I always listen with fascination when people lament about the way things used to be. They romanticize something they recall having vaguely heard about, or halfheartedly learned in school. They have allowed themselves to be retold the same fables by whichever political side they affiliate themselves with. Sometimes the past figures are raised to hyper-patriotic mad dogs, fighting to their last breath for something lost that will save the entire world. At other times (and sometimes the same people) are more readily painted as calm and judicious state men first, who thought nothing about personal glory, and only saw hope of future prosperity for their nation, and, as a result, for all mankind. And still other times those once noble icons are tarnished, splattered with the blood and dust of out-of-context truth, and turned into the great villains they might be if they were around today.
One of the deeper troubles with false memories such as these is the terrible state historical education, which is more like the highlight reel of a boring slideshow–a painting of the Battle of Bunker Hill, George Washington crossing the Delaware, some generic battlefield chaos that could just as easily be depicting the Battle of Waterloo as The Battle of Marathon (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/BookDetailsPL?bi=22641067818&searchurl=kn%3Dthe%2Bbattle%2Bof%2Bmarathon%26sortby%3D17&cm_sp=snippet-_-srp1-_-title1). There are usually also a few portraits of documents being signed, the smug look of Benjamin Franklin on the $100 bill, and the 13-starred colonial American flag waving in a still photo. And that is what the American Revolution, or any significant event is about to young people in school today. No wonder they have so little interest. No wonder they no longer care to know where we came from, and how we got here to become who were presently are.
All history is rushed through today in a similar manner. The US Civil War–an undeniably fascinating conflict filled with so many rich characters, so much horror and seriousness, heroism and cowardice. One might wonder if all of that is fiction. What the kids hear is essentially two big lessons and a side note or three. The first lesson is that slavery was a great evil, and of course this is true. This is the very first and most basic fact that the children need to learn. But again, without any real context, these are empty words and empty thoughts. They are every bit as past tense as biblical days when the Egyptians enslaved the Jews to build their pyramids (which is another simplification, but we’ll let that one lay for now). All that slavery means is that people no longer close to living did something awful or suffered terribly. What does that have to do with the price of an iPhone?
The other big lesson of the Civil War is that Abraham Lincoln was a flawless hero and that he showed the South how they were wrong, before being killed at the theater. And this is really it. The side notes are the names of a few famous people–future President Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, usually something about Frederick Douglas and, if you happen to have an Advanced Placement class, you may hear about Jefferson Davis and General Sherman. That’s all they are–names creaking with rot, irrelevant, as they are taught, to anything important today.
All the many important events of the past–The Great Revolution of 1688, the signing of the Magna Carta, the fall of Rome: they are better off and frequently taught in schools through the fictional adaptations, usually movies, that most of the students ignore because the topic does not interest them. There is very little effort made by most teachers to make these subject interesting, the bureaucratic nature of schools today in a lessons-come-third mindset, bogged down with reading diagrams of lesson plans that must fit appropriately with the abbreviated codes that fulfill the corporate and political expectations of required learning. There is very little concern whether the students actually learn anything. It is about creating future consumers. It is all about turning a profit.
Which brings me to the subject of this essay: “Why We Will Never Admit That Tyranny is Upon Us.” Another title may have been “Why We Do Not Care.” I blame the parents and the schools, the politicians and the churches. The numbness over the struggle to get to where we are today is brushed over as either moral or politically aggrandized lessons (community standards set the political alliances, and there is always an outraged opposition claiming that the lessons are too left or too right wing, and that that is the problem with today’s youth, the revisionists, changing a past they were never too sure about in the first place), which get churned out at the textbook factory. The education of the teachers themselves is yet another marketplace, surrounded by sample lesson plans, and community outreach programs, instead of how to teach and how to engage the students. It is like getting a Masters Degree in marketing. (As a retired high school English teacher I will provide this slight anecdote–there are plenty more elsewhere on this site: I remember on more than one ‘professional development’ teachers only day having to sit through the lecture of a 26-year old corporate salesperson in a more expensive suit than any of us owned, babbling about the new educational corporate ideology, and literally telling some very experienced teachers how to teach their lessons, with scripted lines written for you. They had never even been in a classroom. They told us that it would make our jobs much easier. One time one of these ghouls even said “you don’t really have to know anything to implement these lessons.” This had a chilling effect on our ideas of the relevance of teaching in the future.)
Tyranny itself gets glossed over as though it were also a thing of the past–some loud, psychotic king, shrieking and laughing and slaughtering all the people, while the whole world bursts into flames. It is not oppression that is taught. It is not the impact such slow and subtle changes may have on society, but the historic outrages gleaned from the past: the Nazi Holocaust, the great Soviet Famine, Nero’s fiddling, Let Them Eat Cake. Children are no longer taught the revolutionary ideas that have repeatedly changed the world, sometimes for the better, other times for the much worse. They are not taught what caused the Nazis to rise, or really anything about World War I. Students hear nothing about Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 313 AD, nor his ascendancy as the first Pope, and what this dramatic shift has led to over the past seventeen hundred years.
We are not taught about the impact of religion on society–again, both positively and negatively, under the shrill interpretation of separation of church and state that passes for constitutional today. Without preaching, learning how these ideas have altered, impacted, and often disrupted human civilization, is one of the most important lessons anyone could possibly learn. It might give us a better warning about the consequences of extremism, and what may happen if we say that all ideas are equally valid, out of fear of hurting someone’s feelings.
This is the crawl of tyranny, a loss of the past. New tyrants are always on the rise, yet most of the time they fail due to their own historical ignorance, to their complete lack of understanding on how the complexities of civilization work and what the balances are that help keep everything precipitously intact.
Any large and reasonably prosperous nation will never see the dawn of a Caribbean, Central African or Middle-eastern-style dictatorship, one that is almost instantaneous behind a military or fundamentalist religious coup. Under these rapid transformations new laws are put harshly into place, and the immediate execution of all leadership rivals is undertaken with sometimes public commentary. No, America and England and Germany, France, Poland, Brazil, Austrailia, South Africa, and any other nation turning to the easy-way-out of strongmen vowing to keep the nation safe, will descend slowly into the mire, in many ways similar to Germany after World War I. Economic collapse; the loss of faith in the government; widespread unemployment; soup kitchen lines. Homelessness and an increase in substance abuse and a return to or abandonment of the church–all of these social influences start taking over, and they produce anger and outrage and fundamentalism, until a new political party rises, a new religion is born, and there are enough followers looking for a way out into a hopeful future that they will join the crusade, they will believe (or simply go along with, if it means work, food and shelter). The monsters will be elected and they will never leave office. They will force change upon the laws of the nation, replace judges, charge other politicians with crimes or simply disgrace them by exposing embarrassing secrets, all the while remaining free from stain by embracing their own controversy. Or maybe they will simply lie enough about someone or something to their core true believers that enough people will help the lie to catch on, opening up a hopeless debate on the truth.
Schools will change their curriculum yet again, under another glad-hand sounding academic initiative (‘No Child Left Behind,’ ‘Common Core,’ nonsense like ‘raising standards’ and ‘holding educators responsible,’ which fundamentally shifts blame from the national or district-wide demands that certain topics be broached in certain ways, and that profit becomes the bottom line of what was once meant to be the great equalizer for the less fortunate to compete with the generationally wealthy). And children will only learn the gossipy, outraged tripe that passes for history, and the limited modes of language in ‘Language Arts’ class (another PC debasement; it used to be English (in English speaking nations), while other languages were called by the name of the language: Spanish, French, German, Chinese, Swahili, et cetera, all the way to the top of the Tower of Babel). Science is taught with the drastic imperfection of avoiding all controversy–climate change a theory, evolution a question mark followed by ‘Intelligent Design,’ a biblical reference that passes because it has a more scientific sounding name than it used to.
Tyranny comes out of nowhere, out of Utopian dreams that will never come true. Even the tyrants themselves believe that they will fix and order their society, making everyone happy and productive, all on the same page, or at least at first. And then they find themselves threatening and brutalizing their subjects for their entire time in power, fighting off counter coups, battling revolutionary movements and suppressing all belief systems that run counter to the ruler’s way of thinking.
As I said, this is a slow crawl in a large nation or perhaps overtaking the entire world. And it will not be some crazy kind of war out of silly, white nationalist tripe (for example) such as The Turner Diaries (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9781911417262&n=100121501&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-new), which tells a ridiculous action-adventure story about heroic people looking to destroy the Jews and Blacks and Homosexuals and every other stain that they see on civilization. It is not so much poorly written as it is unintentionally hilarious. A revolution such as this will never happen, or at least never succeed. All the white nationalists and radicals of any stripe will fall into line under the dictator, and either support or deny them every bit as radically. This is how dictatorships spawn terrorists, new fundamentalism, and a growing belief in the end of the world.
It happens out of sight. This is happening under the radar. We may not even realize that it has come, or will refuse to admit it based upon the false patriotism we have always been raised to believe, or even the satisfaction we might glean from watching someone we hate fall. But it is all the same end result. Tyranny is the end of freedom. It is the end of law. Tyranny is the return to slavery.