History Lives in the Present

“History is important. If you don’t know history it is as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, anybody up there in a position of power can tell you anything, and you have no way of checking up on it.”

Howard Zinn


In the 19th century, Spain, which had once been a formidable empire, had lost nearly of all its colonies. In the aftermath of this turmoil, its people had become acridly polarized from one another, with a great many of them living in acute poverty. Spain was officially a monarchy, yet the power was turned mostly into the helms of military dictators. 

Folks in the lower income class were allured by communist, socialist, and anarchist ideologies, as they called for a more popular government and the redistribution of the country’s resources, especially land and wealth. The rich and the middle class, on the other hand, were more conservative. They dominated a large portion of the country’s wealth, and were afraid that a revolutionary change such as communism would take their wealth away.

Between 1936 and 1939, Spain was ravaged by civil war. To put it bluntly, it was a bloody fight against fascism (Nationalists), waged by factions of communism, socialism, and anarchism (Republicans). 

A young English writer named George Orwell served as a volunteer militiaman in the Republican army. In his seminal memoir Homage to Catalonia, he detailed his experiences in the war — the squalor of the trenches, the poor condition of their weapons, the travel restrictions imposed onto the civilians, and the ineffable sight and sound of bombs crashing around them.

“The trench mortars, small as they were, made the most evil sound of all,” he wrote. “Their shells are really a kind of winged torpedo, shaped like the darts thrown in public houses and about the size of a quart bottle; they go off with a devilish metallic crash, as of some monstrous glove of brittle steel being shattered on an anvil.”

“This is not a war,” as he quoted one of his generals. “It is a comic opera with an occasional death.”

Sometime in 1979, these words were read by one Joe Strummer, who was the singer and lead songwriter of The Clash, while they set out to create their landmark album, London Calling

Reading Homage to Catalonia deeply impacted Strummer, as it might have given him a more balanced and knowledgeable perspective on Spain. It got him thinking on how history lived in his present time. Though he loved Spain dearly for all its beauty, he came to understand and in a sense, appreciate the past horrors that lurked beneath its relics. As he sings in Spanish Bombs, “I’m hearing music from another time.”

In the song, The Clash takes inspiration from Orwell’s memoir and takes a step further by relating the Spanish Civil War to the present moment, commenting on how one could simply enjoy a good time in Spain while being totally ignorant of its dark history and the lessons that could be learned.

The song is full of contrast, as it interweaves perspectives of history and of joyful oblivion. The song’s upbeat tune, for one thing, is incongruent with its serious theme. And on another note, the depictions of the Spanish Civil War stand in contrast to the nonsensical lines that represent the romance that life in Spain is often connoted with.

“Spanish weeks in my disco casino, the freedom fighters died upon the hill
They sang the red flag, they wore the black one. After they died it was Mockingbird Hill.”

“Spanish bombs, yo te quiero infinito. Yo te acuerda, oh mi corazón.” (Spanish bombs, I love you infinitely. I love you, oh my heart.)

Wouldn’t it be great if we could appreciate history in the same way that Strummer did?

One often gets the feeling that history only belongs in books — thanks to our years of rote learning in school. We’re put off by history, and we refuse to learn from it, because we’re so used to perceiving it as something that we have to memorize and vomit for a test — or something that’s full of useless trivia that we don’t care to know about. 

And perhaps this is the reason why, as what Aldous Huxley wrote, “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.”

But really, history isn’t boring at all — especially once you take your own initiative to learn from it. All the complicated dates and names? — I swear, they don’t even matter. All that matters is what you can immediately put into practice. 

At the moment, I’m reading a book on the Meiji Restoration and how it ended the samurai tradition. Only fifty pages in, and I could only remember one name — Matthew Perry — probably because he was the colonial jackass who forced Japan to engage in trade with the US, and threatened to destroy their country with his far-superior navy ship if they refused — thus sparking Japan’s need (and civil conflict) to restore and modernize themselves.

Appreciating the history of the world that we live in isn’t a morbid thing. While history could come with dark lessons, it is our guiding light to be better people — because we don’t have to live the same way as those who came before us. And while there are stories of horribly stupid people, there are stories of some of the world’s best role models too. 

To quote Howard Zinn, who famously wrote A People’s History of the United States, in which he brought to light his nation’s dark history — “To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. 

“What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.

“And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

History lives in the present. Take a step towards making it an integrated part of your life.

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