Bimpe Archer: Learning lessons of the past a challenge in today's world - The Irish News

Bimpe Archer: Learning lessons of the past a challenge in today's world

Bimpe Archer

WE must learn from the mistakes of the past, we must study history to ensure that it never repeats itself – that has been the wisdom handed down for several generations now.

It was the original impetus behind the poppy of remembrance worn on lapels around Armistice Day – a nod to those flowers referred to by Canadian physician Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae in his Great War poem `In Flanders Field'.

It was first used by the American Legion in 1921, to be a reminder to never let the carnage of the first true `world war' happen again by never forgetting those who lost their lives.

It continues to be worn conscientiously by many across the globe to this day – despite the fact that World War Two followed less than two decades later. That hope didn't even last a generation.

In the wake of the First World War, the League of Nations was created – an initial, government-sponsored attempt to learn from the mistakes of the past.

It sought to settle disputes before they escalated into war. It failed, but its spirit rose again after the war that followed `the war to end all wars' in the form of the United Nations, and, to a lesser extent but still significantly, the European Union.

`Peace-building' has been the main philosophical drive of the last 70 years. Schoolchildren are taught about the pernicious march of national socialism during the inter-war years. Concentration camps, where Jews were killed in their millions, have become visitor attractions – a tangible `warning from history'.

But, as the events of 2016 and into this year have proven, you cannot control which particular lessons are learned from the past and how the skills gained are put into practice.

Not everyone who learns about the rise of fascism in the 1930s is horrified by its out-workings; some seek to emulate them.

Not everyone celebrates the defeat seven decades ago of totalitarian demagoguery fuelled by hatred of minorities and the `other'.

Not everyone sees the propaganda machine that was the engine of its success as a thing of horror and distaste; for some it has proven an inspiration.

During the EU referendum a poster unveiled by then UKIP leader Nigel Farage showed migrants crossing the Croatia-Slovenia border in 2015, with the only prominent white person in the photograph obscured by a box of text.

It was almost an exact copy of Nazi propaganda images, depicting fleeing refugees, subtitled at the time as “parasites undermining their host countries”.

German-born Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt pointed out that during the march of Nazism, while the facts of what was being spouted were contradicted, the impressions created by its propaganda remained.

In 1940s Germany, it made it easier to sell the dehumanisation of Jews; in 2017 Britain it has allowed the government to sever what was already an inadequate lifeline to child refugees by ending the arrangements this week of the Dubs amendment.

Meanwhile, as the NHS is systematically starved of cash, frustrated patients are gently directed to blame so-called `health tourists' who, insofar as they exist at all according to the government's own figures, represent a cost of £200 million – substantially less than the £1.8 billion that has been suggested.

Then there is the `big lie'. While the term was actually used by Josef Goebbels to mock the British approach to government, it does sum up the faulty premise that propelled Hitler to power, the so-called `Dolchstoss' or legend of the ‘stab in the back' when he argued, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, that Germany was winning World War I only to have politicians betray it with a premature surrender.

In the US, the president is seeking to convince the millions who voted for him that those holding him to account in the media are peddling `fake news'.

In the UK, the prime minister dismissed leaked texts used to call into question whether her government had done a deal with a council to avoid embarrassment over social care provision as `alternative facts'.

That was swiftly followed by the announcement of plans to increase prison sentences for whistleblowers from two to 14 years and expand the definition of espionage in such cases.

We can try to learn from the past, but we may be about to live through a period that shows us just how helpless the world is in the face of a slick, co-ordinated assault on its most vulnerable citizens.


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