Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A Plea from the Past: What History Can Teach Us About the Future

Hi all,

My name is Michael Trauntvein.  I'm a student at BYU in the Construction and Facilities Management program.  I'm also an outdoorsman, a writer, an amateur cook, and a Mormon.

I've chosen a topic that is fundamental both to our understanding our history and our hope for our future.  We've heard it said time and again that "history repeats itself".  My purpose today is to show you that not only does it repeat itself, but it does so at an increased rate with the development of civilization.

How can we learn from history?  Even more importantly, why should we learn from history?  Most would say that we study history so we can avoid mistakes that were made in the past.  In our Digital Age, learning about history has never been easier, and yet most people know as little about it as their parents and their grandparents do.  My thesis is that in order for the continued advancement and betterment of society, we must learn from the past and take responsibility for our future.

In his 2014 book Sustainable Civilization, Klass Van Egmond wrote: "Throughout... history, developments have continued to lose their equilibrium... One-sided values start to dominate, after which society loses continuity and heads for catastrophe. Through a primitive learning process, the one-sided values are translated into their equally one-sided opposites, after which history repeats itself just as dramatically. In a drunk-like state, people and society wander backwards and forwards through their own value pattern."  Klass' main point is that "developments can only continue if a certain middle way is found between fundamental opposites within that social value pattern."

To emphasize this argument, we will use the example of the 20th Century as compared to the first 16 years of our current Century.

Both the 20th and 21st Centuries began with an age of peace and prosperity, a "Gilded Age" of sorts; however, both were cut short when acts of terrorism: WWI began with the murder of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, and the War on Terror began with the bombing of the World Trade Center.  Both events were met with the same, overzealous demand: All-out war.

In the first half of the 20th Century we see the rallying of nationalists on all sides of the conflict and overwhelming support in favor of the war effort, just like we saw in the first months and year or so of the War in Iraq.  The people rallied behind fearless leaders such as FDR, Churchill, Stalin, and Hitler for morally ambiguous causes at best.  However, with the progression of the 20th Century, we see the war-weary people beginning to support more pacifistic leaders such as JFK, Reagan, and Gorbachev.  In a similar manner, people today are beginning to rally behind pacifist leaders such as Barack Obama.

Both as a result of the war efforts and the counter-ideology that developed from them, the second half of the 20th Century also became a time of dramatic social reform.  During this time we see the rising role of women in society and an expansion of women's rights, as well as an expansion of racial minority rights, particularly among those of Black heritage.  The last eight years of the 21st Century have also been marked by massive social reform, especially with regards to the feminist and LGBT communities.

Another result of the war efforts and social reforms of the 20th Century was the development of counterculture.  As Van Egmond wrote in his book, one-sided viewpoints in society are often met with equally one-sided counter-viewpoints in a vicious cycle.  The second half of the 20th Century saw the development of an anti-war, anti-nationalism, anti-patriotism movement with the "hippies".  Today we see a vaguely similar ideology with the "hipsters", Walk on Wall Street, and other movements.  These countercultures from both centuries were were also met with extremely conservative and highly-nationalist counter-countercultures like the Tea Party.

So, clearly there are parallels between the 20th Century and the first 16 years of the 21st Century.  So, what?  Why is that important?  This brings us all back to Van Egmond's idea of a sustainable civilization.  Thus far in history, humanity has been walking the drunken path, weaving from one side to the other, ever in danger of toppling off the edge completely.  What's most alarming to me is that the developments we saw in the full 100 years of the 20th Century have all occurred in the mere 16 years that we know of the 21st Century.  Not only are we still bobbing back and forth from side to side, but we are doing so at an increasingly rapid rate.  A likely cause of this is the development of communication and transportation technologies that we have experienced in the Digital Age.  It is now easier than ever for ideas and ideals to spread through the masses.  In talking with my wife on the subject, she concluded: "We can't stop the repetition of history without making true changes as a society."

JFK was famous for his advocacy of peace and moderation.  He firmly believed that no extreme could help humanity progress; instead, he advocated Van Egmond's "Middle Path".  In his address at the Loyola College Annual Alumni Banquet of 1958, he declared, "Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer.  Let us not seek to fix blame for the past, but let us accept our own responsibility for the future."  

So what does history teach us about the future?  If anything, it teaches us that we are not good at learning from past mistakes and failures.  It teaches us that if we do not "take our own responsibility for our future," the drunken cycle will continue until perhaps there is no future for which to take responsibility and only a past for which to fix blame.  What, then, must we do?  We must begin to learn from the past to save our future.

1 comment:

  1. Michael, the parallel historical events you look at are compelling. I think if the images had less words they could have been more powerful in explaining your points. I felt a bit overwhelmed with all the history you pack in each paragraph. Maybe including more fun anecdotes or things about a Ted Talk could help keep the reader more involved.