Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
The great American humorist Will Rogers once said, “There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”
I wish that more people would take time to read and reflect than to allow themselves to be force fed by their televisions. Timothy Snyder in his book On Tyranny:
“More than half a century ago, the classic novels of totalitarianism warned of the domination of screens, the suppression of books, the narrowing of vocabularies, and the associated difficulties of thought. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953, firemen find and burn books while most citizens watch interactive television. In George Orwell’s 1984, published in 1949, books are banned and television is two-way, allowing the government to observe citizens at all times. In 1984, the language of visual media is highly constrained, to starve the public of the concepts needed to think about the present, remember the past, and consider the future. One of the regime’s projects is to limit the language further by eliminating ever more words with each edition of the official dictionary.”
I am slowing down my writing for the next few days to spend more time thinking, reflecting, reading and observing. I have been writing a lot on the Civil War, Civil Rights and Reconstruction, as well as the Nazi era, totalitarianism and their importance today. I will continue to do that but I am going to slow down a bit, and for the next week or so the articles here will be slightly edited posts from the archives so I can catch up on some reading and do some reflecting. Of course if something really notable happens I will probably at least comment on it, but for now I want to pull back a bit and read.
I do this because as a historian I known that for all of our great advances, especially in the form of technology that the character of people, the nature of humanity remains fairly constant. Technology may change the way we look the world, how we gather information, how and what we produce, how we fight wars, and even how we relate to each other, but humanity remains the same. Our forms of government and even religious faith may evolve, but the character of humanity is the one constant.
There has been a lot going on in this country and around the world and the one thing that I notice is that few seem to be taking the time to observe and seem to be more interested in immediately framing the events of the day into their particular ideology. This tendency is not limited to any one segment the population and goes across ideological divides. We live in a time of great political and social upheaval and drastic change and if we are to ride out the storm we must continue to learn and not be satisfied with the banal and insipid sound bites that the Unholy Trinity of pundits, politicians and preachers spew out as wisdom. The pundits, politicians and preachers who cite history usually do so completely out of context and do so in the form of bad analogies rather than by using any semblance of deductive or inductive reasoning.
Our culture has for the most part abandoned any serious attempt at learning. Schools teach to standardized tests, state school boards ensure that textbooks include nothing too controversial; universities sacrifice faculty and academic programs to prop up bloated administration and non-academic programs. We are consumers of corporate owned news networks that consider their programing entertainment and value market share more than truth. American philosopher Eric Hoffer quite rightly said, “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.” But sadly many people, including learned people who should know better and who have great responsibility in political, economic and even education, are content to live in a world that no longer exists.
Over the past few months I have plowed through a number of books including David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, H.R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty, Deborah Lipstadt’s Denying the Holocaust, Mark Bowden’s Hue 1968, and Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939. All are very substantial volumes. Additionally I am almost finished reading German historian Paul Carrel’s Unternehem Barbarossa im Bild (Operation Barbarossa in Pictures) in which the text is in German. I am also about sixty percent of the way through Max Boot’s The Toad Not Taken: Edward Lansdale an the American Tragedy in Vietnam. My goal over the next week or so is to finish reading the last two books and to take on Ron Chernow’s massive biography of Ulysses S. Grant, and David Frum’s Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic.
Learning comes from reading, observation and experience. Otto Von Bismarck, one of the most remarkable statesmen that ever lived said, “only a fool learns from his own mistakes, a wise man from the mistakes of others,” while Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington and victor of Waterloo wrote, “Wise people learn when they can; fools learn when they must.”
I for one would rather not be one of those that learn by the last named method. Learning from my mistakes has never been enjoyable and has usually been quite painful, but then as the late Baltimore Orioles Manager Earl Weaver said, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”
While I know I will make mistakes and hope to learn from them when I do I would much rather learn from the mistakes of others. Let’s hope that our leaders decide to actually pay attention and learn instead of making us pay for their mistakes. Sadly, I think that most people, especially those who claim to be leaders would rather pee on the electric fence themselves.
Anyway, it is time to do some reading and reflecting.