Flat White

The endless repeat of history

25 April 2022

9:00 AM

25 April 2022

9:00 AM

Many of our collective disasters are shaped by a lack of imagination.

We tend to privilege what we know or experience directly, and discount what we don’t. We also prioritise what is familiar and routine. Cognitive inertia is strong, and a lot of power and authority structures are based on it. For everyone, life is ruled not by abstract analysis of every moment of every day, but by the heuristics of habits. If it worked last time it will most likely work this time – these heuristics are embedded in our more-or-less automatic (but initially trained) reactions.

All of that makes human groups prone to judge situations of danger in terms of what they would do themselves. It also means that when we make a wrong, or a less-than-best decision, it tends to get perpetuated in our behaviour until a real disaster forces a reassessment.

The rare Cassandras of the world can see exactly what is going to happen, but their curse is that most of the time no one listens to them. On the off chance someone does, it is usually too late to avert disaster. This is not the fate for all Cassandras. Perhaps the most famous modern Cassandra was UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Unlike the Cassandra of legend, he survived in power long enough to have his moment of worldwide recognition.

The Ukrainian invasion is a good example of the world failing to listen. Even to those with a good grasp of history, the thought that a modern ruler could flatten cities and authorise the killing of citizens because he wants to take their territory is almost unimaginable.

We’re used to the rule of law: politics and lawfare rather than warfare. We’re rightly horrified when one Australian takes another’s life. The Port Arthur massacre was so traumatic it led to a mass disarmament of the Australian population, yet Putin and his troops have piled on the massacres one after the other.

One clue to Churchill’s prescience may be that he was an historian. History tells us that leaders like Putin are the rule, rather than the exception. Indeed, Putin models himself on the Tsar Peter the Great. The word Tsar derives from Caesar, the honorific the Roman Emperors gave themselves.

If you want to see the ruthless degradation of human life, you need look no further than the Romans. Take the case of Crassus, who in 71 BC defeated the slave rebellion of Spartacus and took 6,000 slaves captive. He crucified every one of them along the Appian Way. As he was campaigning for a consulship at the time, it is said this was the ghoulish equivalent of yard signs advertising his military prowess. It certainly would have been more pungent than the red and black attack pamphlets deployed in modern Australian campaigns.

This historical moment puts the crucifixion that occurred a hundred years later, just outside Jerusalem, into perspective. There were only three men, and the the Romans cut the torturous death, which could take up to three days, short, breaking their legs so they died more quickly, apart from one who was dead already.

The men were likely all political executions because crucifixion was reserved for slaves, pirates, and enemies of the State. Certainly, one of them had gone out of his way to draw attention to himself. A week earlier he’d staged a procession into Jerusalem as though he were a political leader. He’d also created a scene in the Jewish temple where the Roman currency was changed into coins that could be used to buy sacrifices to be offered in the temple. He’d attacked a number of the money changers with a whip. All political agitprop, intentionally or unintentionally depending on your point of view, destined to reverberate down millennia.

Still, this didn’t really seem to faze the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, too much. As he said, ‘I can find no fault in this man.’ But he ordered the crucifixion anyway. Essentially, it was a clever political strategy done as a favour to placate the Jewish religious authorities who begged for the crucifixion. They had much more reason to dislike this man but couldn’t put him to death themselves because the Romans reserved the power of capital punishment to themselves. Perhaps as an ironic aside, he had ‘This man is the king of the Jews’ written in three languages on a sign and placed on his cross.

Life was cheap, and anyone who has heard this story in full at least once a year is taken imaginatively to a place where casual destruction of human life is a fact of life. They know that another 40 or so years later, the Romans got so angry with the whole Jewish nation that they marched in and marched them all out, destroying their massive temple at the same time so that not a stone was left standing on stone.

They also know the story of the Jewish ruler who slaughtered every male child in the town of Bethlehem, two hundred of them, because he was told one of them would overthrow him one day.

And these horrors are given reality in the present era not just by repetition of the stories and reflection on them, but by symbols and rituals designed to embed them in spiritual, moral, and ethical perspectives. Despite what postmodern theologians might tell you, Christian theology is imbued with the understanding that evil is real and often appears deceptively benign, as in the Judas kiss.

Not that most Christians are any more far-seeing than the average person, but the practice of Christianity surely produces more Cassandras on average.

We also have secular ceremonies that serve the same function. I was 31 before I went to my first Anzac Day service, and I wondered why I had left it so long. This must be unique amongst national military commemorations in celebrating a defeat. I teared up when I thought of those young men (and some not so young like my great-grandfather) who were standing in the landing barges about to charge up a beach under savage gunfire. Why is it always the young that have to be sacrificed to protect the older? What a muddle of good intentions and wrong outcomes.

There are other ways of producing Cassandras. The British Empire was run by men (mostly) with a classical education. This wasn’t just about studying Greek or Latin, but giving them an education that fitted them to be good citizens and also introduced them to the true, the beautiful and the good. You might not approve of empires, but you have to admit that administering a colossus like the British one would have required a lot of delegated power and ingenuity in the days before radio.

In the sixties and seventies, I received a species of that education. We were drilled in primary school so we could be taught more Socratically in secondary school, learned to think, and were introduced to great works of culture. As they were mostly religious schools we also explored the virtuous, the true and the good.

Now that style of education has morphed into training for a ‘good job’ and the furphy of ‘self-directed learning’ – despite the fact that most educators expect their charges to have portmanteau careers spanning several disciplines, which surely demands more generalist skills than training. I’m told by Catholic school teachers that even in their system the true, the beautiful and the good have gone truant.

The result of this is fewer Cassandras and more group think. Children are taught that the past doesn’t really matter and that if it wasn’t invented yesterday, it is inferior. They impose today’s values (really the values of woke educators) on yesterday’s heroes and condemn them for contemporary faults. They have no capacity to live in the skins of yesterday’s people, and little capacity for forgiveness or redemption.

It was Winston Churchill who sent those young Anzacs into battle, but should this one error of judgment (or his racist views) condemn him utterly, or should he be celebrated for the totality of his life and recognised as a man struggling under the limitations of his own age?

In this week caught between Easter and Anzac Day, we need to think about how we reintroduce imagination into our culture.

History doesn’t die, it repeats endlessly, and a population primed to think everyone is basically like a modern Aussie, just dressed and fed slightly differently, will be run over in the race.

My solution would be we should go to more of the great religious ceremonies, even if we’re atheist, and drink in and reflect on the symbolism and the truths. Have a chat with a four-thousand-year tradition. Attend, and possibly invent more secular ceremonies that commemorate the past. With any luck this year Anzac Day will be bigger than ever and the destruction in Ukraine will direct our focus to the evil that exists in the world.

And let’s all join the movement to reintroduce a modern form of the classical education – Socratic, stoic, and universal, exploring the true, the beautiful, and the good.

Let’s rediscover the meaning of citizenship, and let a 1,000 Cassandras bloom. Our future and security depend on it.

Graham Young is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress and founder and editor of On Line Opinion.

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