Citizen Action Monitor

Why our political leaders don’t learn from history

Forgetting to remember is extremely dangerous; neglecting to forgive, unforgivable

No 1022 Posted by fw, March 30, 2014

As we reflect on Obama’s Brussels’ call to arms for a US-NATO confrontation against Russia, a few might recall the words of advice of the Spanish philosopher George Santayana — “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”

“With a series of lies and evasions, Obama presented a world turned upside down in which the US and European imperialists, who backed the coup in Ukraine spearheaded by fascistic forces, are the defenders of democracy and peace. “ [Source: Obama’s Speech On Ukraine: Propaganda And Lies by Patrick Martin, World Socialist Web Site, March 27, 2014]

Has Obama forgotten so soon that it was the “Fog of war” and “weapons of mass destruction” propaganda and lies that dragged his country into the Vietnam and Iraq quagmires?

Obama’s bit of forgotten history aside, on a related note, Canadian broadcaster Chris Brookes asks —

“How many politicians do you know who take that [Santayana’s] advice?” (Source: Brookes posed the question in a recent BBC Radio 4 program, Something Understood. His fascinating 30-minute broadcast, titled Where It Was, remains available for listening at this link. Don’t miss it.

Brookes continues –

“But how many politicians do you know who take that advice?”

He follows with a reading of an indictment of political amnesia by the American poet Howard Nemerov in his poem, Ultima Ratio Reagan. It’s a warning against historical ignorance and complacency:

Ultima Ratio Reagan by Howard Nemerov

The reason we do not learn from history is

Because we are not the people who learned last time.

Because we are not the same people as them

That fed our sons and honor to Vietnam

And dropped the burning money on the trees,

We know that we know better than they knew,

And history will not blame us if once again

The light at the end of the tunnel is the train.

Then, in a dramatic twist, listeners are caressed by the soothing voice of the inimitable Ella Fitzgerald singing the Irving Berlin classic Remember the Night.

Brookes again…

When forgetting to remember happens in love, it’s heartbreaking. When it happens in politics it’s tragic. No it’s not. What am I saying? It’s extremely dangerous. [For] those who cannot forgive the past may be doomed to repeat it.

At this point, we leave Brookes and turn to other sources to briefly explore why neglecting to forgive is, ironically, unforgivable.

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) may have shown us a way not to forget history, but how to move on from it – through forgiveness. Bishop Desmond Tutu puts it this way

To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest….when I talk of forgiveness I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person. A better person than the one being consumed by anger and hatred. Remaining in that state locks you in a state of victimhood, making you almost dependent on the perpetrator. If you can find it in yourself to forgive then you are no longer chained to the perpetrator. You can move on, and you can even help the perpetrator to become a better person too.


But the TRC has not been without its critics –

A 1998 study by South Africa’s Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation & the Khulumani Support Group, which surveyed several hundred victims of human-rights abuse during the Apartheid era, found that most felt that the TRC had failed to achieve reconciliation between the black and white communities. Most believed that justice was a prerequisite for reconciliation rather than an alternative to it, and that the TRC had been weighted in favour of the perpetrators of abuse. [Source: Wikipedia entry Truth and Reconciliation Commission (South Africa —  Criticisms ).

Could it be that the flaw is not in the truth and reconciliation process itself, but in we humans ourselves?

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