Condemned to Repeat It: When Our National Memory Fails

Sara Robinson

Those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Santayana’s warning is now such a persistent cliche only because it’s so painfully true.

Where have we seen this kind of meltdown before? Oh, yeah, right—we’ve got those family snapshots of our grandparents waving at the camera from the edge of this very same vertiginous wealth-eating abyss in 1929, as their family fortunes whirled out of sight through the yawning hole at their feet. And, as Kevin Phillips has told us more than once, the path to that chasm was well-worn even then. The Spaniards forged the trail to this dark place in the 16th century. The Dutch sacrificed their last shot at being a world power here in the 17th. And the Brits dropped by and flung their empire into this same pit in the early 20th.

In fact, it turns out that this is where the road has ended up every single time a major empire has turned the keys to its common wealth over to private financiers for the past 500 years. It turns out that the Great Depression was not a one-off —it was part of a long-understood pattern. It turns out that, contrary to conservative cant, the rules of economics do not change and history does not end.

It does, however, rhyme. And a lot of that has to do with the fragility of human memory.

Given the clear lessons of history, just what possessed us to believe the Masters of the Universe back there in the 1980s when they swore they were taking us out to some new and exciting frontier, the place where history ended and the normal laws of economic gravity no longer applied? (And why didn’t it occur to us at some point along the way that that’s pretty much the precise definition of an abyss?) Why is this terrain suddenly so familiar, and the trajectory of our coming fall only now so bitterly predictable?

Forgetting, as it turns out, has a lot to answer for as a driver of history. In the short run, fear, denial, and time can all create debilitating cultural bit rot, bringing on almost total amnesia within the span of just a few years. (How many of us got burned in the tech bubble, but played the housing market anyway?) In the longer run, people have this annoying habit of dying — and taking history’s lessons to the grave with them. Which means that, by and by, there’s nobody left who can share their personal memories of How We Got Here, or What Happened The Last Time We Did this. More often than not, the day we learn our lessons is the day we start forgetting them.

It’s absolutely true that a certain amount of forgetting is good for our mental health. If we’re going to grow up, make progress, endure tough times, and adapt to new situations, then we need to be able to make mistakes, let go of the pain, take the lessons, and move on. We all depend on quite a bit of selective forgetting just to get through the day. Staying too closely tied to the past can condemn us to repeat it, too.

But forgetting becomes a curse when we lose the important lessons from the past that we rely on to stay out of future trouble. And that’s where we are now. Forty years after the Depression, half the country no longer had a first-hand memory of it — and much of the other half was in denial, and actively trying to forget it. (As long as people remembered Coolidge and Hoover, Reagan could have never been elected.) Now, eighty years on, there’s simply nobody left who remembers the last time America took its family vacation on the edge of this crater. So we’re all back here again, lining up with our toes on the edge, peering down for our own horrific first-hand view of the all-consuming black void.

Fighting Forgetting

History is civilization’s way of fighting forgetting, which is why advanced civilizations down the centuries have been universally obsessed with it. We genuinely hope that if we can inscribe the lessons of the past vividly enough in our children’s memories, later generations will be more likely to repeat the good choices, and sidestep the bad ones. Getting them to take these stories to heart is understood to be a matter of cultural survival, and the key to peace, prosperity, and progress. If we fail to convey the lessons well, we put the future of the culture at risk.

Over the millennia, there’s no pedagogical trick that hasn’t been tried. Cultures have embedded these not-to-be-forgotten lessons into their art, drama, music, architecture, and literature; celebrated them in their festivals; and re-enacted them in their religions. They used every possible sensory channel to help their children not only see, but feel for themselves, what it was like to be there. We tell our children stories not just to entertain them or bond them to the culture; but also to prepare them for the future by imprinting their imaginations with everything we want them to know about our past.

Unfortunately, though, there are limits to how much we can convey. We write books, build schools, drag our kids through museums and monuments—but too often, when the moment comes, that abstract knowledge of the past isn’t as fearsomely compelling as the visceral demands of whatever situation they find themselves right now. “This time is different,” they tell themselves. “The old rules don’t apply. Besides, we have to respond this way — we don’t have any other choice.” And thus history repeats, sometimes nearly word for word.

Certainly those of us on the progressive side knew all the way back on Reagan’s first day in office that this could only end badly. A lot of us were the children and grandchildren of people who lives were shaped by the scars they took away from America’s last disastrous love affair with conservative economic nostrums. A lot of them devoted their lives to helping us avoid the same fate. For some of us, the warnings took.

But for most of us, they didn’t. The great mass of Americans aren’t that familiar with history; and even some who did know the story didn’t see the connections when the patterns started repeating. The country made its decisions accordingly, enthusiastically re-embracing financial theories that had been soundly discredited by the Great Depression. (“Oh, but that was a long time ago. It’s a different world now,” they blithely assured us. If forgetting has a motto, that may be it.)

And so here we are: condemned to repeat it.

Learning to Remember

Humanity does learn historical lessons over time, and progress does get made. It took centuries for people to recognize democracy as preferable to monarchy, for example; or to arrive at a widespread international consensus that slavery is wrong. But it’s a slow and painful process, and progress can take generations.

It’s interesting to note that when people have begun to argue against unquestioned cultural institutions like monarchy, slavery, or torture, their most successful arguments have usually been the ones that expose the institution itself as inherently rotten. People began to understand that, as a matter of universal truth, monarchies inevitably became tyrannies; that slavery invariably degraded both the owned and the owner; and torture always led to an overall brutalization of the entire society. Once people understood that the evil of these institutions wasn’t merely situational — but rather, systemic and inevitable — they were able to put them aside for good, and build something healthier in their place.

We now have the accumulated evidence to make that same kind of argument about the systemic corruption inherent in conservative economic policies. We’ve tried it their way—over and over and over, in many countries and many eras, under many different names and promoted by many different people. And every single time, it has led those countries to unsustainable inequalities, political oligarchies, and complete and utter economic ruin. It’s not the work of ” a few bad apples” or something that “nobody could forsee” or just a a rare instance of things going sideways. These outcomes are what the conservative economic system is designed from the ground up to produce. It cannot deliver anything else.

We cannot word it too strongly now. Free-market economics is one of history’s great failures—like monarchy and slavery and torture were failures. Countries that embrace it have invariably degraded themselves, and forfeited their own hopes for peace, democracy, and prosperity. No matter what pretty stories they tell you to justify their behavior, once you give the financiers the keys to your common wealth, you can expect economic collapse as surely as you can expect the sunrise.

This fact needs to be part of our history books, forever, so when somebody suggests this to our grandkids, they recoil as if someone had just blithely suggested reinstituting slavery. It needs to be part of the canon of our great universities and our shared moral code about the role of government. The more our children remember, and the better they remember it, the more freedom they will have to make choices that move them beyond the past, consciously choose a future that is finally and uniquely their own.

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