We Must Know the Past
Michael Grant, the well known interpreter of classical Greece and Rome, begins his classic book The Ancient Mediterranean by stating that "we cannot understand our past, and cannot therefore understand ourselves, unless we know something of the Mediterranean sea and coasts that made us what we are."
University studies, now dominated by the destructive teachings of woke thinking and critical theory, would not just reject Grant's thinking but would ridicule and condemn anyone who holds such views. A key goal of critical thinking is that the past is "the record of man's injustice to man," to paraphrase the poet Shelley, and so must be erased from memory.
Certainly, there were plenty of crimes committed by the ancient Greeks and Romans, as there were by Europeans and Americans in later times. But these crimes were less severe than what was taking place in other civilizations. No one would argue, for instance, that the ancient Persians were more humane than the citizens of Athens, despite the large population of slaves living in the Greek city at the time. In the same era, China entered a condition of constant warfare known as the "Warring States Period," with all the bloodshed and suffering that the phrase implies. Other areas of the world were governed by brutal monarchs who practiced slavery, genocide, and human sacrifice. By comparison, our cultural ancestors, the Greeks and Romans, were significantly more humane and democratic.
In America, many of our Founding Fathers were slaveholders, but they were also highly educated men who sought to establish a lasting democracy based on their realistic assessment of human nature. No other world civilization has brought so much opportunity, safety, order, and wealth to the lives of its citizens. For this we have Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and the other architects of our democracy to thank. What our Founders established was a society in which individual rights were broadly protected and in which capitalism made possible an astounding improvement in the standard of living. Adjusted for inflation, American incomes are now more than 100 times that of our founding generation. We enjoy far more comfortable, healthier, and longer lives than did Americans in the late 1700s or even in 1900, when the average life expectancy at birth for white men was 46.6 years (slightly more for white women, far less for black men and women).
What critical theorists refuse to admit is that they themselves, with the freedom of speech that they so often abuse, are the beneficiaries of the American experiment. They are even less likely to admit that the woke thinking they encourage would establish a new social order in which large swaths of the population would be relegated to second-class citizenship or worse (try getting into Harvard if you are of Asian ancestry), and in which violence against members of certain groups, including the elderly, is increasing. We may soon experience our own Kristallnacht in America, with widespread murders, beatings, property damage, and suppression of whites and Asians, all of it encouraged and tacitly approved by woke academics, politicians, media, and corporations.
Is there any other way to interpret the meaning of "woke" than the relegation of large numbers of Americans to second-class citizenship? What else is meant when California legislators speak of quarter-million-dollar reparations for every black citizen, to be paid for by the more affluent white and Asian population? In effect, reparations amount to the seizure of retirement savings from hardworking Americans and its redistribution to others without regard for their refusal to work. Reparations is an assault on the rule of law, which is intended to protect property rights and the safety and security of all Americans against unlawful seizure and the rule of the mob, but it is not just property rights that are at stake in the recent advancement of woke thinking.
Critical theorists are quick to discover flaws and to magnify them into crimes like suppression and even genocide. The only ones whom woke thinkers find to be innocent are themselves, when in fact woke thinking is leading America toward authoritarianism based on racist, sexist, and queer criteria for membership in the new elite. The only safe ones will be that small portion of the population that meets special categories of victimization and that is vocal in its demands, and even that cohort may not be safe for long. It is always possible to discover or construct a more victimized identity.
At this moment, I hold Michael Grant's book in my hands and know that it is humanizing and informative, while critical theory is short on scholarship and long on dangerous rhetoric that ultimately dismisses even the right to live for more than half of our population. Something similar has occurred many times in the past, not just in Nazi Germany, but in hundreds of other societies. Even now, the brutality and authoritarianism that exist in North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, Russia, China, and other nations should act as a warning since we are headed in the same direction. It is not impossible to imagine large-scale concentration camps, like those that exist for Uyghurs in China, for whites and Asians in the U.S.
Our Founders were wise men, as were the philosophers and historians of ancient Greece and Rome. Michael Grant was correct in saying that "we cannot understand our past, and cannot therefore understand ourselves, unless we know something of the Mediterranean sea and coasts [and, I would add, of the history of Western Europe and of our Founders] that made us what we are." Those generations deserve our respect and emulation. How many today are as well educated as were Jefferson and Madison, or even Franklin and Adams? Their thinking, and that of Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Virgil, Cicero, and so many others, is the basis for our great American civilization that has made it possible for us to live in freedom and prosperity.
Woke thinking and critical theory promote ignorance because they see nothing in the past worth studying. In place of the humanizing literature of the past, today's activists have only Marx and his followers. Marxist thinking is inherently authoritarian, violent, ruthless, and inhumane, and those are the qualities of leftist woke thinking in this country. Marxists do not learn from the past because they see it as criminal and unjust, but, for some reason, they fail to see their own acts of genocide as such. There is no reason to expect that the Marxism that now parades as woke thinking and critical theory will be any less ruthless than it was in China under Mao or Cambodia under Pol Pot, just two of the many Marxist regimes that sought to erase the past and replace it with blind allegiance to the State. It is naïve to imagine that the same thing will not happen in the United States, and when it comes — and it is coming — it will only be more destructive and efficient than it was in less developed countries.
Read the Great Books, and encourage their teaching in schools and colleges. The wisdom of the past is precious because it stands as a bulwark against the rule of the mob with its targeting of those who are educated, thoughtful, and independent. We must defend America against a mob that thinks it has the right to supplant democratic capitalism and replace it with Marxist tyranny. Read the Great Books while you still can.
Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture, most recently Heartland of the Imagination (2011).
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