The Past is Never Dead

Is that going to be on the test?

When I was a junior in college, I spent a year studying in Luxembourg. It was a year of many revelations that still resonate with me today. It was my first time outside the United States, unless you count a day in Toronto or a day in Tijuana as international travel. It provided me, at the very impressionable age of 20, an opportunity to experience European life and European approach to education.

One particular interaction in a European History class has stayed with me. The professor, on the first day of class, went over the syllabus with the class. He explained the readings we were expected to do, when papers were due and when we would have our midterm and final exam. He detailed what we were expected to know by the end of the term. This included detailed information about events, treaties, key personages, and the context in which they took place. 

At one point an American student raised his hand and asked the professors if we needed to know the exactdates and all the names and titles associated with key events. The professor looked surprised, paused for a moment, and then said, “Well what else is there?” The student then said something to the effect, “You know, the general ideas and causes of events and how we interpret them now.” I doubt the professor had ever been asked this by his Luxembourg students, as he took a moment to consider the question. He then said, “Yes, as indicated in the syllabus, you will need to know names, dates, locations, reasons and outcomes of the events we discuss in class.”

At that moment I saw one of the major differences between the European and American educational system, especially in the humanities. The European system was built on detailed knowledge. The American system was built on generalities and interpretation. One was highly fact based and the other was more opinion based. I came to see that our professors weren’t opposed to interpretation and opinions but first wanted us to actually know what we were talking about, what were the actual facts.

Over the years I have come to appreciate the importance of knowing the, who, what and when before I started thinking about the why. Facts do matter. They form an important bulwark against unfounded, non-fact based conspiracy theories. They provide defense against demagoguery that would seek to inflame passions with self-serving half truths, false accusations and outright lies.

The writer and philosopher, George Santayana, is credited with saying, 

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” There is an inclination in many societies to say let the past stay in the past, let sleeping dogs lie. While there may be times when this is true, when it comes to the future of a government or even the future of humankind, not knowing what has transpired in the past does doom us to repeat it. 

William Faulkner, the Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winning American author and playwright, was quoted as saying, “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.” When Confederate battle flags are carried into the American Capital, when “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirts are worn by rioters threatening our elected representaties and senators, when symbols of white supremacy are openly displayed inside the seat of American democracy, Faulkner’s and Santayana’s words ring with a frightening peal. It appears that America has still not reckoned with its past. Its past is its present.

When I work with married couples who are experiencing conflict in their marriage, I ask them what they fight about. Sometimes they can articulate a primary conflict but usually by the time they get to my office, they have had so many fights and hurts that they will say things like, “anything,” “everything,” “stupid stuff.” More often than not, when they try to give a specific example, it usually ends up about feelings being hurt, not feeling respected or feeling insulted. My task as the therapist is to help the clients acknowledge each other’s pain, to convey that they hear it and are sorry for causing it and not understanding their part in it. This is often not a fast process, but over time as each member of the couple listens without defending, a change starts to take place. Trust is gained and communication is improved because it is safe to talk about difficult things, and especially difficult feelings. 

Healing in a relationship takes place if there are not external factors to disrupt the process. If either member of the couple is having an affair, then the pull to not reconcile differences can significantly interfere. This is true if there are parents or friends of the couple who have antipathy toward one of the members of the couple and act consciously or unconsciously to separate them from each other. 

This same process happens in politics as well. Reconciliation and compromise cannot happen if there are unprincipled individuals seeking to exploit differences of opinion for their own gain. This is what narcissistic personalities do to gain power and influence. They are the disruptive voices that prevent individuals, political parties or nations from reaching peaceful conclusions to their differences. The narcissist thrives on division. As long as those around him/her are fighting each other, they will not see the deficiencies of the narcissist. Through a constant barrage of inflammatory rhetoric they set persons against persons, political parties against political parties and nations against nations. 

Adolph Hitler, an uneducated, politically inexperienced, insecure man, led a whole nation to ruin by utilizing the latest technology of the time to spread a torrent of lies about whole religious and ethic segments of European society. He used his media platform of radio, film and even the newly developed technology of television to ostracize politicians, academics and clergy who disagreed with him.  Early on in his rise to power, he managed to burn down the Reichstag, the seat of democratically elected, representative power of the fledgling post World War One German government.

In the past three months since the presidential election in November, we have experienced a veritable tidal wave of misinformation and lies about the outcome of the election in spite of state and federal courts ruling again and again against the unfounded claims of the President’s lawsuits. For a great number of people, these rulings have not stopped their beliefs that the election was “stolen.” They have been made fact-proof by the power of a narcissistic leader and his minions. This was accomplished by undermining their trust in a free press, who their chief cheerleader early on labeled “the enemy of the people.” He also spread distrust of our judiciary, intelligence resources, and Federal law enforcement. He even did his best through his  Postmaster General to cripple the U.S. Postal system so he could cast doubt on the legitimacy of mail-in ballots.

I can’t help but think that the reason my European professors were so keen on us students knowing the details, the facts of European history, was that they had lived through the nightmare of an ideology that placed indoctrination over education, an ideology of self-serving “alternative facts'' over the actual facts. Before we started espousing our own opinions, they wanted us to know what we were basing our opinions on. It wasn’t that they didn’t want us to think critically. This was encouraged in class. But in our exams, they wanted to know what we actually knew, not what we thought we knew.  I think they understood from firsthand experience that if only opinion or interpretation mattered, anything could be justified. 

When Hitler was imprisoned for his first unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the German government, he took the time to formulate his ideology and write his manifesto, Mein Kampf.  In it he laid out for all to see what he was planning to do. Enough people liked what they read and not enough people resisted what he wrote, to stop his eventual rise to power. Too many people saw him as an illiterate buffoon. Many wealthy and powerful people saw him as someone whom they could manipulate to carry out their agenda. They realized, too late, that he had his own agenda  

In the coming weeks and months, once the current President is out of power, he should be watched very carefully. A wounded narcissist holds grudges. A wounded narcissist seeks revenge. He does not just fade away into obscurity. He uses his self-imposed exile to develop new attacks on those he sees caused his undoing. He craves power and influence just as strongly as ever. 

If America does not make a concerted effort to heal its political and social divisions, it will be doomed to repeat a harsh history. Either the ex-President or some other charismatic, narcissistic demagogue will appear and seek to exploit even further the divisions that have been set in motion by the denial of facts. 

I have come to believe, like my European professors taught me, that only through a rigorous adherence to facts can America heal. The election was fair, it wasn’t stolen. Our courts have consistently confirmed this. Unity may be desired by many but it is only through the hard work of holding truth to power can we reach a more peaceful and balanced democracy. And yes, this will be on the final exam.


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Thank you to all the people who wrote to me following my last essay, “Basket of Deplorables/Ja, ja towards the end”. I am touched that several of you forwarded it to friends and this resulted in new subscribers.

My comments comparing European education to American education is not meant as a put down of the whole American system or an endorsement of the entire European system which does vary from country to country. There are many fine U.S. schools and universities. I do wonder if there are enough. I have observed that many Americans I encounter have a very limited knowledge of their own country’s history and how its government works. I am also concerned that with our geographic separation and the passage of time, there has been a loss of understanding about how Hitler came to power, what he did to six million innocent Jewish people and anyone who was deemed weak, defective or opposed him. The past is never dead but unacknowledged, it can surprise us with a startling vengeance.

Love the ones you are with and the ones you wish you could be with. Life is short even when there isn’t a pandemic. Be safe. Be well.