Historical Amnesia

“There’s a good reason why nobody studies history. It just teaches you too much.” 

Noam Chomsky 

For the past week I’ve been pulled into a Cheap Trick rabbit hole, listening to nearly nothing but Cheap Trick songs all day, every day. The song Surrender, especially, has been infinitely on repeat — “Mommy’s alright, Daddy’s alright. They just seem a little weird. Surrender, surrender, but don’t give yourself away.”

The song is about the generation gap between parents and child — or the classic feeling that your parents (or their entire generation) are weird. As the band’s songwriter explained, “I (had) to go back and put myself in the head of a 14 year old…I used to hear my friends saying they thought their parents were strange. The first thing I got was the opening of the chorus: ‘Mommy’s all right, Daddy’s all right.’ “

It’s a completely normal feeling too, as we naturally tend to develop different beliefs, values, or views from that of our parents’ generation. Our parents must have had the same feelings towards their parents, and our grandparents towards theirs.

However, I started to think further about that feeling — and that is, how we tend to feel towards the people in history, who have been dead for decades or centuries, or ages. 

Seeing black and white pictures of the older days, we tend to feel as though their lives were literally in black and white as well. Everything they did seem weird to us. We tend to think that whatever happened in those days don’t have any relevance for our present age, because we’ve come so far as a society from where they were. 

Because of this feeling, we fall prey to what Noam Chomsky calls “historical amnesia”. We turn a blind eye to the valuable lessons in history, and we intentionally overlook the atrocities and tragedies that our ancestors committed, because we feel that, “Those things don’t apply to us! Things are so different now!”

Only they aren’t as different as we think.

Yes we’re technologically superior to the people in history, but in the lens of human nature, we’re still in the same place as they were before — if the recent surge in hate crimes against Asian Americans isn’t enough to convince you of that, I don’t know what is.

We must not let this generational bias hinder us from learning from history, or from being “the better angels of our nature”, as Abraham Lincoln had it, rather than resorting to our lowest impulses that make us no different from animals. 

Be aware of historical amnesia, as it’s just deadly a plague, if not more, than the current pandemic situation that we’re facing now. To quote Noam Chomsky in his book Who Rules the World?, “Historical amnesia is a dangerous phenomenon not only because it undermines moral and intellectual integrity but also because it lays the groundwork for crimes that still lie ahead.”




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