Vol 1, No 16
11 October 1999
K A L E I D O S C O P E:|
People who DO learn from history are condemned to watch others repeat it.
History is a strange cannibalistic sort of creature. Historians write retrospectives, chronicles, records. These in turn become the stuff that subsequent historians reference. Truths become simplified, then embellished, along conventional lines. "History repeats itself, Historians repeat each other." (Philip Guedalla, British historian, 1889-1944) History can mislead us, by being taken out of context, uncorroborated, or simply from not enough angles.
MF DNES, the Czech national daily, in its colour supplement recently ran a piece about a onetime political prisoner who whiled his time away by making a logarithmic slide-rule out of the most amazing materials - a spoon, chewed bread, loose plaster, etc. The resulting slide-rule (impressive in the photograph) was also very precisely made. The article also attributed the construction of the first slide-rule, as an instrument, to an Englishman (sic) named E Wingate in 1627. That is curious, I thought, since my wife has that surname, and her ancestors are Scottish. Mind you, she seems to have relatives in every town and some interesting ancestors, like that discoverer of Down Under, Captain Cook. So, I looked on the Internet to corroborate the story, and found that the first slide-rule had, in fact, been invented by a different man, a Mr Oughtred, in 1622. (nobody cares about the constructor) Mr Oughtred also gave us a lot of other useful things. So, at least some history, (Henry Ford would agree), is bunk.
Having got into quoting from history, you've probably heard of the one that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it. I am repeating that, without remembering who said it, or bothering to look it up.
Thus is history made, and remade, all too often.
Stacked against this view - you have probably heard it said that an interest in history is all right in moderation like driving while looking in the rear-view mirror. Too much of it is distracting, verging on dangerous.
But there can be synergy in these two ideas. I was once driving on the motorway and came upon a large traffic jam, down a long hill. I slowed down. I looked in the rear-view mirror, to see if the people behind me were slowing down too, and how quickly. And then I saw a juggernaut lorry, and I heard its siren blaring. It was not slowing down. Its brakes had failed. Cars started to take evasive action sideways, and fortunately, the lorry had enough space to stop on the grass verge along the central reservation. Phew. A close shave. I might have been history by now had I not looked in the rear-view mirror.
The word history also takes on other, quite different connotations. In Czech, historka (a diminutive of history) means an anecdote from life, like the above.
Since I espouse the kind of writing style that takes seemingly unconnected strands of thought and weaves them into a kind of wickerwork, here's an excuse to weave in some more about my wife's side of the family.
My father in law, David Wingate, is the chief conservation officer of Bermuda, and his major claim to fame is that he has devoted his life to rescuing from extinction a certain species of groundnesting, nocturnal seabird of the petrel family, the Cahow. Despite its initial superabundance (thought to be behind Bermuda original nickname of The Island of Devils), the Cahow was thought to have 'become history', when it was rediscovered in the late fifties. A few pairs were clinging on to existence on the outermost rocky islets.
Wingate made it his life's mission to rescue the Cahow species, restoring a whole ecosystem in the process, on the island of Nonsuch (so named after an Elizabethan palace in England). Without a knowledge of history and of natural history, the find would have meant nothing and resulted in nothing.
History is fascinating, and literally life enhancing. For some.
It can also bring fear and scepsis, a sense that nothing ever gets any better, that people are incapable of learning from past mistakes.
To paraphrase: those who know history are condemned to watch others repeat it.
Major to minor
Like being condemned to watching the Thirty Cases of Major Zeman, one of the serials of the Communist Czechoslovak era, glorifying this investigative Secret Policeman and vilifying all forms of dissent. Czech TV's populistic move to boost audience figures, masquerading as an attempt to stimulate discussion and confront the past has had far too much commentary written about it for me to add any value. I just think they could have made a fresh documentary or feature film instead, or shown one episode, outside prime viewing to make the point they claim to be making. The US is still coming to terms with Vietnam. Are they replaying the old propaganda broadcasts, with panel discussion afterward? No. They're making box-office history.
You don't come to terms with the past by re-living it for real, just to see if it is any better with hindsight, but to do it in vitro is not a compelling test. If the past was good, by all means recreate it. But if you don't know, or have reasons to doubt it, then take your cue from Jurassic Park. Control your hubris, or you recreate a dangerous environment at your peril. It might just get out of hand.
Fortunately, the Major Zeman audience figures are dropping already, and the serial will go the way of all such attempts to keep something monothematic going for thirty episodes. Apart from the impressionable, who also have a vote. Why bore the cleverer viewers, and harden the procommunist opinions of the hard of thinking?
Ten years on
With 17 November 1989 to contrast against, the stocktaking has now begun, and with the resurgence of the Communist party, as the second strongest in the polls, the panel debates are in full swing about what it all means.
I found one recent debate interesting, in that the Communist party spokesman informed us why they are doing so well. He said all the people that gave the Communists a bad name are, fortunately for them, making their political careers through rival political parties. Unfortunately, he is too right for comfort.
History has taught us, that in any political system there will be a dangerous proportion of power-hungry opportunists, who wear the camouflage jacket of whatever ideology is in vogue, in order to get to the top. Once there, it is too late to stop them. They become just another dictatorship clique, and it takes time for the infighting to break out, before the regime falls apart. The poison pill has a sugar coating.
The most dangerous vehicle yet invented for this rise to power of the nasties has been Communism, because its rhetoric is so close to those higher moral principles of caring and sharing. Moreover, the present representatives of Communism here look like they wouldn't hurt a fly.
It is those who come after them when their nest has been made ready that we need to worry about, not the ideologically naive that lead the way.
Do not judge by first appearances. I am reminded how the guileless groundnesting Cahows were ousted by the rats which mankind brought in. But their greatest nesting rival these days is the beautiful Bermuda Longtail. There are many parables in nature to think about.
Natural history lessons
In nature species compete and the less fit are ousted. So it is in human affairs, where ideas and belief systems come and go as the environment changes.
In nature, we are prone to intervene, initially badly, then correctively. We keep curious and interesting threatened species alive in zoos. We also like to keep dangerous viruses and germs under glass. In human affairs, it is dangerous strains of thought which we incubate and keep alive in test-tubes of intellectual hubris, in television studios and other 'controlled' environments.
The problem arises when we are dealing with dangerous species, like the smallpox virus (or Communism), where the danger of resurgence cannot be wholly discounted. Should we keep those around at all? The argument goes that if resurgence does happen, we will need the lab specimens to experiment upon regarding forms of treatment. We need something for the experts to trial with, through a suitably sanitised and protective medium.
Communism, like a virus, has been known to mutate, changing its outer coating to better infiltrate the host. The so-called post-Communist or New Left parties are more the norm than the exception now. They have become nationalistic, nostalgic, anything to get the naive vote.
We are fortunate in the Czech Republic that the Communist Party has all but kept its name and outward characteristics intact. Whilst distancing itself from the past, it plays down the institutionalised tragedies as 'human error'. But meanwhile, its active toxins, those signature characteristics like abuse of power, restriction of human rights, which it shares with any totalitarianism, have been infiltrating elsewhere. These autocratic extremist 'genes' are being distributed under other names, and the continued existence of the Communist Party creates an illusion if distance between them and its point of origin. The viper has shed its skin, and sneaked off in the night to breed, while we are still watching the skin for signs of movement, its shadow lengthening with time.
Let us heed the lesson from the natural world. There is mimicry, mutation, parasitism to watch for in human affairs. A natural environment is complicated, the checks and balances in it, the relationships between predator and prey are hard to fathom out, or selectively interfere with. Let us learn to emulate, to transplant complete intact democratic and legal environments, rather than graft and hybridise readily, or prune and cut down to improve matters.
In the border forests on the Czech side we are cutting down pest-infested trees, creating a more serrated and fragmented forest, with greater areas of border-zone prone to infestation. Meanwhile across the border diseased trees are left as windbreaks, and the forest regenerates faster around them, while keeping the pest population alive. The pest is part of the ecosystem. Natural history teaches us to admire and acknowledge complexity, not to simplify and distil complexity down to our paltry level of understanding. Monoculture is not good.
As our understanding improves, there are surprising twists of logic in store.
Recently, it has been found that rats are becoming immune to pesticides, and that an answer is to reintroduce into their population non-resistant breeding individuals, so that the population's genepool can become once again susceptible to the poisons. Who would have ever thought of that in the golden era of DDT?
Keep a watchful eye
We are still not good at dealing with complex systems, because we constantly try to simplify them and engineer them into a more human-readable form, and politics or economics have many of the characteristics of complex self-regulating systems. In nature, our attempts to control events by introduction of this or that causal agent, out of context, have led to unforeseen interactions, like rabbits in Australia. Take heed.
Look around you for natural history lessons, not merely behind you for human ones.
Vaclav Pinkava, 11 October 1999
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