History Is Bunk!

I was looking back at some of my earlier posts that mention Aldous Huxley in light of a recent article insisting that Huxley’s predictions are much more accurate than were Orwell’s — an article that is well worth reading, by the way. In doing so, I came across the following post which I reblog in the hope that this time someone will actually read it. I do think it speaks to our current malaise, which spans a broader terrain than simply the recent election and the dangerous machinations of a narcissistic president, though history has some important lessons to teach us even in this regard. 

The student protests in this country during the turbulent 1960s led by well-intentioned, idealistic young people, seem to have marked the death-throes of the American spirit. Directed as it was, unsuccessfully, against the “establishment” of materialistic, commercial, and militaristic power that increasingly controlled this country, the effort sought in its blind way to breathe life into the spirit that had once made this country remarkable. But blind it was, led by uneducated zealots who lacked a coherent plan of action, confused freedom with license, and targeted education which they barely understood and were convinced was turning into simply another face of the corporate corruption that was suffocating their country. In their reckless enthusiasm they decided that the core academic requirements at several of America’s leading universities were “irrelevant” and they bullied bewildered, frightened, and impotent professors and administrators into cutting and slashing those requirements. Other institutions were soon to follow. One of the first casualties was history, which was regarded by militant students as the least relevant of subjects for a new age they were convinced they could bring about by force of will and intimidation.

Had they been inclined to read at all, they might have done well to heed the words of Aldous Huxley when, in Brave New World, he pointed out that the way the Directors of that bizarre world controlled their minions was by erasing history. One of Huxley’s slogans, lifted from Henry Ford, was “history is bunk.” By erasing and re-writing history those in power could control the minds of the population and redirect the nation and determine its future. In the end, of course, the students who led the protests in this country and who thought history irrelevant were themselves (inevitably?) co-opted by the corporations and eventually became narrow, ignorant Yuppies, running up huge credit card debt and worried more about making the payments on their Volvos and their condos than about the expiring soul of a nation they once claimed to love. Or they became politicians tied to corporate apron-strings thereby rendering them incapable of compromise and wise leadership.

In 1979 Christopher Lasch wrote one of the most profound and informative analyses of the cultural malaise that resulted in large part from the failure of the protests in this country in the 1960s. In his remarkable book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life In An Age of Diminishing Expectations, to which I have referred in previous blogs, he warned us about this attempt to turn our backs on history:

“. . .the devaluation of the past has become one of the most important symptoms of the cultural crisis to which this book addresses itself, often drawing on historical experience to explain what is wrong with our present arrangements. A denial of the past, specifically progressive and optimistic, proves on closer analysis to embody the despair of a society that cannot face the future. . . . After the political turmoil of the sixties, Americans have retreated to purely personal preoccupations. Having no hope of improving their lives in any of the ways that matter, people have convinced themselves that what matters is psychic self-improvement: getting in touch with their feelings, eating health food, taking lessons in ballet or belly dancing, immersing themselves in the wisdom of the East, jogging, learning how to ‘relate,’ overcoming the ‘fear of pleasure.’ Harmless in themselves, these pursuits, elevated to a program and wrapped in the rhetoric of authenticity and awareness, signify a retreat from politics and a repudiation of the recent past. Indeed, Americans seem to wish to forget not only the sixties, the riots, the new left, the disruptions on college campuses, Vietnam, Watergate, and the Nixon presidency, but their entire collective past, even in the antiseptic form in which it was celebrated during the Bicentennial. Woody Allen’s movie Sleeper, issued in 1973, accurately caught the mood of the seventies. Appropriately cast in the form of a parody of futuristic science fiction, the film finds a great many ways to convey the message that ‘political solutions don’t work,’ as Allen flatly announces at one point. When asked what he believes in, Allen, having ruled out politics, religion, and science, declares: ‘I believe in sex and death — two experiences that come once in a lifetime.’ . . . To live for the moment is the prevailing passion — to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity.”

If there are any questions about the spiritual health of this country, then the loss of hope, the rejection of religion, history, and science, and the abandoned expectations of viable political solutions provide clear answers. We do seem to be a vapid people, collecting our toys and worrying about how to pay for them, wandering lost in a maze of our own making, ignoring the serious problems around us as we follow our own personal agendas — and remaining ignorant of the history lessons that might well show us the way to a more promising future.

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The Now Generation

The psychiatrists who studied the American prisoners of war released after the Korean conflict were amazed at the success of the “brainwashing” techniques that were used on those men. Captured documents revealed that one of the secrets to that success was the claim of the North Koreans that Americans were generally ignorant of history, even their own. These young men could be told pretty much anything bad about their country and they tended to believe it because they had no frame of reference. For example, they could be told that in America children were forced to work in the coal mines and a couple of the men vaguely remembered hearing of this and were willing to embrace the half-truth and share it with their fellow prisoners. True, there were children working in the coal mines at one time, but no longer. It was precisely those half-truths that enabled the North Koreans to convince the ignorant young men of blatant falsehoods. Couple that treatment with censored mail that the prisoners received from wives and sweethearts complaining about how bad things were back home, not to mention the seeds of suspicion that were planted among the men that broke down their trust in one another, and you have a formula for success. There was not a single attempt by an American soldier to escape imprisonment during the entire conflict!

Today’s young people are equally ignorant of their history, perhaps even more so. We make excuses for these kids by moaning about how much “pressure” they are under. Nonsense! I would argue they under less pressure than those young men who were fighting in Korea, or even the generation that followed them. Today’s young people need not fear the draft. Moreover, they are the beneficiaries of the sexual revolution and are therefore free from the restraint experienced by prior generations who were told to wait for sex until they were married. In fact, they don’t seem to show much restraint about much of anything, truth to tell. And there is considerably less expected of them in school these days than was expected of their fathers and mothers. They are told they are wonderful: they feel entitled. So let’s hear no more about how much pressure they are under.

Now, social scientists — who would rank below even the geologists on Sheldon Cooper’s hierarchy of sciences, I suspect — love to label the generations. We have read about the “me” generation and the “millenialists,” the “X” generation, and the “Y” generation. While I hesitate to lump myself together with the social scientists, I would nonetheless suggest that we call today’s young people the “Now Generation.” They, like their parents before them, don’t know diddly about their own history, much less world history. In fact, studies of recent college graduates have shown an alarming number of these folks who cannot name the first five presidents of the United States, cannot recognize the Gettysburg Address, don’t know who were our allies during the Second World War, or when the First World War was fought — or what countries it involved. Much ink has been spilled along with weeping and gnashing of teeth over these sad revelations, but very little of substance has resulted from all the angst. History is still not considered important in our schools or in this culture. As Henry Ford would have it: “History is bunk!”

Santayana famously said that those who are ignorant of their history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. This presupposes a cyclical view of history and is predicated on the notion that human beings don’t really change that much. Because events tend to repeat themselves — we seem to be constantly at war, for example — and humans have become increasingly locked in the present moment, ignorant of their own past, they will tend to fall into the same traps as their predecessors. On a smaller scale, every parent laments the fact that their kids don’t listen to them and seem determined to make the same mistakes their parents made twenty years before. History is a great teacher. But we have to read it, assimilate it, and take it to heart. We tend not to do that. History is not bunk, Mr. Ford, and we are certain to repeat the mistakes of previous generations if we continue to remain locked in the present moment, ignoring not only the past (from which we have so much to learn) but also ignoring our obligations to the future as well.

So, I recommend that a more appropriate label for the present younger generation is the one suggested above. It is certainly true, as psychological and sociological studies have revealed, that today’s youth are addicted to electronic toys, immersed in themselves, uncaring, and seemingly unaware of the world outside themselves; the label “Me Generation” does seem to fit. But my suggestion is designed to expand the domain of the label to include not only the young, but their parents as well. We all need to read and study the past in order to avoid the traps and pitfalls that most assuredly lie ahead.

Forgetting The Past

The student protests in this country during the turbulent 1960s led by well-intentioned, idealistic young people, seem to have marked the death-throes of the American spirit. Directed as it was, unsuccessfully, against the “establishment” of materialistic, commercial and militaristic power that increasingly controlled this country, the effort sought in its blind way to breathe life into the spirit that had made this country remarkable. But blind it was, led by uneducated zealots who lacked a coherent plan of action, confused freedom with license, and targeted education which they barely understood and were convinced was turning into simply another face of the corporate corruption that was suffocating their country. In their reckless enthusiasm they decided that the core academic requirements at several of America’s leading universities were “irrelevant” and they bullied bewildered, frightened, and impotent professors and administrators into cutting and slashing those requirements. Other institutions were soon to follow. One of the first casualties was history, which was regarded by militant students as the least relevant of subjects for a new age they were convinced they could bring about by force of will and intimidation.

Had they been inclined to read at all, they might have done well to heed the words of Aldous Huxley when, in Brave New World, he pointed out that the way the Directors of that bizarre world controlled their minions was by erasing history. One of Huxley’s slogans, lifted from Henry Ford, was “history is bunk.” By erasing and re-writing history those in power could control the minds of the population and redirect the nation and determine its future. In the end, of course, the students who led the protests in this country and who thought history irrelevant were themselves (inevitably?) co-opted by the corporations and eventually became narrow, ignorant Yuppies, running up huge credit card debt and worried more about making the payments on their Volvos and their condos than about the expiring soul of a nation they once claimed to love. Or they became politicians tied to corporate apron-strings thereby rendering them incapable of compromise and wise leadership.

In 1979 Christopher Lasch wrote one of the most profound and informative  analyses of the cultural malaise that resulted in large part from the failure of the protests in this country in the 1960s. In his remarkable book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life In An Age of Diminishing Expectations, which I have referred to in previous blogs he warned us about this attempt to turn our backs on history:

“. . .the devaluation of the past has become one of the most important symptoms of the cultural crisis to which this book addresses itself, often drawing on historical experience to explain what is wrong with our present arrangements. A denial of the past, specifically progressive and optimistic, proves on closer analysis to embody the despair of a society that cannot face the future. . . . After the political turmoil of the sixties, Americans have retreated to purely personal preoccupations. Having no hope of improving their lives in any of the ways that matter, people have convinced themselves that what matters is psychic self-improvement: getting in touch with their feelings, eating health food, taking lessons in ballet or belly dancing, immersing themselves in the wisdom of the East, jogging, learning how to ‘relate,’ overcoming the ‘fear of pleasure.’ Harmless in themselves, these pursuits, elevated to a program and wrapped in the rhetoric of authenticity and awareness, signify a retreat from politics and a repudiation of the recent past. Indeed, Americans seem to wish to forget not only the sixties, the riots, the new left, the disruptions on college campuses, Vietnam, Watergate, and the Nixon presidency, but their entire collective past, even in the antiseptic form in which it was celebrated during the Bicentennial. Woody Allen’s movie Sleeper, issued in 1973, accurately caught the mood of the seventies. Appropriately cast in the form of a parody of futuristic science fiction, the film finds a great many ways to convey the message that ‘political solutions don’t work,’ as Allen flatly announces at one point. When asked what he believes in, Allen, having ruled out politics, religion, and science, declares: ‘I believe in sex and death — two experiences that come once in a lifetime.’ . . . To live for the moment is the prevailing passion — to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity.”

If there were any questions about the spiritual health of this country, the loss of hope, the rejection of religion, history, and science, and the abandoned expectations of viable political solutions provide clear answers.  We do seem to be a vapid people, collecting our toys and worrying about how to pay for them, wandering lost in a maze of our own making, ignoring the serious problems around us as we follow our own personal agendas — and remaining ignorant of the history lessons that might well show us the way to a more promising future.