of miscalculation and bungling, faulty intelligence or a lie; or presidential ambition or fear of appearing weak; or what so-and-so said or failed to say at this meeting or that, or the weight of public opinion, or what the admirals and generals thought would be the best combination of weapons and tactics, or what the enemy decided to do that left the government in that peculiar position known as ‘having no choice.’ Or something else entirely, depending on who is writing the history.
Either way, the people who make these mistakes usually come out as neither stupid nor crazy, because, with few exceptions, they are not. And they do study history, and even those who don’t, have highly-paid advisors who do. So, it doesn’t make much sense that they would follow in the footsteps of those who went before and keep making the same terrible mistakes. Why—with our big brains and all that history to learn from—why can’t we get it right?
I have come to believe that the answer hinges on a failure to appreciate the difference between doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing right.
Governments can decide, for example, that a particular application of violence did not produce the desired result because it was done incorrectly, that mistakes were made in the execution, which is what we must study history so as not to repeat. But all of that rests on an underlying cultural belief in violence itself as a legitimate and effective instrument of control, not to mention a measure of manhood and national power.
This is the fire in the mine that provides the fuel for what happens up above, whatever the details are in how it is done. The cause is not simply a series of ‘mistakes’ that can be isolated and analyzed in time and space, but also the culture and structure of society itself that was there long before particular mistakes were made and continues long after they have been dissected and understood as anything but what is bound to happen when you keep trying to do the wrong thing.
We keep going from one ‘mistake’ and ‘failure’ to another because we do not connect what happens on the surface with what is underground, because we do not see the present as a continuation of the past, the manifestation of a taken-for-granted worldview that is ‘happening’ all along, whether or not we recognize it in the choices we make and the events of the day that result. Even the observation that ‘this has happened before’ is misleading in the way it fragments and isolates ‘this’ particular happening from another, relegating each to its own unique place in the string of events we call history.
This is how deep continuing structures make something like recurring wars a path of least resistance, as something normal and predictable no matter how terrible and fruitless they may be. It is what propels the juggernaut of unlimited population and economic growth on a finite planet, and it fuels the capitalist greed and excess that cause panics and crashes in which millions of people lose their jobs and homes. The most recent financial collapse was no mere repetition of history, even though such things have ‘happened’ many times before. It was the predictable and recurring result of how our economic system is organized on its deepest level and continues to operate.
Beneath the surface of daily events, the next collapse, the next war, the next calamity, is happening right now, shaping what we assume to be reality, what it makes sense to do, gathering force, momentum, and direction, for that moment when it will break through into our awareness and our lives and command our attention, if only for a while.
History does not repeat. It continues. And no amount of study of its events will protect us from it until we go down into the mine and put out the fire.
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