Monday, April 19, 2010

The Futility of Trying to Repeat History

George Santayana said, "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

SWNID says, "Those who try to repeat history prove that they haven't learned it."

Put differently, the world is often run by people trying to solve past problems with past solutions. Those people mess up.

Some of these instances are so well known that they hardly bear repeating. For instance, the French "learned from history" that they faced invasion from aggressive Germans. So after the Great War they built the Maginot Line, a series of fixed fortifications designed to repel any German attack.

So the Germans attacked France by taking their new mechanized divisions quickly through the Low Countries, bypassing the Maginot defenses. We call that "World War II," and the French in that war were overrun, not just crippled as they had been in the previous episode.

That's a famous one, but no longer current. Here are some current ones:
  • An American President learns from FDR the importance of pushing through a far-reaching legislative agenda in the first 100 days of his first term.
  • An American President learns from FDR and LBJ the importance of changing the social and economic landscape with far-reaching social-economic programs that benefit the middle class.
  • An American President learns from JFK the importance of setting a far-reaching goal for space exploration, coupled with an ambitious deadline for completion of that goal.
  • An American President learns from Jimmy Carter the importance of major breakthrough agreements to securing peace in the Middle East.
Without pointing fingers, we note that such episodes of Presidential Leadership may not be all they seem.

First, not all of these initiatives were unqualified successes. FDR's actions in the Depression have been cogently argued to have prolonged it (see Amity Schlaes). However popular Social Security and Medicare may seem to be, the truth is that they are popular largely because the public fears that it will get a worse deal than the present bad deal if these soon-to-be-insolvent programs are altered. Were we starting afresh, we create something very different from these programs, as we've moved away from defined-benefit pensions to individual retirement plans in the private sector.

Second, to the degree that these initiatives were successful, they were well suited to their times. Here we note especially the aptness of Kennedy's challenge to go to the moon, as compared to the endemic listlessness of the American space program since then. Going to the moon was in the 1960s a singularly powerful initiative because it brought together a fast-developing cluster of technologies (rocket and computer sciences) with an achievable objective (going to the moon, a trip of about a week) that served a powerful strategic purpose at the time (a major Cold War propaganda victory over the Soviet Union). Really none of those conditions apply today: the technologies are mature, the remaining goals are fabulously farther away (the nearest that Mars comes to Earth is 140 times farther than the average distance of the Moon to the Earth), and there's little to be gained for American prestige in such an effort. In fact, it could well be argued that if another nation announced a program to take people to Mars, our Republic would be best served in global opinion by offering itself in a cooperative venture.

In a different direction, leaders of Christian institutions of higher education are often cautioned not to repeat the mistakes of those leaders who let famous institutions drift from their original faith-based missions and become secularized or liberal. Forgotten in that history are two factors. First, not all institutions that lost their way did so by secularizing or liberalizing. Most lost their way and slipped out of existence because they lost relevance. Second, the fundamentalist-modernist controversy that roiled theological institutions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries has been over for awhile. Theological "liberalism" still exists, but compared to its strength a century ago is hardly influential enough to entice the faithful. From either angle, seeing "liberalism" as the major threat to a Christian IHE seriously overlooks the differences between then and now--and threatens to seriously distract the IHE from the real and present dangers.

So we (vainly) ask for politicians in government and in the church to find ways to justify their actions that offers something other than "history teaches" as its preface. A good reading of history teaches as much.

Postscript: President Bill Clinton opines on this fifteenth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing: "As we exercise the right to advocate our views, and as we animate our supporters, we must all assume responsibility for our words and actions before they enter a vast echo chamber and reach those both serious and delirious, connected and unhinged." For Clinton, those who criticize government may unwittingly unleash the forces of kookdom on the innocent, just as someone unmentioned by Mr. Clinton unleashed Timothy McVeigh.

While this clever turn of political rhetoric did not prompt our post, it does illustrate it with disturbing aptness.

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