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Ignoring the Lessons of History

By | August 17, 2017 | 0 Comments

People learn from the past in order to avoid danger in the present. But if they learn the wrong lessons, they can’t avoid danger. Then they make the world a more dangerous place for themselves and for all the rest of us.


Senator Joseph McCarthy held hearings to expose communists in our government. He exposed some communists, but he was more successful at self-promotion. An anti-communist friend of mine never forgave him for giving anti-communists a bad name.

McCarthy claimed he had a list of 205 communists in the State Department. There probably were communists in the State Department, but McCarthy never produced his list. “McCarthyism” came to mean making wild accusations without proof.

From this bad example, some people learn to back up accusations with evidence. But other people learn to follow the bad example. A colleague of mine called Rush Limbaugh a “fascist.” When I asked what Rush said that was fascistic, my colleague answered with a snort. He felt no obligation to support his charge with even one example. The same man called me a “Nazi” for not condemning the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

Yes, that’s me, the Jewish Nazi whose uncle was murdered in the Holocaust. A former friend said she could no longer have dinner with us, because I was a “Nazi” for supporting our war against terrorists. I once met a black conservative who was called a “Klansman.” Conservative radio talk-show hosts are called similar names. After the Oklahoma City bombing, President Clinton blamed them for inciting violence – also without giving a single example. That’s pure McCarthyism.

The blacklist.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Hollywood maintained a blacklist of suspected communists. Those on the list could not work. From this episode, some people learned never to blacklist anyone for suspected political beliefs. But other people learned to use the same methods on suspected conservatives.

Sharon Lawrence is an actress who had a starring role on “NYPD Blue” and appeared in many films and TV shows. But her career was interrupted when her photo appeared on the same page of People magazine as a photo of President Bush. The stories were unrelated – the photos just happened to be near each other.

Lawrence campaigned for Al Gore and is a Democrat. But Hollywood moguls assumed she was (horror!) a Republican. She received hate mail and was insulted by strangers. A producer said, “I have to ask, are you really a Republican?” This occurred in a production meeting and had negative employment implications. Ms. Lawrence had to inform her colleagues and “friends” that she was really not a Republican.

The Los Angeles Times carried an opinion piece by Peter Mehlman, a TV writer and producer. He complained that his last name is the same as Ken Mehlman, then chairman of the Republican Party. Peter felt it necessary to state, “I am not, and categorically deny ever having been in any way, related to Ken Mehlman.”

Peter Mehlman was trying to avoid Sippenhaft, the Nazi practice of punishing the relatives of those who were accused of disloyalty. Communists used similar tactics. He had to publish an article in a leading liberal paper, so prospective employers would know he was innocent of the crime of being related to a Republican.

During World War II, an American was found with the name Hitler. Reporters asked him why he didn’t change his name. He replied, “Let him change his name!” Back then, we were Americans, not wimps.


Robert Avrech is an Emmy-winning screenwriter who lost two jobs. The first script was rejected because it depicted terrorists as extremist Muslims rather than as right-wingers. He was told that showing terrorists as they really are would be “insensitive.” His bosses confused sensitivity with dishonesty. In Avrech’s words, “The political divide in Hollywood is now being felt in the most important quarter: the war against Islamic terrorism. Basically, Hollywood denies that such a war exists.”

The second script was rejected because Avrech refused to depict a Rush Limbaugh-like character with a pack of defamatory lies. Once again, his work was rejected for being too truthful. As he says, “When I confront these people with the truth, they look at me as if I am some visitor from some foreign planet. Which I guess I am.”

For years after 9/11, Hollywood was silent about our war on terrorists. When Tom Clancy’s novel “The Sum of All Fears” was made into a film, the terrorists who explode a nuclear bomb at the Super Bowl were transformed from extremist Muslims into European Nazis. That’s Hollywood’s idea of courage – ignore current enemies, and concentrate on enemies we defeated in 1945. It’s much safer that way.

Hollywood finally made more realistic films ‒ for example, “Zero Dark Thirty” and “American Sniper.” These films may undo the damage done by films like “Lions for Lambs,” which shows blacks and Hispanics going to war, while white boys stay home. This isn’t true. It is a lie left over from Vietnam.

Finally, we have Democratic proposals for the “Fairness Doctrine.” This would require radio talk shows, which are mainly conservative, to be monitored so that equal time would be given to liberal opinions. The effect would be to end political talk shows. Of course, ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, CNN, and National Public Radio, which are mainly liberal, would continue unchanged. So much for “fairness.”

And then we have the universities, with their “safe spaces” and “microaggressions.” Who can be sure whether it is safe to express an opinion or ask a question? No, it’s safer for students to remain silent and regurgitate the professor’s biases on the midterm. So much for “intellectual freedom.”

Tyrants use censorship to suppress “wrong” ideas. From this, some people learn to oppose censorship. Other people learn to use censorship.

World War II.

Hitler took power when Germany was weak. He rebuilt its armed forces in violation of the treaty that ended World War I, and the “world community” did nothing. He reoccupied the Rhineland, and the “world community” did nothing. Then he seized part of Czechoslovakia, and the “world community” did nothing. Next he grabbed the rest of Czechoslovakia, and still the “world community” did nothing. Finally he invaded Poland, and even then, the “world community” did nothing. Only Britain and France did something − they declared war. The bloodiest war in history had begun.

From this, some people learn that evil should be stopped when it is still weak, or it will have to be fought after it has grown strong. But other people learn that violence is always wrong. So they do nothing while evil grows stronger.

If you doubt this, observe people’s reaction to Iranian and North Korean leaders’ threats to wipe Israel off the map and bring down America, while developing nuclear weapons. Some people want to stop them. Other people want to appeal to the “world community,” which means to do nothing – and wait for the fireballs and mushroom clouds.

And if you still doubt this, observe people’s reactions to extremist Islamist terrorism. Some people want to curtail immigration from areas where terrorism runs rampant, until we can screen immigrants effectively. Other people refuse to admit the source of this terrorism, or even to use the word “terrorism.” After each attack they deny what is happening. Recall the remark of the physician at the Auschwitz death camp, who performed experiments on unanesthetized prisoners:

Dr. Mengele might have the same response if he came back today and observed the reaction (or lack thereof) of Europeans to extremist Muslim terrorism.


Europeans feel guilty for allowing evil people to start two ghastly World Wars. But what did they do? As Dennis Prager notes, instead of learning to fight evil, they learned that it is evil to fight. So again they remain apathetic in the presence of terrorism, even the slaughter of children.

Europeans feel guilty because their grandparents allowed Nazis to kill Jews. But what do they do? They admit millions of Muslims, an unknown number of whom want to kill Jews. The word “irony” is too weak to express this colossal contradiction. “Repetition compulsion” may be more accurate. So again they remain apathetic in the presence of Jew hatred.

What can we learn from history?

● Displaying apathy in the presence of evil is habit-forming, perhaps as much as heroin or cocaine ‒ but even more lethal.

● Guilt is a powerful emotion. But like all emotions, it needs to be guided by reason. Otherwise, like all emotions, it may evoke actions that are counter-productive or self-destructive.

In the end, what we learn from history reveals more about us than it does about history. It reveals our value system. It reveals our biases. Santayana taught us that those who don’t remember history are condemned to repeat it. But as an unknown sage added, every time history repeats itself, the price goes up.

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