History repeats itself and those who backed the wrong horse, better wake up

Every pithy comment about history tells us the same thing, positive or negative: It’s gone. It’s over. It comes back only when we invite it. The past is a foreign country

Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: PTI)
Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: PTI)

Ranjona Banerji

At what point does general cynicism make you either an escapist or willfully obtuse? What seems “cool” when you’re young seems increasingly dangerous when events around you demand some response. Every time you react to a tragedy with “these things happen” or “I saw the same thing in 1911”, you have categorised yourself as someone who is too frightened to care or worse, too frightened to react.

How judgmental, you might remark. And you could be right. But when injustices rise, when solutions are difficult to find or implement, when people suffer, there has to be a tipping point for your conscience to kick in. If you cannot or will not acknowledge the pain that is around you, then perhaps your cynicism is just that mythical head-in-the-sand thing.

Those who delve into the past to justify the present are perhaps even more troubled. Through the course of documented human history, the same things have happened over and over again. The study of human behaviour or your own knowledge of yourself will corroborate that. But does a murder 5000 years ago mean that you cannot seek for justice for a murder today? Does the behaviour of a rapacious monarch in the 12th century mean that no head of state can ever be held to account?

I see you screaming “reductio ad absurdum” in outrage. But why should your examples be important and mine be unfair? History informs us about ourselves, but it also provides examples of what we can reject and what we continue with. You see that I reference neither Henry Ford nor George Santayana. But every pithy comment about history tells us the same thing, positive or negative: It’s gone. It’s over. It comes back only when we invite it. What did the other man say? That the past is a foreign country?

It’s up to us to reverse, reduce, reconsider, reconfigure behaviour patterns. History is not static. It always changes. As one man said that the more things change the more, they stay the same, another said that there are different rules for different times. Both remain true. And we evolve. We must evolve. Think of yourself as a child who hated capsicum and now you love it.

Okay, okay, you know all this. Or do you?

And what am I wittering on about?

Just this: That we are in crisis and some of you have your head in the sand.

And partly because you have had your thinking capacity incapacitated by your immense knowledge, and your clear view of the past, you’ve forgotten half the lessons you could have learnt there. About the dangers of spreading hatred. About injustices based on all the artificial barriers we erect. About putting people into boxes because they are different and then poking them with large, pointed sticks to ensure they bleed. The burning of witches. The Spanish Inquisition. What do those teach us? That we have readymade excuses for today’s problems?

That great quote by John Maynard Keynes, that you change your mind when facts change is often used by those who have changed their minds about injustice and genocide. I applaud that some people have changed their minds. But I put it to you that the facts have not changed. The genocidal past, the hatred and incompetence of a current dispensation, for instance, was all there in recent history. I am horrified that these great minds took so long to realise these facts, given their mighty intellect. The sad truth is that some of them were so consumed in their dislike of something else, that they decided to make a deal with the devil. Until, well. We all know what happens when you do that, with metaphorically or actually.

Then there are the other cynics. The ones who argue that yesterday’s incompetence makes it quite acceptable to be incompetent today. These are even bigger copouts. They hide behind the transparent veil of tradition when everyone but those like them can see them baked in their bigotry. They are sharp in their self-defence: they attack the younger generation for being “woke”, women for reaching beyond themselves, religious minorities for daring to breathe, the historically underprivileged for seeking equality.

It’s hard to know which type is worse.

It isn’t hard to realise that you cannot give in to hatred and stupidity. You backed the wrong horse. Wake up.

My thanks and apologies to Ford, Santayana, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, Cicero, LP Harley and Maynard Keynes. May their wisdom fall on all of us. But especially you.

(The writer is a commentator and columnist based in Dehradun. Views are personal)

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