History, although perhaps a dusty, dreaded subject when one is young, does serve a paramount purpose for those who pay attention in life. History provides us with signposts which, though sometimes difficult to read, often warped and charred by time, warn of all the dark pitfalls that have so often claimed the breath and spirit of those gone before. Surely, it is the intent of history to bequeath knowledge, in the hope that we as human beings may not follow the rutted pathways of the ignorant, but climb, century by century, bit by bit, ever higher, till we manage to reach a nobler, more enlightened hill from which to view the world. For should we not learn from the mistakes of others, as well as the mistakes of our own?
It is, no doubt, a result of my Scottish DNA, but I have always been captivated by the history of Britain. As a child, I knew all the wives of Henry VIII long before I could recite the names of my own First Ladies. Somehow, although she was an interesting woman to be sure, the travails of Dolley Madison just never seemed to equal those of the ill-fated, black-eyed Anne Boleyn. Recently, I have found myself mentally wandering the palaces of the Tudors once again, my torch held high in order to decipher all the brilliantly written pages of Hillary Mantel’s Booker Prize winning novel, Wolf Hall. Set during the reign of Henry VIII, Wolf Hall shines its light on Thomas Cromwell, a figure usually found just outside the frame, a bit on the periphery, where one is forever likely to find the most powerful figures of any government. It is through Cromwell’s sharp eyes that we are given a unique view of the events of that day. As I read of the frequently barbarous nature of life in Tudor England - the crowds of mothers and children excitedly watching all manner of public executions, those in government so determined to hold onto the intoxicating notion of power that any idea of public good never crosses their minds - I suppose I indulged in a bit of quiet superiority, thankful for the civilized life that I lead, grateful that the past is now past.
And then I picked up the newspaper.
As some of you know, we here in the States have been locked in a rancorous battle over health care reform, a battle that certainly came as no surprise, given the fact that US Presidents have attempted to tackle this problem for a hundred years, but to no avail. The issue was voted on this past weekend, an occurrence that brought out opponents and supporters alike. It happened at a rally in Columbus, Ohio. A man was sitting on the ground with a sign that said he had Parkinson’s disease. A group demonstrating against reform began taunting the man, accusing him of “looking for a handout” and throwing dollar bills into his lap. In Washington, DC, racial epithets were hurled at a black congressman who is a hero of the civil rights movement, whilst slurs were shouted at another congressman because he is gay.
Juxtaposed against the illuminating passages of Wolf Hall, these news reports had a sobering effect. I had to wonder: How far have we really come? Is it even possible for intelligent reason and compassion to exist in a world where any sort of vile behaviour is acceptable for those so encased in hatred and fear? Or are we merely like those little boats of Fitzgerald’s, forever beating against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Has history taught us nothing?