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Past, Present and Future

I mentioned to one of our pupils a couple of weeks ago that I had noticed he is often at the front of the queue when I open the school gate in the morning and he is often one of the first to leave the building at the end of the day.  I asked him if he had ever heard of the term ‘FIFO’, which I vaguely recall from the few months I once spent training to be an accountant stands for ‘First In, First Out’ – though a quick Google search suggests some other, rather less appropriate meanings.   

If I had the self-discipline to adopt a FIFO approach to the compilation of the wisdom of others that I use to fill the pages of these blogs, I would not get into a muddle about what I have shared and what I have not.  I have often described my style as being like a magpie, in that I have very few original thoughts but a certain talent for collecting from others and putting their ideas into a coherent order. 

If it were true that magpies are attracted to shiny items, which apparently it is not, I could also use that as my excuse for failing to keep to the FIFO system.  It is, however, the case that a new idea or a series of ideas in a new book too often distracts me from getting to the end of a previous train of thought and too often leaves us all going off at unnecessary tangents.

A small fanfare is therefore in order today as we come to the end of what I wanted to tell you about David Mountain’s book called ‘Past Mistakes’, in which we reach some sort of conclusion about why we should not just accept the stories we are told about our history, not least at a time when it feels like there is a genuine battle for truth going on, and when the rise of Artificial Intelligence seems only likely to exacerbate the situation.

Mountain tells us that the notion that the Dark Ages were obsessed with witch hunts is another falsehood.  A fear of witches certainly existed, but it was nowhere near the hysteria that erupted in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  That is not to say that this period was not superstitious, with werewolves, demons and the evil eye all provoking common fears at various times.  A traveller approaching a crossroads would need to be extra vigilant for ghosts and devils, and anyone who dared eat goose on the last Monday in April would surely die soon after.  But, he continues, we should not forget that plenty of people alive today are just as superstitious, and many still believe in werewolves and the like.  In fact, I used to be a werewolf, but I’m all right noooooooww.  (Sorry – couldn’t resist!)

In America, the mystical and psychic services market today is apparently worth over two billion dollars a year, and a survey back in 2014 found that fifty-five per cent of British adults hold some superstition or belief in the supernatural, with one in five believing in UFOs, past lives or telepathy, and a full third confident in the existence of ghosts – and this, it is worth reminding ourselves, is in a country with compulsory science lessons for all children, including in this very school, of course.  Indeed, despite the high rates of mandatory schooling in the modern world, it is almost certain that a far greater proportion of educated people today believe in astrology and Flat-Earthism – two of this century’s more popular anti-scientific beliefs – than ever did during the Dark Ages.

Mountain rounds off what I found to be a fascinating book by telling us that the past, according to a Russian proverb, is much more unpredictable than the future.  There is always, he says, a temptation to regard history as unalterable, and the fact that we cannot change the past fools us into thinking that it is somehow immune from the confusion and conflict of the present.  But as Russians and others have learned through bitter experience, history is, if anything, especially vulnerable to new ideas and ideologies, so much so that any representation of the past often says more about the time it was written than the time being written about.  As the historian Frederick Jackson Turner diagnosed back in 1891, ‘Each age writes the history of the past anew with reference to the conditions uppermost in its own time.’

The author summarises some of his key ideas by reminding us that it was the nineteenth century belief in the superiority of light skin that convinced European art historians of the whiteness of classical statues and led archaeologists to frame the history of civilisation as a steady progression from dark-skinned savagery to light-skinned enlightenment.  Eurocentric biases like these have also come to define our understanding of the Dark Ages as a time of ignorance and superstition, with early Renaissance scholars like Petrarch failing to consider the notion that enlightened civilisations might have existed beyond Europe.  And we are urged not to forget that the barbarians, the people traditionally blamed for causing the Dark Ages in the first place, were the victims of a strident pro-Roman bias in the writings of late antiquity.

Each age, Mountain concludes, has given its own unique twist on our view of the past.  The eighteenth century fashion for ‘natural families’ encouraged historians to ignore the long history of working women.  The twentieth century growth of the movie industry convinced many that the Wild West was won by violent, independent gunmen.  The ongoing proliferation of pseudoscience, meanwhile, is duping people into rejecting the very foundations of history and archaeology.

The flexibility of history, he writes, with its ability to be written and rewritten, is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, it allows us to revise earlier interpretations in the light of new evidence.  On the other hand, it leaves the past open to deliberate manipulation by those looking to justify and support contemporary agendas.  Few of George Orwell’s observations are truer than his famous summary of the politics of the past that appears in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’: ‘Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’

Although I thought I knew most of what Orwell had to say, when I read it properly last year I found ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ to be a deeply disturbing dystopian novel, much of which feels like it could still come true today, not least given the madness of what seems to be happening in many parts of the world.  And how sad and shallow have we become in this country to reach the point where such extraordinary and original concepts as Big Brother and Room 101 should only play a part in our modern culture as low-brow television programmes?

The slogan of the Party in the novel was that ‘War is Peace, Slavery is Freedom, Ignorance is Strength’, and Orwell’s analysis was that the worldview of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it.  They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening.  By lack of understanding they remained sane.  They simply swallowed everything, and what they swallowed did them no harm, because it left no residue behind, just as a grain of corn will pass undigested through the body of a bird. 

I fear that too many people approach life like this, which allows those who deliver the bird food to exploit the masses for their own ends.  It has probably always been like this, but that does not mean we cannot change it in the future.  Indeed, we need to change it if we are to avoid being exploited by our fellow human beings and, before very long at all, if not already, by the rise of the intelligent machines.


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