Learning Nothing from the Past
Published: 2009-11-22

By Richard A. Widmann-

In stark opposition to George Santayana’s now clichéd quote about learning from history, revisionist pioneer Harry Barnes in his  History and Social Intelligence  boldly noted that he did “not accept the view that history can in many cases be directly useful to the present generation through the discovery of alleged specific analogies between the remote past and the present day.”  He continued, “Perhaps the greatest lesson of history is that it has no such lessons for our generation.”

Whether the current generation did not heed Santayana’s warning or whether the vast differences of historical periods preclude us from applying lessons from the past, there is little doubt that we seem to repeat the worst mistakes of the generations that preceded us.

One historical period that has been embraced by popular culture is the “Red Scare” of the early 1950’s.  The nearly mythologized account seemingly replacing the earlier tales of young Washington and his cherry tree describe a vicious anti-Communist crusade led by Senator McCarthy.  McCarthy, or so the story goes, unfairly and undemocratically destroyed lives because of suspected Communist sympathies.  Regardless of the accused connections to Communism the message today is surely that all are free to believe what they choose – politically and otherwise.  The United States is the land of the free, and if we resort to totalitarian methods, to blacklisting, to name-calling, and attacks on character, then we have in fact lost what is best in America and in fact what so many lost their lives to protect during the Second World War.

Today however it appears that the message has been transformed.  The very methods which are decried when used by McCarthy or his associates are fair game as long as they are used against the “right.”  The ad hominem attacks, which Gore Vidal once ascribed as a frequent method of the right are equally or more often launched by the former champions of tolerance, the left.  No longer does one lose employment for being a “commie” but one may find themselves on the unemployment rolls should they be identified as a “nazi.”  “Racist,” “anti-Semite,” “nazi” are all part of the new vocabulary of the once-liberal left.  These terms are used against even seemingly Teflon targets like former president Jimmy Carter and current president Barack Obama.  Blacklisting, attempting to prevent one from making a living are all seen as viable weapons in a war against their enemies.  Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind used his power to coerce American Express to dropping British historian David Irving as a merchant.  Why?  Because Hikind did not like his politics, or his history.

The incarceration of people for their ideas, their words, their publications is common throughout the world.  Irving, Germar Rudolf, and Fredrick Toben have all recently served jail time – for holding unpopular views.  Ernst Zundel is still incarcerated in the once democratic Germany.    Book burnings, imprisonment and blacklisting are all acceptable forms of intolerance throughout the West as long as they are practiced against the latest hated minority.  Revisionists and others who attempt to take a fair and sober look at the past and even the present are branded outlaws in our new era of dogmatism.

We learn nothing from the past.  We simply find new targets, new minorities, and new victims.  All else remains the same.


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Author(s): Richard A. Widmann
Title: Learning Nothing from the Past
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Published: 2009-11-22
First posted on CODOH: Nov. 22, 2009, 8:33 a.m.
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