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OPINION | CORALIE KOONCE: Doomed to repeat

We must learn from history by Coralie Koonce Special to the Democrat-Gazette | September 8, 2022 at 3:36 a.m.


"Don't know much about history ..." begins the song. Yesterday is over, so what does it matter? Some see history as stories to instill children with patriotism. Some think you can learn it from driving past statues of past heroes. Some limit themselves to America--ignoring the world's 5,000 years of written memory.

But if you don't know history, you're doomed to repeat it.

We do halfway recall what went on in our own lifetimes, especially wars and economic slumps. Our memories are influenced by Hollywood movies and selective amnesia--we're the 100 percent good guys, forever fighting Hitler. Nobody wants to remember the Banana Wars, or the Navajo Long Walk. So we don't.

The evening news is all about today, never the backstory. Events seem to occur willy-nilly, without cause or context. Meanwhile, schools often teach the human narrative in a desultory way. STEM courses lead to economic growth and jobs, but history isn't valued, so it's taught by the coach instead of a history major.

Some don't want schools to teach grown-up history at all: nothing about slavery or Jim Crow, broken Indian treaties, repeated booms and busts, bloody labor struggles, human diversity, unpopular wars. Nothing about the roots of today's events. Maybe kids should show ID that they're 18 before they can read the authentic story?

For all these reasons, many have missed a crucial aspect of modern times: the worldwide appearance of "the man on the white horse," the charismatic leader who comes to save us.

In Latin America, strongman leaders rose from a tradition of "personalismo." In Africa, former colonies of the Great Powers were unschooled in representative government. In Europe, Napoleon was a harbinger of the type; but the trend truly began a century ago with Mussolini in Italy.

Although hereditary monarchs fell out of fashion, many of us are still imprinted by kings and warlords. Maybe something in our collective psyche requires a hero figure? No matter if the actual man lacks heroic qualities. He becomes the focus of a personality cult: photographed bare-chested or in uniform, riding a horse, surrounded by admirers; portrayed as a paragon of virility; even chosen by God.

Remember, government by the people is not a sure thing. Only about half of all modern nations are democratic, and about one-third are outright authoritarian. The longest-lasting constitutional democracy, the United States, is only 10 generations old, and it needs constant tending.

Fledgling democracies are often replaced by what historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat calls "personalist rule." Public office becomes the vehicle for the leader's personal interests: money, power, and adulation. His main talent is social manipulation; he makes use of popular prejudices, stokes public fears, and identifies scapegoats, claiming that only he can protect us.

A country's elite--aristocrats, industrialists, wealthy families--support the strongman because he supports their vested interests. Populist is the wrong word, because he does not give voice to the people; instead, he tells them what they want and channels their frustrations.

He is elected--once--before becoming president for life.

It is no coincidence that strongmen leaders appeared at the same time in history as did modern advertising. Now social media spreads their allure among the gullible. The institutions of representative democracy may fail because they are not strong enough to withstand the strongman's false promises and popular appeal.

Famous strongmen figures include, among others, Saddam Hussein, Nicolae Ceausescu, Mao Zedong, Joseph Stalin, "Papa Doc" Duvalier, Juan Peron, Mobutu Sese Seko, Francisco Franco, Augusto Pinochet, Silvio Berlusconi, Kim Jong Il, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orban, Aleksandr Lukashenko, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Rodrigo Duterte, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, and Donald Trump. More wannabes wait in the wings.

Sometimes these regimes exist mainly to siphon off the government's money (kleptocracy). Ferdinand Marcos stole an estimated $10 billion to $30 billion from the Philippines. Vladimir Putin is reportedly now the richest man in the world.

The strongman's supporters promote violence using war-like, dehumanizing language. (For an example of this, see the Aug. 13 story on political violence on nytimes.com.) Once in power, some leaders have been so ideologically rigid or paranoid that they killed thousands or millions of their own people whether directly or through their policies--the crime of democide.

Many historical strongmen appear to have had personality disorders summed up as narcissistic sociopathy. As adolescents they failed to develop empathy or a value system, thinking only in concrete terms (things), according to a January 2019 article in Prehospital and Disaster Medicine published by Cambridge University Press (www.cambridge.org).

Seldom if ever does a country benefit from strongman rule. If people knew more about how these characters operate, we would recognize and reject them before they ever acquired power. At the same time, we need to know why so many people will follow men with powerful personalities who are without principles, reasoning skill, or mental balance.

Such large-scale support has been called "collective narcissism." Is it due to lack of historical knowledge?

Let us learn from the mistakes of the past--not repeat them over and over.


Coralie Koonce is a writer living in Fayetteville, and the author of "Twelve Dispositions: A Field Guide to Humans."


Print Headline: Doomed to repeat

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