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The Federalist Diaries

 

From History to Hysteria, Part 1

(1) Skepticism, like chastity, should not be relinquished too readily.
(2) Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
George Santayana
Spanish-born philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist, 1863 – 1952 

          We recognize George Santayana, if at all, from his second quotation.  What we do not recognize is the possible contradiction—more than a paradox—between his first and second quotations. 

          Why a contradiction?   

          Hold that question.  On one level it seems as if the first and second quotations were in harmony.  It is good, in fact, prudent, to be skeptical of what others tell us, because 

·        schools give us a survey of history;  that means that we get only a glimpse, and it is dangerous to make a judgment based on a glimpse;

·        history is not made relevant to us when we study it, so we are apt to forget much, if not most, of it;

·        history, as we learn it, is an interpretation, a faith, as somebody chooses the events, reasons for events, and personalities about which and whom we learn. 

So, when somebody calls us to action of great consequence, we should hesitate to act until we evaluated that planned action in the light of history.  (This is consistent with the point in the essay “The Eleventh Commandment, Part 1”, January 11, 2007, “the greater the consequence of our judgment or more irreversible our action, the more time we must take and more reluctant we must be to decide or do anything without the confirmation.”)  It would be great coffee conversation to muse upon the history which we have and have not learned in school. 

There is an eye-opening example, taken from the book Power, Faith and Fantasy, a history about America’s involvement, since 1776, in the Middle East: 

…Seward’s voyage set a precedent for other Civil War-era personages to make semiofficial visits to the Middle East.  The most acute and observant of these was George B. McClellan, the onetime commander of the Army [replaced by President Lincoln during the Civil War]…  Most Muslims, he ventured, had “little but life to lose in this world, and much to gain in the other by entering it from a conflict with the unbeliever.”  …Westerners would never understand Middle Eastern peoples “so long as we… judge them by the rules we are accustomed to apply to ourselves… [and] weigh their actions by their own rules.”  McClelland nevertheless believed that change could be effected gradually in the region, through education and widening exposure to the West. …

The words of McClellan—which I have not confirmed—leaped out at me.  While McClellan’s advice of one hundred thirty years ago applies today to only a relatively small number of people, the advice is still valid and has yet to be followed:  we do not sufficiently understand the people of the Middle East.  We are paying a heavy price now for that failure of understanding.   

So, with regard to any decision of consequence which we make, being skeptical of what government tells us is good for our health.  Literally.  It seems as if Santayana’s second quotation would follow logically from the first. 

But the greater cause for discomfiture lies not in the harmony of Santayana’s two quotations, but, rather, in their contradiction, to be explored in the next part. 

June 7, 2007

 

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