Cliches are funny. I don’t hate them as much as some people do (I often like to tell people that we speak in cliches, but that is a discussion for a different day), but I am rather weary of them. I think I just don’t trust them. The one I am particularly skeptical of is the notion that History repeats itself.
Oh Christ, I know what everyone is going to say now. They are all going to say “How can you believe that History doesn’t repeat itself? Isn’t it obvious?” First off, it isn’t obvious. But second, and most importantly, let us reconsider the null-hypothesis. If I say I am skeptical of something, that does not mean I in fact believe the opposite. What I believe is that I do not of yet have enough information. The courtroom analogy explains this best: you tell me that you believe so-and-so is guilty of a crime. I tell you that I am skeptical of their guilt. Does that mean I believe they are innocent? No. It means that I don’t have enough information, and that I am not of yet convinced of that guilt.
Does History repeat itself? I have no idea. I have no idea how we would even go about proving it. But I don’t think it is terribly convincing as a notion.
I have been thinking about this a lot, possibly because of my racist landlord. He loves to talk about how History repeats itself, because it justifies some of his more horrific opinions. For him, there are hoards of barbarians at the gates, and if we do not do something about it, they will burn down our civilization. And you can justify that response to the refugee crisis with a simply put ‘History repeats itself’. You can also justify a call to violence as such.
A good friend of mine loves to bring up how History repeats itself every time something happens in America that she codifies as bad. There is with this the inevitable comparison to the Roman republic, which is a comparison that pisses me off to no end. You really need a lot more than ‘the Roman republic fell’ to even begin to prove that anything at all will happen to the USA. It’s just sloppy logic.
I guess my problem with the notion that history repeats itself is the fact that I have now been told over the past three presidencies that this would be the president who brings the republic down, becomes the emperor, and kicks off the downfall of America. I keep hearing this, but aside from a distaste for the president, this has been entirely warrantless. It is based on nothing more than the person’s dislike for the person in power. I am willing to confess that I believed it about George W Bush. I can confess to having friend’s that believed it about Barack Obama. I am I meant to believe it now about Trump? It puts me into a hell of a weird situation. Granted, it feels more warranted now, but it did back in the early 2000’s too. There is piecemeal evidence for it now, but if you had asked me in 2004, could I have given it to you then to?
Did you notice the bait and switch in the paragraph above? Reread it. The last sentences talk about evidence, and that is the crux of the issue. If you are convinced Trump is going to bring down the republic, you are convinced of this by the evidence, and the evidence stands regardless of what happened with all the previous presidencies or back during ancient Rome. What is happening now is all about now. The cocktail of specific circumstances that made certain events happen in the past are likely to ever be repeated with the kind of rigor that anyone would find convincing if they were trying to have proven, reproducible results. And to the person who is about to tell me something along the lines of “but history isn’t science”, A) thanks for making my point for me, B) it isn’t cooking either, so why are you acting like it follows a recipe.
Is it all wrong? I have no idea. I was listening to a podcast the other day that was at least in part the impetus of this blog post. They mentioned the Spanish Flu, and how back when that was raging how there was a rush for people to take off their protective masks and go back to living a normal life. That of course struck home with me here in 2020, particularly as I begin to watch people rush back into wanting to live a normal life, despite there still being a pandemic. From the look of things, the two situations are rather similar, and people are being stupid about both pandemics. But the subtleties are what make all the differences, and COVID is really not the Spanish Flu. Again, it will be the specifics that will end up making these two events historically different, and historically significant in their own way.
The American Empire may fall. When it does, it will have little to do with Rome. Were it any other way, than making the best choices for how to move forward would be as simple as opening up a history book. Saying that ‘history repeats itself’ to try to justify a prediction is a lazy heuristic that doesn’t truly get results.
There, I said it.