Jersey Reflections: History Repeats

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Attributed to George Santayana, the quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” has remained one of our most popular aphorisms. 

Happening upon some British newpapers from a few decades ago, our columnist ponders the similarities of news events. 

Attributed to George Santayana, the quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” has remained one of our most popular aphorisms. There are many permutations of the statement, including one by Winston Churchill, but the gist is the same—ignoring history results in a recurrence of events.

It’s sound advice, particularly when we find ourselves living in an era that has been likened to the 1960s and early 1970s. Similarities between Donald Trump’s presidency and Richard Nixon’s have been noted by the media over the past few months along with our efforts in Afghanistan and the Vietnam War. So, has a national amnesia recycled our history for us or are there other culprits afoot?

In cleaning out drawers recently, I happened upon two newspapers. Unfolding them revealed they were British publications from 1980 that had been purchased during a one-week trip to England while chaperoning a student tour. It was easy to conjure the memories of that week, visiting Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford, the majestic triptychs of Stonehenge, the sights and sounds of London, the immortalized crosswalk in front of Abbey Road Studios and Paul McCartney’s nearby home in St. John’s Wood. 

What I had no recollection of was the news occurring at the time and I was not prepared for what the April 5th copy of The Times and the April 10th edition of The Evening News had recorded. The lead story of The Times focused on a public inquiry into Bristol riots that was precipitated by 20 police officers who “raided the Caribbean-style Black and White café,” what one youth who witnessed the raid explained “was a place for drinking, cards, dominoes and reggae music and was the only West Indian cultural outlet left in the area.” The article made sure to identify that the youth interviewed was “poorly dressed,” its judgment clearly noted.

Below that, an article reported that a treaty negotiating the presence of Soviet troops in Afghanistan had been signed by Russian and Afghan officials. The question of how long those troops would remain was not announced. Other pieces in the news section of the paper focused on Tory and Labour Party disputes, the impossibility of imposing a solution for direct rule in Northern Ireland, and the start of work on a new Israeli settlement “seen as a snub to [the] U.S. before [Egyptian President] Sadat[’s] visit to Washington.” The op-ed page included an article titled “Confidences, Leaks and Sources,” that discussed Granada Television’s disclosure of information from confidential documents belonging to a corporation. The editorial page featured pieces on Churchill and T. E. Lawrence [of Arabia]. 

The tabloid Evening News used its front page to report the controversy over Death of a Princess, a docudrama that “was based on the public execution of [a] 19-year-old princess…and her lover for adultery, one of the most serious offenses in Koranic law,” and which “enraged the Saudi government…because they believed it showed them in a barbaric light.” A page-two story informed readers of mounting border tensions between Iran and Iraq. And other pieces demonstrated concern over cuts in housing programs and school spending and “dirty tricks” employed by American and British spies. 

For anyone following the current news cycles about U.S. events, the April 1980 British situations highlighted above should sound familiar. Sure, some of the names and faces have changed, but the issues certainly haven’t—race, class division, war, unrest, political partisanship, the leaking of classified information, budget cuts and spying. 

And it’s interesting to note that, in the midst of the reported events, the editorial page of The Times invoked the legacies of two historical heroes, Churchill and Lawrence, possibly as an attempt to steady an unstable time by reminding readers that history is filled with people and events that we should remember, must remember, if we are to endure. The Santayana quote is correct in that we do need to know history, both the bad and the good. But we must also distinguish between them if we are to fulfill our responsibilities. Then, if somehow we are still condemned to repeat history, let it be with the most honorable of role models. 

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