DANIEL VAUGHAN: The ahistorical radicals of ‘woke’ purity

A popular idiom of our time warns that those who don’t learn from history’s mistakes are doomed to repeat them.

In the American tradition, we get this notion from two people, the first being George Santayana (1864–1952), an essayist, philosopher, and novelist.

Santayana’s original line was:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. [emphasis added]

It’s the last sentence where we get our version today.

The second source of this notion comes from the great English MP and thinker Edmund Burke (1729–1797). Writing his famous 1790 work “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” Burke said, “People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.”

He wrote this while watching the French Revolution unfold across the English Channel.

Simply put, these thinkers asserted that you can’t move into the future without knowing the past. Our paraphrased version today implies that there are cycles in history — of creation and destruction — because we cannot learn from our mistakes. I tend to disagree a bit with that and lean more with Mark Twain, who observed, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

Our current moment — of pandemics, murder hornets, and now, protests and rioting in some places — is unique. The factors impacting us, the elements of our political discontent, do have historical analogies, but they are also unique to this period. Indeed, our current pandemic is nowhere near as bad as previous ones, like the 1919 Spanish Flu, or other cases of flu that swept through the 20th century.

Our political polarization is also similarly intense, but we can’t compare it to the 1930s, ’40s, or ’60s. We certainly can’t compare the political intensity now with the move for revolutions throughout the Age of Enlightenment. And the domestic unrest we’re seeing doesn’t rival the domestic bombings of the 1960s, nor the assassinations of political and cultural leaders.

But it’s not hard to see the rhymes, repeated chords, and familiar drum beats. And I wouldn’t begrudge people for thinking that they’re all are so close that a songwriter could sue for plagiarism.

When I wrote last week about memorializing or celebrating a specific segment of our past, part of that argument implied that we’d know and study history. So too does our idiom about not learning from history.

It’s possible to study history and not learn any lessons. That’s a dreadful predicament to exist. But it’s even more tragic to have never read history at all.

We’re in this second spot. There’s very little evidence that some of these protesters, especially the white radicals, have learned a lick of history beyond that of viral tweets, Reddit threads, or Tumblr posts.

Some examples are the protests over Winston Churchill’s statue in the United Kingdom. According to the BBC, Churchill’s granddaughter fears the figure may have to be placed in storage for protection.

Or take the petitions to have Mahatma Gandhi’s statue removed. Protesters have even defaced the statue of Matthias Baldwin, the Methodist minister and famed abolitionist, in Philadelphia.

These are not the statues of Confederate leaders or evil people. These are the statues of people who positively changed the world, which stands the test of time.

You can’t call yourself anti-fascist and then deface the statue of the man directly responsible for defeating Hitler.

Indeed, Winston Spencer Churchill opposed Hitler at a time when most world leaders praise or capitulated to the Nazi leader. The progressives of Churchill’s day enthralled themselves with Hitler and Stalin, and there was very little middle ground.

Gandhi, meanwhile, popularized non-violent protests as a means of changing a nation. He succeeded. And Baldwin’s abolitionist campaign occurred in a period of American life that was far more racist than today. He often risked his life and livelihood to speak the truth.

Watching some of these same trends, columnist Thomas Chatterton Williams observed that not even Barack Obama could meet the standards being set by new “anti-racists.” In a separate essay, Williams even points out an Obama line that shocked these new radicals:

“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff,” Obama observed last October, “you should get over that quickly. The world is messy. There are ambiguities.”

The statement drew widespread condemnation. “I gasped at what I heard,” Ernest Owens wrote in the New York Times.

It’s why jokes about the protests eventually coming for statues of Martin Luther King Jr. and others like him probably aren’t that far off. No one is pure, everyone has sinned, and the new “woke” Pharisees shall condemn all. 

And there is a religious element here. Some of these protesters, especially those who are white, act with the zeal of a religious convert. They are new, so that implies in their mind that they’re the purest and most capable of attacking all the old heresies. Everything gets torn down in the end. 

Our current events rhyme with the past because the radicals of our day have liberated themselves from the lessons of our ancestors in an attempt to claim any action they take is righteous. It doesn’t matter if those lessons and history reside with blacks, whites, or aliens on the moon — they reject them all under the guise that they themselves are progressively pure. 

If religious history has taught us anything, it’s that original sin comes for all, even the self-proclaimed pure. The real question is: What happens when these new radicals realize they aren’t pure and aren’t righteous? You can either repent and reject your actions, or lash out in a new wave of anger and blame the world for making you unpure.

Time will tell. But there’s little doubt the actions of today’s radicals will end up rhyming with those of the past. Judging by their current actions, however, they’ll never know it.