The Prescience of the Past
The utility of history is that, most fundamentally, it is the story of you, or, at the very least, the story of billions of beings not so very different from you. Consequently, the most simultaneously horrifying and humbling insight to be found in the cumulative chronicles of our past is that everything grotesque, every evil ever imposed on human beings was done by human beings, and you’re one of them. But the same darkness that taints you with incredible malice, in turn sentences you to its wrath, for in the poignant words of Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl, “We have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who conceived of the gas chambers at Auschwitz; however, he is also that being that entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s prayer on his lips.”
When there is sufficient discontentment and polarity in society, people begin to balkanize in search of appropriate groups alongside which they might successfully fend off any upcoming conflict. These conditions make us extremely irritable and gullible, since, unless we adopt a wholly similar view to our fellow group members regarding who is to blame and how to resolve the situation, we risk ridicule and excommunication. Unfortunately, these circumstances are all too commonly found scattered along the historical landscape, and have previously opened up platforms for demagogues like Napoleon, Lenin, Hitler, and Mao.
Increasingly, however, media and its partisan propaganda is our democratically elected dictator, taking the place of yesteryear’s tyrants, but to no less insidious effect. There is truly no greater imminent threat to the future of our humanity than the contemporary manifestation of mass manipulation turning us against each other for profit. We are easily seduced deeper into our own echo chambers to affirm our beliefs in the incompetence and ignorance of the other at the cost of our own character. So the domestic false flag operation of mass media terrorism to divide and rule is completed, and we are led like willing sheep to slaughter on the altar of enforced equity, as if liberties were things to be imposed upon us rather than protected and upheld by us. We are a very easy breed to incite, and are quickly capable of escalating unfortunate tragedy into unfettered terror.
Many of us refuse to resign ourselves to the idea that disparity might be stitched into the very fabric of freedom, and that the line between good and evil, as Solzhenitsyn asserts, might indeed cut through every individual human heart. It’s far easier and much more neat to implicate entire groups right alongside their wayward members. And it is equally tempting to blame others for the hardships and misfortunes that manifest in our own lives.
But it’s also possible, if not even probable in the pursuit of progress, to unwittingly uncover the darkest of human motivations, and to then find yourself unconsciously promulgating the path of such evils as would make hell itself envious. For it is precisely those who would consider themselves above the category of such vengeful creatures that find themselves most often in their company. We have all heard that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but it seems so counterintuitive that many of us fail to understand why that might be the case. Like moths drawn toward open flame, we find it difficult to discern how such brilliance could disguise such danger. It’s not that our hearts delude us as to heaven’s glory, but rather our minds deceive us as to hell’s proximity.
The single most pernicious and destructive idea in all of history is that one’s guilt or worth ought to be assigned based on group membership and assumed identity. It underpinned the brutal tribalism of antiquity. It clothed in armor the Crusades. It forged the medieval torture devices of the Inquisition, and loosed the guillotines of the French Revolution’s reign of terror. It was the bullets that met arrows in the colonial massacres. It was the wind in the sails of the Atlantic chattel slave trade, and it piled up the untold emaciated corpses of the Russian Civil War, Holocaust, and the Great Leap Forward in the 20th century alone to name only a select murderous few.
Perhaps the preeminent ideological establishment of the western world was brought forward to address this incredibly destructive dogma that had brought the world so regularly to its knees. This principle was that the sovereign individual was the proper locus of responsibility and agency. This inspired and extremely unlikely verdict flies directly in the face of corporate human nature, and represents, not unlike Churchill’s declaration on democracy itself, the worst answer to the problem of our flawed nature excepting all others offered to date.
The discovery of God-given, inalienable rights articulated the indispensable framework by which all interpersonal problems must be addressed: the presumption of innocence and the conception of individual sovereignty. The practical implications of these determinations were that no one has the right to do wrong, even when they have themselves been wronged. We figured out a very long time ago that retaliation and revenge were not paths towards prosperity, and would quickly turn minor offenses into all-out mutual annihilation. The first step taken away from such runaway violence was lex talionis which limited legal retribution to the degree and kind of the original offense. The next step was to prohibit cruel and unusual punishment, and to delegate dispute resolution to a jury or some other form of impartial arbitration.
It is no secret that these ideas were a long time coming, and were improperly formulated countless times before becoming codified into legislation. And it’s also no secret that they are not perfect, even as they now exist. Our predecessors didn’t get it all right all at once. In fact, they made just about every conceivable blunder on their winding journey toward a good life. But the precious few things they managed to get right at extraordinary cost are all that stand between us and humanity’s overwhelming penchant for self-destruction, depravity, and tyranny.
Indeed, the mighty, too, fall, but a little humility and gratitude for the giants upon whose scarred shoulders we all stand goes a long way towards preserving our sanity. And these giants are not only those we now, in enlightened retrospect, understand as having stood on the right side of history. They are everyone — all those who came before us to have their countless lives splintered in a capricious, perennial bloodbath of societal trial and error to construct the foundational freedoms and privileges that we now take for granted. Few giants are heroes, but we learn no less from their flaws.
Another concerning pattern is the rapidly growing movement in contemporary culture predicated on the misguided belief that the way to build a better future is to redact the errors and evils of our past. There is a strange fixation with smoothing over, if not eliminating altogether, its elements that offend our modern sensibilities. When we conclude that our cultural heritage and ideological precepts are too compromised to be worth defending, their guardians will be the first to fall, forced, in a thin blue line, through the kangaroo courts of public opinion and on to the 21st century gulags. Perhaps, given recent events, this denigration is more palpable than it might otherwise be, but make no mistake, the baby goes out with the bath water and we will be left with far less than we bargained for.
We all too readily forget about the magma of malevolence that boils below the constitutional mountaintops upon which we build up nations. The perfect most certainly is the enemy of the good, and before we go tearing up the foundations of civilization that we have built to protect an exceedingly fragile peace, we should not fool ourselves about what lies in wait beyond its walls. After all, it is the most egregious parts of our past that are most in need of remembrance, for they ought to sober each of us equally to the malignancy of our pedigree. But they must also remain to remind us of oppressions overcome, and that we are, in fact, capable of both transforming the world in very real ways, and, in the words of MLK Jr., bending its moral arc towards justice.
There will be those who wait to raise their hands until cooler heads have prevailed, if it is not by then already too late. There will be those who decide that a glass half full or half empty is half gone either way, and the only remaining path towards an ever-elusive equanimity will coat their hands in so much blood that they will never be able to wash it off. Such is the risk of a generation raised on the constant reminder that they are part of a corrupt, domineering, and patriarchal class whose relative success in life could only be attributed to their zero sum oppression of others. Those who decide that is an acceptable and perhaps even rightful price to pay for past and present injustices should first ask themselves whether they truly care for the disadvantaged, or simply despise the privileged. Not all ambitions that arise within are as innocent as they first seem, and not all ends justify the means.
When all the villains are removed from our history books and their sins gone from our minds, our heroes, if any of them could prove blameless enough to survive such censure, will seem like madmen struggling, although valiantly, against nothing but the wind. Then will come a time when men will be weary of life, days will last longer than weeks, and the soul will shudder with the weight of its folly. So will begin a purge of ourselves not seen in a million years, as if we did not yet belong to this world, but had already concluded that we did not deserve it. When that day of blind wrath is done and the bodies lie strewn in the streets, we will find that they are not those of our enemy, but rather our fathers and mothers, our sisters and brothers. And we will be left to wander the world and wonder our fate.
Few things indeed are as terrifyingly useful as a knowledge of the past, but, as the German philosopher Hegel so concisely laments, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history”. The steel man case for liberalism is to be found in hopeful optimism for the creative potential of our society to continually improve upon its current iteration by casting off past prejudices, and experimenting with an increasingly empathetic and egalitarian social order. This is the advocacy for a greater good. Conservatism, however, rests its case in caution and skepticism towards such an enterprise, given previous catastrophic precedents demonstrating the unique perversions of excessively utopian aspirations. This is the cautionary tale of a greater evil. The former group is ridiculed as naive and historically ignorant by the latter group, and the latter condemned by the former as a backwards attempt by incumbent elites to preserve their power. Much of where we fall on this spectrum is determined by temperamental traits, but beyond the intrinsic, predispositional factors, in general, the more you have to lose, the more conservatism protects you, and the less you stand to lose, the more liberalism promises you.
Throughout the ages, both sides have triumphed in their time, and each has an invaluable political and social role in moderation to put in check the cycloptic tendencies of the other. Modern civilization and its successes, along with a fair few of its failures, can be attributed in large part to the infamously slow-moving, but necessary dialogue between these two intellectual juggernauts. It is likely abundantly clear by now which side I find to have the most compelling case at this particular turning point in our history. I make no bones about it and I have no desire to mislead anyone, but I hope it is similarly evident that I don’t view the opposition as the enemy. The few objectivist claims I have made are moral in nature, and would, I hope, find echo from a diverse group of those who do not wish to be corralled by the prepackaged propaganda designed to possess and set us against each other like dogs in a death match designed to enrich our mass media masters. We have unwittingly incited them, as we vote with our views, to weaponize our natural proclivities against us, and focus solely on what divides, rather than unites us. We have begun to believe the lie that commonalities are necessarily built with some at the cost of the same with others. We have started to aspire to a common enemy with those we admire rather than a common purpose with those we serve. We forgot that the most important relationship ever built — the one between a man and his God — is forged in the very furnace of extreme dissimilarity, but tempered by love and mercy.
There is a constant struggle waging within each of us to conform to the degree that we are accepted into the protection of the pack, while at the same time individuating ourselves enough to transcend it, and return with the Promethean fire of freedom so as to ennoble the whole. The only relevant distinction in this case is where we draw the boundaries of the pack. I believe that there are crimes which must cause you to lose your reason or you have none to lose, but for every nightmare that tears us apart, there are a hundred dreams we share. When we are called to be slow to anger and slow to speak, let’s not be quickly angered by those slow to speak. We should return to the words of Jesus in defense of the adulteress woman damned by the law to be stoned, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” (Jn. 8:7) God does not try to erase the past. He doesn’t pretend it didn’t happen and He doesn’t turn away. He redeems it. And this redemption is not accomplished through vengeance, erasure, or guilt, but with grace, forgiveness, and love. Jesus’ prayer for us was that we would be one like He and the Father are one (Jn. 17:21). So let’s make our tribe the human tribe. Let’s make its membership our community, and we might yet be able to break free of our hatred and reestablish our faith in the One who made us all in His image.