The Comfort Of Historical Knowledge

A couple weeks ago found myself cross-legged on the floor washing off the dirt of the winter from my front door, and suddenly I had tears running down my face.

They were brought on by this beautiful rendition of Simple Gifts, performed by Yo Yo Ma and Allison Krause.

It speaks to something, I suppose. Some vision, more faery tale, I have of the land of my birth, America.

As a child driving through the mountains of Pennsylvania, morning sun drifting in the window, as we get back on the turnpike, heading to North Carolina to visit my Dad’s family.

See, I’m American by birth, but I’ve lived in Canada since I was 2 1/2.

These trips were the only touch I had of the places, the people and things that make America what it is. I saw the racism, the divisions, the foreign ideologies to my own. I heard stories of my families history, the legends, the fables, the stories that defined their identity. Successful, respected southern baptist Tobacco farmers, going back to the 17th century, with the first one of my ancestors I’ve traced back to Jamestown, Virginia, in the 1670’s from Wales as a bonded servant.

I know who, what, where, how…but I tell ya, I have NO idea the why.

Guess I never have.

Yet lately this climate I see festering, and not just there, but all over, that something monumental is taking place, and it scared me. That’s what those tears were about. I felt this sorrow though too, a deep sorrow for all the things that do make America what it is.

Sure, there are problems, yet all countries have problems. Canada has HUGE problems with its indigenous peoples, and it’s a festering issue that needs to be urgently addressed. We struggle with our institutions, our bureaucracies, our scandals, and manipulations a la ‘House Of Cards’, as all democratic nations do, to one degree or another.

But what I see happening in America breaks my heart.

So I went out searching last night for answers. Beyond, the journalists, the political pundits, the psychologists and such…and I found, lo and behold, a historian.

The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.


He, The Housum Professor of History at Yale and Committee on Conscience member at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, in a humble yet urgent tone teaches that when one sets their historical lens at particular time, hunt for similar circumstances, and see what history recorded, and one can begin to gain a foothold on where some of the current ideas, ideologies, grievances, thoughts, exclusions, and the breaking down of institutions and the very foundations of democracy, can lead.

As he says in his book, “history doesn’t repeat, history instructs“. And the lesson? I think maybe its “actions matter a lot, and they matter in the beginning.

It’s too easy to sit at one’s door feeling that lost to the sands of time are ideals and dreams that once fashioned the very constitution set forth by America’s founding fathers, ideals that today are sorely threatened, by a President who barely utters the very words DEMOCRACY.

And yes, it can happen to us. It can happen to you. Don’t ever think it can’t. Cause democracy is something that sometimes requires defending.

He’s right in saying that “history gives you a sense of familiarity, a comfort” in times when everything seems so unfamiliar.

So I’ve been binge watching his lectures and bought his book. I, as some of my most ancient followers know, am a bit of an amateur historian. I am often found ensconced in front of one historical documentary or other; with a keen interest particularly in humans most ancient history. The history of civilizations, of the evolution of our spiritual beliefs, our societal structures, of ancient empires beginnings and endings, all fascinate me.

And so Snyder’s great knowledge of eastern European history does give me pause. Yet, not being very knowledgeable concerning more recent history (like the last 1000 or so years), hence my binge.

I do know a little more about the Roman Empire, and it is the Roman empire that snuffed out the democratic seedlings of the Greeks – or what was then a group of city-states that lay in a horseshoe around the Aegean (more or less).

And although I wouldn’t say ‘comfort’ really accurately describes my current state of mind concerning the land of my birth, I do now see a bit more clearly. I as well can see the patterns that history teaches and the possibilities.

And, it’s not just some pumped up conspiracy theory, but instead, he references historical and documented events. He is a man with intimate knowledge of people and places of Eastern Europe, certainly, but also a historian of details such as that most Jews that died in the Holocaust did not die in Germany, instead, they died in places that had no statehood, who’s institutions had been overtaken and were in shambles.

He offers some sobering insights about the human condition and our lemming-like natures. Where some may think they could not possibly have done such horrible things, history, actually, proves otherwise. That in fact none of it could have happened without the participation, cooperation, of hundreds and thousands of individuals.

Very sobering indeed.

Post-truth is pre-fascism.

Yet in the end, maybe just a canary in coal mine, but I do myself at least understand now, and have a clearer insight into how history unfolded the way it did, and learn from it.

Because he clearly makes the point that this whole thing is NOT about just Trump, or Putin, or some other Russian Oligarch taking over the White House, no. Instead, this is about a mindset that sets in during a crisis. The breaking down of the rules, the destabilizing and mudding up the institutions.

Perhaps even just a crisis of conscience, or a shattering of truth, were lies are mistaken for fact.

And if we do look back at history, we can indeed see those patterns emerging, again. Yet, hindsight is 20/20 and this is not the 1930’s.

This is the age of bot trolls that pump out fake news faster than the speed of light. Within seconds millions of people can be fed lies and completely fabricated stories that feed into the prejudices and particular ideologies that some outside entity wants to sway, for whatever reason. THAT can happen, and has, and is right now this minute. Someone right now is reading some article that they found, via some social media app, and, I don’t know, standing in line at Piggly Wiggly with the last $10 they have to their name till payday clenched in their fist, other hand buried in the hand me down iPhone her sister gave her for Christmas. Wham! That anger rips up her spine, and clenched jaw, she is completely oblivious to whether it’s true or not. Heck, by the end of the day it might not even matter if she remembers why she’s in such a rotten mood, but whatever prejudice or otherwise that piece of news ignited, and we’re off to the races.

And that’s how quickly it can happen.

I don’t know, I don’t usually write about this, but something inside me said I had to, or maybe needed to. God alone knows I’ve tried to avoid it. Which actually didn’t work at all.

But I found this day to day barrage of constant, I don’t even know how to properly define it, I will say that this Timothy Snyder has given me some insight, and maybe too if more people understand better the significance of history we can ensure it DOES NOT happen here.

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