We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

(Not) Learning from the Past

The idea that we should learn from the mistakes of the past so that we don't repeat them in the present and future is a "nice idea."  Sometimes it even works.  Sometimes.  More often than not, however, we prefer to see in the past "lessons" that confirm our particular set of prejudices.  Ideologues happily accuse historians of making up facts when the historian's version of the past does not comport with their own.  Or, they will dismiss the historian's rendering of the past as "just your opinion."

A popular variation on these ways to dismiss any actual lessons the past might teach is to make up quotations by historical figures that "prove" one's pet dogma. Take, for example, a posting at CNN entitled, "Jefferson: The face of the modern gun debate: How the third president is our Rorschach test on guns."  The posting quotes Saul Cornell, a professor at Fordham University, as stating, ""There are definitely ways you can make Jefferson be a spokesman for Occupy Wall Street or the NRA, but to do so is to take him out of his own time and put him into a debate that is quite alien in his time."  Interestingly enough, the examples of false or misinterpreted quotations attributed to Jefferson cited in the posting all tend to support the gun lobby folks rather than their opponents.  In any event, the invention of fake quotations is just one way we avoid learning what the past might actually teach us while allowing us to invent a past convenient to our own ideological agendas.

The problem with learning from the past, in sum, is that it more often than not doesn't teach us the lessons we want to learn.