Context from reading history

As far as history, I am like that crusty, plainspoken character played by the late, great Dennis Hopper in True Romance, I find that shit fascinating.  The reverberations of historical events, things that actually happened as opposed to mere stories, haunt me, literally.   Some days I am standing on the edge of that ravine northwest of Vishnevitz in the Ukraine, on that airless night of August 1943, with the rest of my once large family, waiting my turn for the bullet in the back of my head.

Sekhnet says that’s exactly why she avoids the subject of history.  Too horrible!   Too distressing!   Humans suck!

Aside: Years ago I attended a free concert David Bromberg did for WBAI, in the church not far from Rodney Dangerfield’s club where WBAI broadcast from at the time.   In graffiti by the urinal there was some smack about about a popular and witty BAI host “Steve Post sucks.”    Under that someone had written “No he doesn’t.”  Under that, in another handwriting:  “Yes I do.”

Yes, sure, humans suck.   We do.  It’s a large part of what we do.  With razor teeth and a demented, bloody smile.   Still, history is some fascinating shit, as my father would say.  There have been inspiring moments of human courage and creativity, even in the worst chapters of that horrific chronicle [1].  The entire story of our collective sucking, biting and healing is endlessly compelling to me.

A few years back I discovered a great podcast by a guy who also loves history.   Dan Carlin is the guy’s name and his excellent long-form podcast is called Hardcore History (highly recommended).   He tends to focus on wars over the ages, military history, strategy, philosophy, what the wars were like for the civilians, the soldiers who fought them.  He seems to read everything available on a chosen subject and then, over the course of a few months when he’s digested it and thought it over, he puts out a series of long (3-5 hours each) ad-libbed shows on the subject.   This format enables him to go into great depth on the subject, whether its the Roman Empire, the Mongol Empire, the Persian Empire, World War One or his current series, Supernova in the East, the military juggernaut that was modern Japan.

It struck me the other day that Carlin, like the best historians, often provides larger insights into our condition here.  It makes the history rich and alive and resonant with the ongoing events of our times. 

Describing the infamous Rape of Nanking, for example, after the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, barbarous brutality as sickening as anything the Nazis were doing in their theatre of operations, Carlin makes the point that while the Japanese atrocities were indeed horrific there was nothing novel about it, really.  He gives the example of a Roman army, besieging a city, two thousand years earlier.   The Roman law was that if the city surrendered, the spoils all went to the victorious general.  On the other hand, if the legions had to invade to take the city, it was every man for himself.   The city had announced its intention to surrender.  The Roman legions, their bloodlust no doubt pent up, invaded anyway, raping, looting, disemboweling, impaling, beheading, burning their fellow Romans.  The Rape of Nanking had nothing on those motherfuckers many centuries earlier though, of course, as modern-day horrors go, it was impressively sickening.

Not to excuse the Japanese for such brutality, of course.   Carlin later points out that the Japanese made a problematic deal when they allied themselves with Nazi Germany, how it hurt Japan’s ability to diplomatically interact with the rest of the word.  Carlin, on the Germans under Hitler, whose excesses colored the world’s view of their allies:  

“… these people are book burners, they persecute minorities and have government sanctioned pogroms,  like Kristalnacht, they’re against freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, they don’t have any due process, they don’t believe in equality under the law, they have a harsh occupation, they believe in collective punishment… the list goes on and on.”

The cliche that history repeats itself is more accurately rendered as not a repeat as much as a rhyme.   There are signs, and lessons to be taken from the unfolding of events past.    We almost never see the exact replication of events and outcomes, but there are definite trends we can note from the past. It’s become common to call any blustering, hate-spewing, angry demagogue as “Hitler”, though of course Hitler was unique to his time and place and perfectly attuned to the zeitgeist of his imagined Thousand Year Reich   Still, Hitlerian traits can be noted and looked at.

Carlin’s quick list of Hitlerian attributes is striking and resonant.  Book burners hate so-called intellectuals who marshal so-called facts to persuade people of their point of view.  Minorities by definition are at the mercy of majorities, who have no obligation to show them any mercy (unless the minority is politically powerful, of course).   Freedom of thought and expression?  FUCK YOU!   Bands of German youth, in the decade leading up to Hitler’s rise, marched under the slogan “Wir Scheissen Auf die Frieheit!” (we shit on Freedom).  Freedom of religion, yes, of course, as long as practice the sanctioned one.   Due process under the law?  Not possible.   

As for the law, there are truly diabolical ways to wield it.   For example, quite recently our rulers ordered torture they rebranded as “EIT” and deemed it legal, by secret memo, when inflicted on “enemy combatants” not subject to our human rights obligations under the Geneva Conventions.   If you disagree, you may bring a law suit in court, but we are prepared to fight long and hard to have the case dismissed outright and we always win in the end.   We can, for example, legally separate refugee families at our border, send the children to be incarcerated in another state.    The Supreme Court will uphold the legality of certain,  Muslim bans, restrictions on transexuals, forcing laborers to work without pay, etc.    As for your judgments about harsh occupation, my occupied brothers and sisters, if any one of you fucks with us we will bulldoze your entire goddamned village and shoot your livestock, or, how about the Mother of All Bombs, if you like her better?

Carlin’s rattled off list reverberated in my mind after I heard it.   I made a recording of that minute of his four hour Supernova in the East II, transcribed it just now.   If you burn books, friend, you are on your way.   The temperature is already about 451F.   

It is a time for courage and heroes, millions of us.


[1]  the following is worth quoting in its entirety.   The full post is here.

I will end with Howard Zinn’s inspiring message, delivered as an older man, talking about why he studied and taught history, why he wrote A People’s History of the United States:

“I wanted, in writing this book, to awaken a consciousness in my readers, of class conflict, of racial injustice, of sexual inequality and of national arrogance, and I also wanted to bring into light the hidden resistance of the People against the power of the establishment.   

I thought that to omit these acts of resistance, to omit these victories, however limited, by the people of the United States, was to create the idea that power rests only with those who have the guns, who possess the wealth.  I wanted to point out that people who seem to have no power — working people, people of color, women– once they organize and protest and create national movements, they have a power that no government can suppress.

“I don’t want to invent victories for people’s movements, but to think that history writing must simply recapitulate the failures that dominate the past is to make historians collaborators in an endless cycle of defeat.  And if history is to be creative, if it’s to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I think, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win.

“I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in the solid centuries of warfare.”

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