How history doesn’t really guarantee happy endings for love and truth

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Image credit: BBC Archives

A friend of mine posted this quotation by Gandhi on her Facebook page the other day:

“When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it — always.”
Mahatma Gandhi

Seems harmless, right? Just another person self-comforting with a vapid idea not dissimilar from “Keep searching and you’ll find your true love in the end” or “There’s gold at the end of the rainbow” or “Everything was meant to be for a reason.”

The problem is, I’m not sure it is so harmless. When we bother to look at history we see not at all what Gandhi claimed but rather the precise opposite. For nearly all of recorded human history nearly everyone alive has been subject to the tyrants and murderers. The times and places when people were relatively free from fear and arbitrary violence have been extremely rare indeed.

Our ideas about human society have been formed during an exceptionally atypical time in history. Since 1945 we in the West have lived through the longest period of continual peace since the fall of the Roman Empire some 1,600 years ago. But prior to 1945, war and strife and misrule by tyrants was the norm, not the exception.

And in the rest of the world, things haven’t been any better. While the West has exported conflict since 1945, the rest of the world has suffered it and so for many people in developing and under-developed nations, life has continued to be lived under the heels of tyrants.

Sure, since the 1950s we’ve dressed up tyranny in the guise of democracy, but across much of the world it’s a total sham. There are today no true democracies in sub-Saharan Africa and only one in North Africa. While India is, arguably, still a semi-democracy today despite Modi’s best efforts, Pakistan and Bangladesh are de facto dictatorships. The history of South America lurched from Kings to European colonialists and then into right-wing and left-wing dictatorships. China is clearly a dictatorship today, as is Russia and Belarus and all the ‘Stans that became independent upon the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nearly every Arab nation is a tyranny.

This means that even today in our supposedly modern and civilized world, most people on Earth live under de facto tyranny in which the State can inflict arbitrary punishments on anyone who falls out of favor.

So Gandhi is clearly guilty of a grotesque misreading of history.

That, however, is not the problem.

The problem is that civilization is a very thin veneer over more violent methods of social order, and civilization needs constant protection. Germany fell to Hitler in a handful of years. Russia fell to the Bolsheviks in a matter of months after the October Revolution of 1917. Today the UK is collapsing under the incoherent stupidity of Brexit and all civic norms in the USA have already collapsed under Trump and the Republican Party.

Western Europe and Australasia are what remains of Western civilization and there is no guarantee that they will be able to withstand the tsunami of mindless populism that has swept the globe in recent years.

So we can’t afford to be complacent.

Complacency, however, is precisely what Gandhi’s foolish statement creates. By inferring that history is always “on the side of” truth and that there’s some sort of magical determinism at work behind the scenes to ensure that (like in Disney movies and rom-coms) there will always be a happy ending, is to purvey a very dangerous idea.

If we think there’s some sort of inevitability to history then we’re more likely to sit back and let bad things happen because we’re under the delusion that truth and love must win out in the end. Conversely, if we grasp how terribly fragile our civilization is and how easily it’s destroyed by the actions of stupid and cynical people, we may be slightly more likely to be on the alert for early signs and attempt to take steps to prevent such people from gaining power and then using that power to undermine everything we value.

Unfortunately few of us learn the lessons of history because few of us bother to study history in any detail. But today we’re spared from having to go back to the books. History is happening all around us. The West is in terminal decline as blustering morons like Trump and Johnson and Bolsonaro and Duterte tear their countries apart, and cynical opportunists like Le Pen and Orban and Babiş fatally undermine civic norms in their own countries.

To refute Gandhi’s facile quote entirely we need only look at his own country India. A mere handful of decades since Gandhi was assassinated by an ultra-religious Hindu, India is now in the hands of Narendra Modi, a cynical populist demagogue who used religious extremism to rise to power and is now fanning the flames even higher in order to retain power indefinitely.

So much for “the way of truth and love have always won.”

We’re too late now to save Western Civilization. Our turn-back point has long since been passed. Ahead lies a great many years of horrors and suffering, a new Dark Ages.

But perhaps those who survive will come to have a much greater appreciation than we do of how civilization needs to be supported and sustained. Perhaps those who survive will see how essential it is to prevent the ruthless and the cynical from rising to power on the backs of the stupid and ignorant.

Meanwhile my friend will self-comfort with misguided quotations.

Quotations that I hope will be lost forever in the inferno ahead so that they don’t mislead future generations and lead them into unwarranted complacency.

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