History never repeats – and it’s out of tune [opinion] | Local voices

When times change rapidly, we look for analogies and metaphors to help us understand what is happening.

Having experienced – or still experiencing – pandemic, recession, insurgency, inflation and war in Europe, we see experts and scholars unleashing a tsunami of historical parallels.

Adolf Hitler. Cold War. McCarthyism. Korea. The Cuban Missile Crisis. Vietnam. Watergate. Stagflation. Russians in Afghanistan.

Billy Joel could write a song about all this. (Checks the notes.) Oh that’s right, he did.

But seriously, this begs the question: how can we make sense of the comparisons? If we go back to the future, what future are we going back to?

Mark Twain is often credited – probably incorrectly – with saying, “History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

I’m not sure the rhymes are all right.

Russian invasion

Take, for example, the Cold War analogy.

In the late 1940s and today, the United States and its NATO allies opposed Russia’s attempt to expand its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.

The difference is that Russia is weaker than the Soviet Union was at the end of the Stalin era. NATO countries and Japan are on or near its border. Russia’s main exports are fossil fuels, kompromat and internet chaos.

President Joe Biden has described the war in Ukraine as part of a larger struggle between democrats and autocrats, not unlike the Allied forces that challenged Nazism in World War II.

Leaders of ultranationalist and nativist political parties – including former President Donald Trump – in the US, UK, France, Hungary and other Western countries had backed Russian President Vladimir Putin.

However, it seems that the Russian dictator overestimated the strength of his army and misjudged the determination of the Ukrainians. Its Soviet predecessors experienced similar miscalculations in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Moreover, since images of Russian atrocities against Ukrainian civilians have been shown to the world and Putin has been branded a war criminal, his followers have gone silent.

Despite Putin’s weakened military and diplomatic standing in the second month of the invasion, he remains a dangerous man. He threatened to use nuclear weapons, a reminder of when the United States and the Soviet Union were on the brink of World War III in October 1962.

Unless Putin is overthrown or defeated militarily, it is possible that Ukraine will be split into two states in perpetual conflict, with the Russians controlling the south and east and the Ukrainian government the rest.

If this is where the conflict is headed, the most appropriate parallel is with North Korea and South Korea. But will NATO enter the fight? If not, will he have the patience to continue isolating Putin’s regime? Or is regime change the ultimate goal?

The genius of inflation

Here in the United States, the emergence of an annual inflation rate close to 8% referred to the stagflation of the 1970s. The OPEC oil embargo of 1973 and the Iranian revolution of 1979 triggered a rapid rise in oil prices, sending Western economies into a tailspin. The war in Ukraine could have similar effects.

On the other hand, the United States is not as dependent on foreign sources of oil as it was under President Jimmy Carter. Recently, world oil prices have fallen, but gasoline prices per gallon have been slow to come down, raising the issue of price gouging. The US economy is creating jobs at a record pace, so it would take a long, deep disruption to plunge into a recession.

Yet people are rightly worried that the inflation genie has come out of the bottle for the first time in 40 years. As a result, the Biden administration is scrapping its $2 trillion “Build Back Better” plan and discussing how to cut deficit spending.

Moral panics

From time to time in American history, moral panics arise. Separate from economic or financial panics, moral panics are irrational fears propagated and exaggerated by social discussion and the media.

Fear of communist subversion characterized McCarthyism in the late 1940s and 1950s. A perennial American fear – of immigrants invading society – has reemerged in the past decade. New music and its effects on children – whether blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll or rap – periodically aroused adult anxiety.

More recently, several imagined threats to children have converged to form a powerful moral panic. Following bizarre warnings from QAnon conspiracy theorists, Republican senators have attempted to smear the reputation of US Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson (who was confirmed on Thursday) by inaccurately associating her with child predators.

In the name of parents’ rights, school boards prohibit the teaching of critical race theory. If Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has his way, The Walt Disney Co. will pay for opposing that state’s controversial “don’t say gay” law.

Never mind that these claims of moral collapse are only supported by anecdotes, hearsay and perverse fantasies. The same could be said of Trump’s 2020 election fraud allegations, or the false claims that coronavirus vaccine booster shots killed actors Betty White and Bob Saget.

It’s no coincidence that most of these theories vilify liberals, women, people of color, and LGBTQ people. Perceived dangers to the social order must be neutralized. Ask the defendants of the Salem witch trials.

The “last refuge”

Our current era has spawned many other historical references. For example, Watergate and the events of January 6, 2021 involved rigging or nullifying presidential election results.

At Watergate, the wheels of justice led to the resignation of a president. The 1/6 riots did not produce similar accountability, despite an impeachment trial, congressional hearings, and numerous legal proceedings.

Even less consequential moments have precedents. Will Smith’s slap of Chris Rock at last month’s Oscars reminded people of another famous slap heard around the world, when a Philadelphia detective played by Sidney Poitier punched a Southern plantation owner in the 1967 Oscar winner, “In the Heat of the Night.” “This slap impressed Nelson Mandela.

As accurate as historical comparisons are, they represent not only the search for meaning, but also the competition between groups for control of the narrative. Accuracy is not the norm. The most powerful analogies relate to events that people can see or feel, whether it’s the price at the pump or a mass grave in Bucha.

The 18th century British essayist Samuel Johnson once wrote: “Patriotism is the villain’s last refuge. The recourse to history could be the penultimate refuge.

E. Fletcher McClellan, Ph.D., is a professor of political science at Elizabethtown College. Twitter: @mcclelef.

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