Saturday, October 16, 2010

History and Repetition

Math teachers must wish that they have a Santayana. Courtesy of the philosopher, history teachers can trot out the old adage whenever a student questions the relevance of the material they are learning: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

A cynic might point out that the majority of our citizens lack even basic knowledge of history. A quick Google search can reveal any number of surveys or studies over the last couple of years with potentially alarming data about lack of historical knowledge among schoolchildren: 57% can't identify that the Civil War was fought between 1850 and 1900, 25% think Columbus sailed the ocean blue after 1750, 99% of eighth graders can't say what effect the fall of the Berlin Wall had on foreign policy, 14% of high school seniors can explain why America became involved in the Korean War, etc, etc, etc.

Of course, there are reasons beyond Santayana that not only knowledge of history, but interest in past events, might be important. For example, one would think that the ability to rectify past injustice could be something worth pursuing. And when it comes to injustice, the killing of one third of a nation's population would seem to qualify. Torturing and working nearly three million people to death would seem to qualify. Having executioners switch to stabbing people because their hands were tired from slitting throats would seem to qualify. Smashing the skulls of children against trees in order to prevent them from one day avenging the deaths of their parents would seem to qualify. And if some of the perpetrators of these unspeakable horrors were still alive, one would think that there would be a strong interest in bringing them to justice, and an outcry if justice is not administered fairly.

But there didn't seem to be much of a global outcry last month when Kaing Guek Eav received a 19-year-sentence from a Cambodian tribunal for overseeing the torture and killings of 12,000 people in Cambodia in the mid-1970s. If he lives to 86, he will be a free man. He's one of only five former leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia to be indicted in the last couple of years, and the first to be sentenced.

But surely there was an outcry in Cambodia, right? Apparently not. This USA Today article, one of the few American media stories to examine the situation, asserts that native and expatriate Cambodians are by and large not happy with the verdict, but reactions range from resignation to outright apathy. A taxi driver who had relatives killed by the regime said that tribunals are "not good for the country. We don't want more suffering through the memories." And a 29-year-old farmer uses language that one might expect from a 29-year-old American asked to comment on Watergate: "I don't know much about the Khmer Rouge as I wasn't even born then." And his reaction to the tribunal's verdict: "He's so old now, why do they want to punish him?"

On one hand I'm aghast that the blood of so many innocent people can be forgotten (if it was ever known about) by not only the world community, but the victims' immediate community. And Santayana rears his head again: if we can forget about such atrocity in such a short amount of time, doesn't that increase the likelihood that it will happen again?

On the other hand, there is something in the above quotes which makes me wonder if there isn't cause for optimism. If people truly do study history, they will note that many conflicts have occurred as a result of entrenched grudges that echo through generations. And historically, these generational grudges were not limited to conflicts between nation-states (I think of Mark Twain's fictional Grangerfords and Shepherdsons). But if people truly do study history, they will also note that mass popular culture is a relatively modern phenomenon. It used to be that values and behaviors were inculcated with oral tradition, and the foundation of many of these narratives was a mutual enmity with another group. Now, we still may have enmities, but as the dissemination of cultural values has become much more complex and much broader, the shelf life of anything, including grudges, becomes limited.

In effect, the world is becoming more like a Middle School lunchroom. Enemies can become friends overnight and friends can become enemies. Insults and slights, real or perceived, are still punishable by violence, but these insults and slights can easily be erased from memory when a new distraction interposes.

Santayana might have been right, but one must also wonder if in some instances, those who cannot remember the past actually become less likely to repeat it--and if that might be a blessing rather than a condemnation.


Blogger SunnySideUp said...

The people in Cambodia, who suffered under such a treacherous reign and those that continue to suffer, only want what's best now. Its pointless to dwell on the past. Sentencing an old man will not bring back all of those murdered in the uprising of a certain group who thought their ideals were superior. The only thing with possible blame here are the forces that had the power to stop this slaughter and did nothing. Ever heard of being a day late and a dollar short- well, try a decade and three million people. Although the crimes of men in war are often overlooked, they must never be ignored. To do so otherwise, would be to spite all the innocent lives that were lost and say that they died in vain. Not knowing the history of one particular nation or people isn’t an excuse either. That’s why history is there, to teach people the events and mistakes of the past, in hopes that humans can do a better job living, in the future.

10:43 PM  
Blogger The Hungary Traveler said...

I know nothing of Cambodian culture. However, I do know that I am a member of a society that defines, as a cultural norm, justice to include retribution. I accept that that is the way I view the world, however I suspect it is not universal. Nor do I assume that it is the most healthy for a society.
The people of Cambodia have a horrific period in their past. By whatever means they can achieve it, success in moving forward is defined by keeping it in the past.

8:56 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home