Thursday, November 11, 2010

Deja vu History

Does history repeat itself?

Philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952) famously remarked, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

More than a century earlier Georg Hegel (1770-1831) proposed in his Philosophy of History that history teaches us "that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it."

I was thinking of those observations when I heard about recent rioting in France. The French Revolution (1789-99) came immediately to mind. This time, however, it wasn't a peasant revolt against the king, it was a combination of unions and students opposing reform of the nation's pension system, raising the age of retirement from 60 to 62.

England has been the site of revolution. Students went on a rampage in London against the Tories who proposed a hike for university tuition.

Photographs of these recent protests in France and England are reminiscent of the scenes in the United States in the 1960s: urban race riots, the shooting at Kent State, and perhaps even the sex and drug revolutions caricatured at Woodstock.

Some historians maintain that France's revolution in 1789 came hard on the heels of the American revolution of 1776 because of the fiscal reforms and increased taxes mandated by France's military aid to the American colonies. An example, perhaps, of the inter-connectedness of a global economy.

And the American colonies' protest in Boston Harbor in 1773 reminds us of the 2009 grassroots formation of the Tea Party, only this time the protest was against America's own Congress rather Britain's Parliament.

Are these events in some sense an example of history repeating itself? I've been thinking about that as I read the biography Bonhoeffer - Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas.

Could what happened in the 1930s in Germany find an echo in the 2010s of the United States, or elsewhere?

Germany, still reeling from the losses and humiliation of World War I, looked for a Leader. Mextaxas writes, "The First War and the subsequent depression and turmoil had brought about a crisis in which the younger generation, especially, had lost all confidence in the traditional authority of the kaiser and the church. The German notion of the Führer arose out of this generation and its search for meaning and guidance out of its troubles...the authority of the Führer was submitted to nothing. It was self-derived and autocratic, and therefore had a messianic aspect."

A 2010 Gallup "confidence poll" showed that the United States Congress came in dead last in a list of 16 institutions. At the top of the list were the military (76%), small business and police. Next came church (48%), medical system, U.S. Supreme Court, and the presidency. Finally were public schools (34%), criminal justice, newspapers, banks, TV news, organized labor, big business, HMOs, and Congress (11%).

The American people are extremely disillusioned with congress, and church falls below 50%. When I read what Mataxas wrote about the younger generation in Germany in the 1930s losing "all confidence in the traditional authority of the kaiser and the church," I flinched.

Loss of jobs, increase in taxes, real estate foreclosures, rising cost of gasoline and health care, growth of government, indebtedness to foreign nations --all these cause anxiety and unrest across America today. Is violent protest or civil war possible on our streets?

Pope John XXIII called history "the great teacher of life." In his opening address, he urged the bishops of the Second Vatican Council to disagree with the prophets of doom "who are always forecasting worse disasters" and to embrace instead his perception that "the human family is on the threshold of a new era" and that the providence of God is wisely arranging everything, "even adverse human fortune, for the Church's good."

I want to buy into Pope John's optimism, but the notion that history does repeat itself creates an uncomfortable tension. What must we do to restore confidence in church and government?

I would much prefer to end this piece with a wise answer, but the best I can do at this moment is pose the question.

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