Learning from History

In countries around the globe, mankind in his diverse locations, is now generally very well served with information about his/her life now and in earlier times.  Through the marvels of modern technology we are inundated with the historical story on subject after subject; television documentaries educate us; books are written on the topics; front-line speeches are delivered before various community or scientific groupings.

Ironically, however, many pundits argue that it is harder now to reach a definitive conclusion on things; so much material is coming at us, almost all uninvited, with this one countering that, or this one suggesting further revisions, or even some alerts about even more outlets coming our way.

So hearing what went on before, we have to remember that (a) the influences now are almost blinding in their abundance, and (b) the conditions we are dealing with now often have no resemblance whatsoever to how things were in that topic 15 years, or even 10 years ago.

However, my point here is that to step back from all that and look at the reaction aspect to this situation, one notices that mankind doesn’t seem to take much lessons anyway from history.  Countries are still trying to invade each other; some folks still see value in the tenets the Nazis hold dear and will actually threaten to harm you over it; no amount of lecturing or warning is doing anything to dent the war on drugs, or the one on sugar in our drinks, or, as we’re seeing now the sexual assaults or insults we launch on each other.  On the latter point, in highly publicized scenarios in the USA and even here, we’ve heard the history, and how evil it is, but we still practise it, even though the adjectives applied to it are succinct and pungent; sexual abuse is “reprehensible” and “disgusting”.  Historically, that is the lesson, but apparently it is not taking hold.  Learning isn’t taking place.

The ‘learn from history’ phrase has been paraded before us as fundamental.  It has come to us from political leaders, from scientific bodies, from spiritual leaders, even from the itinerant preacher pronouncing by the roadside. It comes in different languages and diverse tones, but the message is always the same, “we must learn from history or we will repeat it”, and as far as it goes the suggestion is a useful one: the information about everything under the sun is there in the historical record; we can spot the pitfalls, we can see where things went off the rails.  But the historical record also shows us that mankind is often not in fact ‘learning’ from history; we are repeating the same mistakes history tells us we should avoid.  After the debacle of two World Wars, mankind continues to threaten war (a la Trump) or to actually launch armies against each other, as we’re seeing now in Syria, Bangladesh, etc.  Americans actually engaged in a brutal war with each other over the issue of slavery, but the divisions on that issue remain. We have been warned about the rising level of carbon dioxide threatening the planet from the fossil fuels burning in our various engines and factories, but no lesson seems to have come from that knowledge. Even in issues of health the same disconnect is there; the accumulated evidence of the serious health hazard of the very accessible soft drinks with their high sugar content is but one example.

In environmental matters, as well, while the consequences of the past horrors we have committed are well known – forests being destroyed; glaciers melting; a Sargasso Sea of floating plastic in the Pacific Ocean; wave action dumping heaps of discarded plastic over our sea wall at high tide – the degradation continues unchecked. Reports of these things abound; photographs are online about it; scientific groups are raising alarms; TED speeches lay stress on it, but we appear to be unmoved by the evidence.  Certainly there are individuals making an effort – Guyana has its share of them – but in general there are clearly other factors at play, including economics, and progress appears slow.

It is notable that the various messages about degradation are well presented, are very persuasive, and are often delivered by respected individuals – US presidential candidate Al Gore being one of them – so it’s not that the message is weak.  One possibility is that it is simply overkill which is something that can easily occur in this ‘flood of information’ age.  That’s one theory.  Another is that persons look at these warnings based on history and choose to take comfort in the position that ‘history is over-rated’ and so the projections are nothing to worry about. Either way, despite all the pleadings to do so, mankind is clearly not learning from history.  Perhaps we need another TED speech about it, or maybe another book from Al Gore.


Passion is required

Some time in the near future I will be doing a session with arts students at the University of Guyana (as part of my Artist in Residence work with UG) as well as a Moray House talk, sometime in May, on being an artist. 

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Not necessarily

From a youth with an interest in reading I was often struck by the confidence with which persons would express a thought or a position on something that sounded impressive at first but, on reflection, proved to be simplistic, if not downright wrong.

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Kaiso: Stay tuned

Following two recent columns in this space touching on the decline of calypso as popular music, I have heard from several readers in some very interesting exchanges on this subject. 

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We cannot keep growing forever, Donald

If you pay attention to random things you hear, you soon become aware of the very uncommon intelligence of the common people. 

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Laughter as medicine

As a voracious reader going back to my school days at Saints (Stanley Greaves had introduced me to the British Council Library to my delight), I remember once being struck by a comment from then US President John Kennedy which went something like this: “Mankind has two things he can draw on to deal with life’s many problems: one is God and the other one is sense of humour.

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