Does History ACTUALLY Repeat Itself?

This essay was inspired by my beautiful and supportive fiancé, Emily.

A couple days ago, my lady was in town and she told me she heard this quote on NPR and was curious what my response on it would be. In all honesty, I tried looking for the quote albeit not very vigorously so you’ll have to bear with the paraphrased quote. Suffice it to say, it led to a lovely discussion between us. This quote remained in my conscious for some time now, clearly, and in combination with my Theories & Methods class I’m taking, I just had to write about it in the style I most enjoy: Informally.

“History doesn’t repeat itself, human nature doesn’t change.” – Unknown

Indeed, both are most black and white statements. However, if one were to closely examine each allegation, interesting and informative scholarship would be found. Most significantly, perhaps is Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and Production of History. In the book, readers will take a glance at what historians actually do in their research; that is, to examine traces of history and change things if necessary due to contextual vigor.  To add on to an entry a friend of mine wrote in his blog, History is a science almost. It’s not simply remembering dates; in fact, it’s not really that important. What is important however, is what happened around those times but moreover, to examine why and how things happened. That’s why if you ever ask a Historian about why the Civil War happened, they will give you this long ass answer because it is a complex issue that can’t be resolved in one answer. Of course, you could most definitely say it was Slavery. It was. Ultimately, everything that caused the bloodiest war in United States history, was because of Slavery and whether it should be abolished.

The thing is, a lot of people seem to have this understanding that History is black and white. That we all share the same attitudes on history, but in reality, interpretation is what separates and even divides us as historians. Take for example the case of Palestine and Israel. For many years, the debate surrounding the question of Palestine was if Palestinians were kicked out of Israel to make way for Zionist (not Jewish) settlers. Some scholars argued that the Palestinians left on their own accord, or there weren’t any at all i.e., the land was vacant. The latter half contend that Palestinians were forced to leave and had 48 hours to vacate their homes. That was the debate back in the 1980’s.  Currently it is generally, or at least arguably, agreed that Palestinians were coerced into evacuating but the reasons debated are because Palestinians were victims of ethnic cleansing or because they were a threat to Israeli settlers. The point of this story is not to spark controversy, but to examine that the production of history changes with time.

 For one to contend that human nature remains the same, it then opens another can of worms because it begs the question: what is human nature? And this is a total stream of conscious essay so forgive me if I’m leaving out a bunch of details, but the two arguments of how human nature are for one, savage by nature. And the other, that humans are born without sin but may develop bad habits. It isn’t easy to pick out of those two, especially because contemporary scholarship argues that there are some people that have neurological impairments that cause their inability to recognize bad habits. In other words, there are assholes and there are psychopaths. Assholes will lie, cheat, and steal from you because they just don’t care. Whereas a psychopath will destroy a person’s phone if they’re speaking too loudly on it and because they aren’t able to psychologically “ignore” the negative thoughts in their heads, feel absolutely no remorse. Thereby proving once again, that these sort of scholarly thoughts on human nature will change with time as well. 

Indeed, these various interpretations to come about will present a great disconnect with previous thought, therefore one could argue that history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself. History just repeatedly plays a role in how our thoughts on particular epochs shift. It’s an idea, and History as an idea, is produced by people with power and those with a greater voice like let’s say: films, can influence more people because they tend to be more popular than an actual book written by a historian whose work has been accepted by a committee of other historians. The good news is though that, people with power can lose it and people who don’t have power can gain it. You can watch a film about The Alamo and believe Davy Crockett and the others were heroic martyrs of their time, but then along comes a historian who shatters the glass case, like the iconoclasts we are, by telling you, “actually, these guys were just pirates who sought land because of manifest destiny and to expand their slave territory.” Therefore, History is never static; or as my professor so eloquently said it: “the history of history has a history.”

-Mr. Writer

Written on the 19th of September, 2017 at 9:25 P.M. 

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