The Past as the Route to the Future

As dangerous as generalizations are, they are essential prerequisites to thoughtful behavior. Because we realize that predictions are fragile, we (should) move toward the future with humility. However, awareness of our quite imperfect powers of prediction should not paralyze us. We are hardly casting out in complete darkness when we try to make decisions.

When we think about our futures, personal, familial or national, we are assisted by data, our imagination, novels, reasoned judgments, our sense of human capacities and limits, and our record of collective memories—HISTORY.

Thanks to Donald Pond’s sharing a recent discussion between Bill Moyers and  a Yale Historian, I wanted to think a bit about the value of history as an early warning system.

History is not going to repeat itself precisely. The number of variables that would have to interact exactly the same for precise repetition to occur is mind-boggling.

A second limitation of history as a guide to our destiny is its perspectival quality. American history, for example, as it is taught, is not the story of Native Amricans, slaves, or other relatively marginalized groups. An African folktale asks whether the story of a hunt was told by the hunter or the lion, and it is no less apt for us always ask “whose history are we to use as our diving rod?”

A very real 3rd danger of relying on history as a guide to the future is the narrative fallacy. We are infatuated with stories. An event occurs; we move quickly to explain the event with a make-sense story. Once we have conjured up that story, we too quickly relax our mental filters. History presents us with ready-made stories; we need do nothing but believe.  But some of these stories have been vetted in a much more careful way than others. Our habitual loyalty to the first make-sense story we possess easily transmorgifies into our “knowledge about what really happened.”

And yet, human history has certain patterns–nationalism, the struggle between transparency and national security, class antagonisms, persistent abuses of power, and business cycles to name a few. If you have not already done so, please now read the above link to the Yale historian’s warning  that fascism happens quickly.  And even though you see at least some merit to the weaknesses of history as a guide to the future that I described above, can you read the link and not see frightening signs of emergent fascism in multiple places around the globe where such a development would have been unimaginable just a few years ago? I can’t.

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