Repeating History: Was Yogi Berra Right?
If you know anything about history, especially the history of the 1930s, there is an eery sense that we've been here before. As Yogi Berra famously said, "it is deja vu all over again."
At the Marin GOP we prefer to focus on the bread and butter issues that impact the lives of people in our own community. (We're a county level political group. Our mission is to focus on issues that impact the lives of people in Marin County.) So we spend a lot of time talking about education, schools, homelessness, inflation, and crime. Local issues are big issues. But big issues are local issues too.
People are "shocked" by the footage out of the Ukraine right now. Shocked. They emote their shock with sad face emojis and messages on Facebook. Blow-dryed talking-heads on cable news stations stare intently into the cameras as they dish out platitudes and talk about the "unprecedented" horror of war in our time. (Newsflash, if you are a television "reporter" who just accidentally quoted Neville Chamberlain's most infamous line just retire. Or use a search engine and look up Neville Chamberlain. Or better yet, drive to a local college and buy a history major coffee.)
The sad reality is that although war is truly horrible, there is nothing "unprecedented" about what is happening now.
The twentieth century was a century of bloody and brutal conflict marked by genocide, the mass mobilization of mechanized armies, wholesale slaughter, and the mass migration of millions of civilian refugees. It is quite possible that the 21st century will follow the patterns of the 20th century. The main difference today is that we, as a society, are much more naive. If, like me, you came of age with the internet you grew up with target marketing, channel surfing and click-bait. You also grew up in an era that embraced the idea that you could turn your back on stories that didn't interest you, or realities that scared you. If you didn't like seeing the footage of the latest terrorist attack in London you could just obsess over a few thousand Kardashian selfies instead.
In the 21st century we grew comfortable with the luxury of ignorance. Ignorance is a luxury. The ability to "ignore" reality is a luxury we are now, once again, losing as a society. We no longer have the option of ignoring stories we don't like. (It is tempting now to take a swipe at a once respected newspaper that has spent most of the past couple of years ignoring stories the editors didn't like and getting scooped by rough and tumble working-man's papers. But, the print media, like our selfie-generation ignorance, is just so "yesterday" now.)
Tempting as it is to forget 2021, 2020, and 2019 today --the last few years have frankly felt like an embarrassing test that too many of us have failed in one way or another-- we should probably take a moment to think seriously about history right now.
There are some events and eras we frankly can't afford to keep forgetting. We can't afford to forget the story of Finland during the Winter War. We can't afford to keep forgetting the desperate decade of the Ukraine famine when Stalin ruled with an iron fist. (And the international journalistic community almost unanimously decided to ignore 8 million dead.) We can't afford to forget Warsaw in 1939. We can't afford to forget the brutal 4 weeks. And we definitely can't afford to keep forgetting the basic facts of war. Not the rules of war, the facts of war. Tanks and heavy trucks can't roll over fields in the east when the fields get wet and muddy as Spring comes. The international media spent most of March obsessing over that Russian convoy trapped on the road to Kyiv. Talking-heads rolled out fancy phrases like "logistical issues" but very few media figure heads bothered to talk about Spring thaws, mud and rain. Heavy equipment gets "trapped" on the roads leading in to Kyiv because those vehicles, by and large, are probably too heavy to off-road across the fields. Anyone with a parent, or grandparent, who remembers 1939 in Poland could tell you that.
Currently our news media seems to be "discovering" basic historical facts anew. Mud has been a "logistical issue" in war since Napoleon got his caissons trapped in the mud. Another fact of war that the international media is in the process of re-discovering involves the very simple rule of thumb that when tanks roll, tractors don't.
Facts matter. We should never stop talking about facts merely because the facts make us uncomfortable. A few weeks ago on social media I was accused of not "caring" about human suffering in Kyiv because I dared to point out that the ground being fought over in March is some of the best agricultural land in the world. The Ukraine is traditionally known as the "bread basket of Europe." Even today, in a global market, Ukrainian grain represents roughly 6% of the global grain supply. When tanks roll, tractors don't. This is not a complex concept. But social media has trained us to think in terms of "trends" instead of facts. Social media has also trained us to express our "feelings" in the moment instead of talking about the future. (Or the past.) On Facebook we want people to think we "care" --and apparently being distracted by facts suggests you don't "care."
It is easy to blame social media for our failures to acknowledge reality today. We've grown addicted to chasing likes and reaches. We've joined the hive-mind of "acceptable" thought. It is a natural human desire to fit in. But sometimes "fitting in" with the herd leaves us vulnerable and weak. Especially if the powers that be in the world of social media are narcissists who think history began with the i-phone.
There is a George Santayana quote beloved by grad students, "Those who forget history are doomed to relive it." You can buy t-shirts and water bottles and canvas tote-bags splashed with the quote in university bookstores throughout the land. But wearing a screen-printed t-shirt, or sharing a platitude on Facebook, might as well be intellectual virtue signaling. The reality is, if we fail to learn history, we are not only doomed to repeat history, we're doomed to be "shocked!" by reality.
Our education system in particular has failed to prepare a generation of Americans for reality. So I dug around on my bookshelves --an archive of yellowing paper that was old before I was born-- to try and find something that embodies the human reality of life in a time of conflict. Yes, war is cruel. War is hell. But humanity can be amazing.
If our schools taught history, our children would be less terrified by the surreal reality they can see on their screens. Too many of our teachers think that by making schools a "safe space" from reality they are protecting kids, in reality they are failing to give them the tools they need to go through life with courage.
This book is over seventy years old. Slapped together during wartime. Quickly sent to be printed on cheap paper. There were paper shortages. Half the authors were at war. Some were journalists. Some were writers --a famous children's book author, a novelist-- who got caught up in the chaos of their times. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was shot down in 1944. His plane and remains were identified, finally, more than fifty years later. His best known book is still in print. This book, sadly, is not well known today. Maybe it should be. Maybe children, and adults, should have the opportunity to learn about history from people who were there.
We don't live in a vacuum. We shouldn't force kids to learn the lessons of life fresh every generation. History is full of horrors, but it is also full of wonders. Who would think people would read "The Little Prince" for 80+ years? There is something comforting in the compassion of these stories. The humanity. The courage. And the fact based acceptance of reality. Maybe if we stopped getting our news spoon-fed to us by trembling celebrities hired because their hair looks good, we could embrace our own courage. And think a little. Because "our time" in 2022 is not necessarily all that different from the 1930s.