Lessons from the Past? A Point/Counterpoint

by Heather Clancy and Bryan Caswell

Heather: With the resurgence of global conservatism characterized in the United States by the presidential election of Donald Trump, it is difficult to overlook the accompanying rise of articles, think pieces, and editorials seeking to make sense of current trends by drawing parallels with similar historic periods. This phenomenon was recently called to our attention through an exchange between the Gettysburg Compiler and UConn professor and Huffington Post contributor Manisha Sinha comparing the present political climate in the United States to that of the fall of Reconstruction during the late nineteenth century. While this may be only a single interaction, it fits readily into a broader discourse on the utility of historical comparison in understanding modern events. When deftly-crafted, juxtapositions of the past and present can serve to illuminate pertinent trends and similarities, allowing for a more nuanced evaluation of current policies and happenings.

Bryan: But just how useful are these efforts at comparison? History is undeniably relevant in understanding precisely why the world looks like it does at any given moment, yet its relevance in predicting future events and actions is minimal. No matter how catchy the phrase, history does not and never has truly repeated itself. The details of historical events and eras are so specific to themselves that their preludes, climaxes, and especially their outcomes cannot be replicated in any other instance. Broad patterns of historical engines and human behavior can certainly be observed and accounted for, but as comparisons attempt to become increasingly specific, the basis for comparison increasingly unravels along with the utility of any ‘lessons’ to be learned, as those criteria are not exactingly replicated in the situation in question. Thus any benefits of such efforts at historical comparison become more akin to general logical conclusions for which history was one, but not the only, possible route to limited enlightenment.

Heather: Agreed. If you’re looking to history for a road map on how to proceed, you’ve come to the wrong place. Past events do not equate to a user manual of citizenry. Rather, they offer an additional lens through which to examine our cultural and political environs. More importantly, for many individuals, drawing connections between present and past can serve the dual purpose of both invigorating the past and solidifying the present: the past spicing up current affairs for history lovers and the present casting relevance onto the past for those who turn their noses up at history. With this reflexive effect in play, it’s no wonder why historical comparisons emit such a siren’s call for many. For some, the elucidation of historical comparisons may even provide the catalyst necessary to act on behalf of social justice within a modern political climate often characterized by the privilege of apathy.

Bryan: Modern American indifference towards a wide range of pressing issues should be combated, true, yet I can’t help but wonder whether the cost of doing so through historical comparison is worth it. We all like to believe that the times we live in are on the cusp of being some of the most important in history, but in so readily seeking parallels between current events and historic crises I fear that the poignancy of historical tragedy is too often minimized in service of similarity. How often must comparisons be drawn to the fall of Reconstruction, the rise of fascism in Europe, the Holocaust, and all the myriad genocides and authoritarian regimes of the twentieth century before these brutal events become devoid of their brutality, simply talking points employed in an endless stream of online think pieces comparing them to events that do not possess similar violence?

Heather: All of this discourse must, of course, culminate in one question: just how similar must current events become to historical catastrophes before the comparison may be responsibly drawn, and repeated tragedy thereby prevented? Are we, as world citizens, powerless to move to informed action, armed with knowledge of past atrocities, until it is too late? Must we wait until black voters are literally being massacred in the street, until camps are actually built to hold any who are not white, before we speak up? For those few who do not require historical wake-up calls, perhaps this debate is a moot point; they will stand against injustice regardless of whether this is the first or tenth time something similar has occurred. For most, however, the question stands without a satisfactory answer: how do we rouse an indifferent public without papering over the very real brutality of history, and how do we do so before the time for action has passed?

4 replies on “Lessons from the Past? A Point/Counterpoint”

Excellent discussion! Might I suggest making a “Point/Counterpoint” category for future articles?
It seems to me that an additional danger of drawing historical parallels is that the speaker risks being accused of sensationalizing or overreacting to the current event they are attempting to make a point about. I feel this is in part because, even though people do seem to be of the belief that ‘history repeats itself’, there is the security blanket that ‘that was then, this is now’. Which is a perfect example of people trying to have their cake and eat it too; either history is something that happened to other people or it’s something that will at some point happen again to us.

I completely agree, Riley. While in some cases accusations of sensationalization are, in fact, warranted, many such denunciations are simply an attempt to derail a critical analysis of ongoing injustices. And I think that your idea to create a Point/Counterpoint tag is a good one!

Another take on historical comparisons:

“The truth is, we don’t know what will happen next, nor the best way to respond. History provides lessons for the present, not spoilers for the future. As such, it should inform our understanding, not dictate it. Those who fail to learn from the past may be doomed to repeat it, but those who over-learn are doomed, as well.”

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