Syndicated columnist Keith Raffel: Our ugly past is always nipping at our heels

We all know history doesn't really repeat itself, but it sure does echo through the decades and centuries.

As Nobel Prize-winning novelist William Faulkner wrote: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Here are a few examples of today's policy debates echoing those of days gone by.

• In the 1930s, Republicans attacked President Franklin D. Roosevelt's policy to use public works to combat the Great Depression as "socialism."

• In the 2020 presidential campaign, Donald Trump accused Joe Biden of handing "control to the socialists and Marxists and left-wing extremists."

• In May of this year, Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene attacked President Biden's "Build Back Better" public works policy as socialism. (As a courtesy, someone might have reminded the representative that FDR won four presidential elections in a row.)

• Former Alabama Gov. George Wallace ran for president as an independent in 1968 and managed to garner almost 14% of the popular vote. To deal with urban unrest, he was ready to "call out 30,000 troops and equip them with two-foot-long bayonets and station them every few feet apart."

• In 2020, then-President Trump put forward his idea of how to deal with urban protests. He asked the Secretary of Defense about calling out the Army to "just shoot" demonstrators.

Echoes indeed.

• In the decade before the Civil War, Southern Democrats - who were anything but democratic - dominated American politics.

South Carolina Sen. James Hammond expounded on the need for rule by a superior class "which leads progress, civilization and refinement" as contrasted to those belonging to an "inferior" race with no right to vote.

• Arizona State Rep. John Kavanagh told his fellow legislators in 2021 that "everybody shouldn't be voting," and "we have to look at the quality of votes."

This year, at least seven states have enacted laws that restrict voting - albeit not quite to the same extent that South Carolina did in the 1850s.

• The Declaration of Independence pronounced King George III of Great Britain to be "a Prince, whose character is marked by every act which may define a Tyrant."

• Former President of the United States Donald Trump declared in his first year in office, "I have the right to do whatever I want as president."

A difference, of course, is that the crowned head of the colonies could not be voted out of office or indicted, as could the elected head of the United States.

Maybe we should take more seriously what philosopher George Santayana said: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

In 1967, 5.7% of college graduates majored in history. In 2019, the number was down by two-thirds to fewer than 1.2%.

Maybe what we need is more people knowing more history.

Or maybe not.

In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain said potential Nazi aggression involved "a quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing."

Within a year, his country was at war against Germany.

In 2023, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis dismissed the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a mere "territorial dispute."

This from the man who, despite his poor polling of late, remains a viable contender in next year's Republican primary - more so if Trump's legal troubles blossom.

One hopes Gov. DeSantis will come to learn that even disputes occurring far from his country's shores can prove significant.

I just wonder why he didn't know it already.

DeSantis, a member of the Yale class of 2001, majored in history.


© Creators, 2023

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