The Lure of the Past

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Thinking back of what I did in my life brings pleasant and sad moments to my mind. If only I could correct my past errors! That’s history. Nations face the same dilemmas. History is irrevocable. History is civilization.

Misreading history

I recently read a very interesting but disturbing essay about history: past, present and the future. The author was the Russian writer Vladimir Sharov. He rejects any prospects we are capable of studying, much less learning, from history.

He was probably so poisoned by his Soviet experience of enormous violence and death, he only sees manipulation of the past for the ephemeral needs of the present. As for the future, Sharov says, it is “cold, shorn of all detail, all the silliness and absurdity that distinguishes the living from the dead.”

I don’t agree with the elimination or fabrication of history. In fifth-century BCE Athens, Euripides, a great dramatic poet, equated the study and learning of history with science and happiness and citizenship. People with historical knowledge, he said, are the protectors of democracy.

The other reason I dispute the downgrading and indifference of history is that I earned a doctorate in history. So, I am biased in my love of history.

Listen to Euripides

I read Euripides in the original. He wrote 85 plays, 19 of which survived to our times. Here was a playwright caught in the civil war between Athens and Sparta. He abhorred the killings and destruction of the Peloponnesian War, which darkened his mood. He championed women, children, slaves and barbarians.

He treasured Greek traditions, however. In his play Medea, Jason, the Greek leader of the Argonauts who married and brought to Greece the barbarian princes Medea, says to his wife she lives in Greece where people treasure the rule of law rather than “the sweet will of force.” And in the play Bacchae, Euripides has the priest Teiresias defending the customs and traditions the Greeks inherited from their ancestors.

No artificial logic, says Teiresias, can topple the gods, and especially Dionysos. Our dreams need be modest, fitting our brief lives. Those hunting imperial dreams may lose the harvest here and now. They are mad.

Despite the earthquake of war, Euripides could see the beginnings of enlightenment that gave birth to Aristotle, who invented science, and triggered the golden age of Greek science and technology in Alexandria, Egypt, in the third century BCE and four centuries thereafter.

Of course, like Euripides, I live in a country making a big deal about the rule of law but always shaping that law by a gigantic stick.

I sympathize with the Greeks because they defined humans beautifully: like a hybrid or electric car, they are both divine and evil: possessing the knowledge of the good of no pollution, but allowing a few barbarians to have the final say of how societies are run. We call these barbarians corporate executives, prime ministers, presidents. Their leadership continues to mar human existence with endless crimes of slavery, stupidity, war – and pollution.

The twentieth century

The twentieth century was probably the most violent and barbarous of all time past. Everything went bad. The massive industrialization of the nineteenth century exploded in two world wars nearly annihilated humanity and civilization: entire countries like Germany and Japan were burned to ashes. Germany, responsible for starting WWII, embarked on a monstrous project of wiping out the Jews.

America built the atomic bomb, and immediately dropped it over Japan. The “communist” regime in Russia renamed the country Soviet Union and killed millions of Russians. The same thing happened in China. Then America and the Soviet Union terrorized the world for decades with their nuclear bombs and missiles.

The chemical project

In addition, the calamities of the war spawned industries of petrochemicals; vast arrays of insect and weed killing chemicals and armies of corporate lobbyists and media and television advertising men determined to impose this new religion of chemistry on the world.

This chemical project backfired.

Burning petroleum, coal and natural gas has been causing world temperatures to rise, thus risking the end of the natural world and civilization. Indeed, there’s evidence and lots of fear that, by 2023, global temperature could exceed the 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels of temperature. Were this to take place, humanity and the Earth will inevitably plunge into the abyss of more destruction and death.

Simultaneously, the utterly unnecessary global use of insect and weed chemicals is giving us a preview of technical barbarism in action. Global warming parallels this agricultural catastrophe, making it more ecumenical and ominous.

First, we see and sense and mourn the reverse agrarian reform in America, whereby state-funded oligarchs triumphed in their destruction of small-scale family farming in rural America. These oligarchs have converted rural America into slaughter houses, and giant fields growing soybeans, corn, wheat, and fruits and vegetables. Second, the one-crop large farmers relying on poisons have been decimating insects, birds, honeybees and wildlife.

In addition pesticides-drenched food and the contamination of the environment are giving illnesses and death to millions of Americans. Even the scientific community, usually timid, bought and sold by agrichemical companies, is warning of the human cancer and other adverse effects of the poisoning of the natural world and human food .Extinction is at a high gear.

These realities make history writing difficult, unpleasant, and almost certainly prone to fraud and revision. The winners of today’s wrecked world see no wreckage but huge profits and power that comes with money.

The billionaire dark ages

A few billionaires have vast amounts of wealth while most humans are slaves – now called workers. In 2018, 26 rich people had the money of 3.8 billion people. No past epoch or other country has had the inequalities existing  in the United States in 2019. Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) zeroes in on such blatant separation of people into lords and serfs. He says the income and wealth inequality in America is the defining great moral, economic and political issue of our times.

For the same reasons, and wishing to remain invisible, petroleum companies, other large corporations, petroleum states like Saudi Arabia, and billionaires and president Donald Trump insist there’s no global warming.

I can understand the difficulties of the struggle over history. Those who control what happened in the past also write the script for what is happening today – and prepare the discourse over the future.

American history

Take American history, for example. I have lived it since 1961. I watched 11 presidents in office, including Trump. During these decades America has been at war: overthrowing democratic governments in Latin America and the Middle East; invading Korea (before my time) and Vietnam and Iraq – and losing the bloody battles in these wars to warriors armed with conventional sticks and stones (small arms).

I worked for the US government for 27 years. I even added my two cents to American history with my 2014 book, Poison Spring.

Euripides was right. In fact, now that foolish and criminal human actions are threatening life itself, we need to reread the Greeks. At least, with all their faults, they gave us models of science, democracy and wisdom and beauty that sustain life, civilization, and the natural world.

Evaggelos Vallianatos, Ph.D., studied history and biology at the University of Illinois; earned his Ph.D. in Greek and European history at the University of Wisconsin; did postdoctoral studies in the history of science at Harvard. He worked on Capitol Hill and the US EPA; taught at several universities and authored several books, including The Antikythera Mechanism: The Story Behind the Genius of the Greek Computer and its Demise.