By Pauline Kerr
“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” This statement is often attributed to philosopher George Santayana, who actually said, in 1905, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Sir Winston Churchill was the one who made the statement about failing to learn from history, in 1948.
They both were referring to a famous line usually credited to 18th century Irish statesman Edmund Burke: “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”
There have been more recent statements based on the theme, including, “It doesn’t matter whether you learn from history or not, it will repeat itself anyway,” or, “Those who learn from history are doomed to watch the idiots who didn’t learn, repeat it,” or even, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat Grade 11.”
A good many of us who are watching events unfold in Ukraine are doing so with the eerie sense we have seen it all before, and know what comes next.
Unfortunately, even the kid doomed to repeat Grade 11 will get this one right, at least in part – he knows forking over lunch money to the schoolyard bully never works, although sometimes a quick, decisive punch in the snout persuades him to back off.
While we like the idea of the Russian oligarchs losing access to their yachts, soccer clubs and bank accounts, most of us sense it will take something harsher and easier to understand, to stop Vladimir Putin.
We suspect economic sanctions against Russia may have the unfortunate result of persuading the people of that country that foreign powers – us – are the bullies.
The fact is, there are other famous quotes that apply to the situation in Russia and Ukraine besides repeating history. One of the most significant is, “Whoever controls the media, controls the mind,” a statement attributed to The Doors’ lead singer Jim Morrison.
One of the first things Russia’s leadership did while launching the invasion of Ukraine was to prevent people in Russia from getting news from other than official government sources.
Speaking out against the government, never a particularly safe thing to do in Russia, became punishable by 15 years in prison in early March, as reported by various mainstream media outlets, from Al Jazeera to the New York Times. The former said Putin accused the West of using “a fifth column of traitorous Russians” to create unrest and vowed to punish them. The irony is the Russians have been strongly suspected of using the internet to create a fifth column of unsuspecting North Americans to create unrest on this side of the world.
Canadians have the option of accessing news sources both mainstream and otherwise, from Russia, Ukraine and many other countries. This means access to all kinds of information and misinformation, some of which seems aimed at disrupting our society or at least cheating us out of our hard-earned money, although much of it is simply weird.
Spreading misinformation in time of war is nothing new – check a certain Canadian named William Stephenson, who operated under the code name Intrepid. Stephenson ran a clandestine campaign for the British aimed at changing American isolationist views and getting the United States to enter the war – by means fair, foul and downright sneaky, for example, fake German documents referring to North America.
Then there was Tokyo Rose – English-speaking Japanese women who read fake news items aimed at demoralizing American troops.
What is new is computer technology. Combined with people in this country who have developed the lamentable habit of believing everything they see on the internet, no matter how bizarre, it offers ample opportunity for the spread of misinformation about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This includes everything from attempts to destabilize western governments, to scams aimed at diverting aid money.
When stakes are high – world political and economic stability would qualify – it pays to take extra precautions before believing, and/or sharing war-related social media posts. Check the source and confirm the information before inadvertently aiding the Russian war effort.