Wednesday, February 1, 2017

History is long, and so is the Struggle. . .

I believe it was Georg Friedrich Hegel who first opined that "we learn from history that we don't learn from history." And I admit that it certainly looks that way sometimes. But the arc of our learning is, unfortunately, extremely gradual and it often seems, for us who live such short lives, to be going nowhere. The brevity of our time here makes it difficult for us to see ourselves as part of a historical process; we are like animals living our short lives in the middle of an evolutionary process. When we work to make society more just and fair, less bigoted and less violent, we seldom get to see the fruits of our labour. If historical change happen more quickly, I am certain that many people would be significantly more inspired to be activists. But we slog away nonetheless, and though we have difficult and disheartening setbacks, the indispensable justice seekers from each generation lace up their boots and start again where their parents left off.

Of course, we may, in the long run, be doomed to failure as a race. Nuclear war and environmental disaster could cut short our efforts to make a more just and peaceful society. But we have come so far, it seems like a terrible shame, and perhaps a betrayal of those who came before us, to give up now. Things seem particularly dark at the moment, I think, because on some issues we seem to have been making no progress or even going backward for some time. But again, if we are to maintain our spirit, we have to try to place ourselves into an historical arc and remember that though our lives are short the effort is long.

It is also important to recall that despite the efforts of the Neanderthalish  rightwing, things have gotten better. I have a particular interest in the Georgian period of English literature, especially the so-called "Romantics." I continually read accounts by English writers like Paine, Godwin, Wollstonecraft, Thomas Spence, Coleridge, Thomas Hood, and especially Shelley, and I am amazed how they strived for democracy, justice, fairness, and progress, despite the near total dictatorship of the church and state that could exercise arbitrary and violent power with almost total immunity. Shelley used to carry loaded pistols, not against the threat of thievery but because of the dangers he felt from government agents who followed him incessantly. And given his progressive (one might even say revolutionary) views, it was only his status as the son of a minor aristocrat that kept him safe from murder or imprisonment by the state. But the things that Shelley advocated (like universal suffrage, religious tolerance, women's rights) are taken today by most as essential to a modern society. He had no reasonable prospect for the success of these efforts but he was eternally optimistic nonetheless. Shelley had been de facto driven from England and was living in Italy when he was drowned in a boating accident. The poem that he was working on when he died was entitled The Triumph of Life is melancholic yet still brims with spirit and fortitude.

At the time of Shelley's death, most people around him lived in unbelievably filthy, difficult, ignorant, oppressed conditions. But even with little access to good food, clean water, education or healthcare, the people fought back and made gradual progress. Today millions of people still live in terrible conditions, but the struggle continues. It can, and it must, go on. And though we suffer indignities and difficulties, though we are fighting against unbridled ignorance even in a time of infinite information, the past that the rightwing so adores is gone and there is no way to bring it back.

I leave you with a rendition of Shelley's Masque of Anarchy, an ode to those who struggled and died in the Peterloo massacre. Remember the past and fight for the future!


5 comments:

doconnor said...

"Today millions of people still live in terrible conditions"

But for the first time in human history at least half of them don't.

I don't think even a full scale nuclear war would end the human race. Even going back into a dark age is almost impossible since the printing press made knowledge much more difficult to lose.

Kirby Evans said...

Nice to hear from you doconnor. I think a full-scale nuclear war would certainly end the human race as we know it. If people survived the nuclear winter and fallout in small pockets it would take hundreds if not thousands of years to rebuild anything like a civilization. It's one thing to have knowledge of certain things, it is entirely another to actually build and use them. A printing press with moveable type (and I assume that is what you mean since the printing press in general is a much older and simpler invention), is no easy thing to build. You really need some form of rudimentary industrialization.

The Mound of Sound said...

I was going to leave a comment, Kirby, but it was too dark to pass along. Great post. I enjoyed it. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness that poem was so moving. What a good post to share today - so timely, the struggle is long indeed.
C

Owen Gray said...

He was one of the "unacknowledged legislators of the world," Kirby. Great post. We need some historical perspective.