Why History Matters

A friend mentioned that she wasn’t very good at history, and I’m afraid my reply ran a little long. It’s a subject that has fascinated me almost since I first began to read, oh so many years ago. (Clay tablets back then. This fancy ‘paper’ stuff hadn’t been invented yet. It was a LONG time ago.) So, for the edification of the masses, I have reproduced my latest sleep-deprived ramble on why you should know something about history.

The problem most people have with history is the way it’s taught. They just get a bunch of names and dates to remember, and that’s it. The teachers don’t make the history come alive, and they don’t make it relevant. People will learn something if it’s interesting, and they’ll learn something if it’s dull but important, but something dull and meaningless, not so much.

The problem isn’t history, it’s the teachers. History is the story of how people used to live, and how we got where we are today. History let me predict exactly what would happen when we sent troops into Somalia, and Iraq. You’ve heard the old sayings about history repeating itself? Not true.

Brown’s Law of History: History doesn’t repeat itself. It just gives pop quizzes to see if you were paying attention.

If you know history, it is much harder for governments to fool you. You have perspective. If you can draw on a pool of knowledge five thousand years deep of what people and governments and societies do, you have a much greater understanding of what is going on in the world around you than someone who only lives in the TV news cycle of three days or so.

For example: April 2003. US forces are preparing to invade Iraq. Think on this quote, from nearly 60 years before:

“Why, of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship. …Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.” — Hermann Goering

It gives some perspective, doesn’t it? Look at those last two sentences. Doesn’t that precisely sum up US foreign policy over the last several years? It has worked exactly that way for, literally, thousands of years. Some tricks work well enough that they stay in use for a very, very long time.

Back in ’89, right after the Berlin Wall came down and all the media were talking about the end of war and all like that, a friend of mine asked me who I thought the next enemy was going to be, now that The Commies were gone.

“Islam,” I said without hesitation. “We’re going to go back to the old enemy.”

It took a little longer than I thought, but I was dead on. Because I knew the history.

Of course, being so clever hasn’t done me much good, has it? I still have to work for a living.

History isn’t the only important thing to know, but it does matter.

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