When History Rhymes

If you’re not experiencing déjà vu, you’re not paying attention.

“History never repeats itself,” Mark Twain purportedly said, “but often it rhymes.”  Indeed, it does.  The repetition of rhyme and cadence and haunting alliteration across generations has become harder and harder to ignore.

“This is their plan… to stir nationality against nationality, race against race, class against class, creed against creed, that their mutual destruction of each other may work out for the glory of Hitler and the grandeur of Japan.  They count on our freedom—our individual freedom, our individual interests, our individual pursuit of pleasure and happiness—as the means of our destruction of ourselves.

“And good men, honest men, unwitting men work together with the frustrated, the fanatic, the sick, the bitter, the cowardly, the corrupt, the greedy, the selfish for the end that this civilization may perish from this earth.  And democracy and freedom face the bitterest of all tests.  It is not the test of arms.  It is truly the test of whether they are worthy to survive.”

Journalist Dorothy Thompson spoke these words in May of 1941, half a year before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II.  80 years later to the week, her warning is more relevant than ever.

Except now a foreign power is not our greatest enemy.  It is us.

Walking the road to hell

In their well-intentioned rush to create a more equitable society, politicians, corporate leaders, community organizers, and media pundits have formed an unholy alliance that has effectively stirred race against race, class against class, creed against creed.  The lofty goal of unity has divided us more deeply and violently than ever.  Even worse, militant ideology has spread like a virus through the body of our society.

Some of us even saw it coming.  Three decades ago, award-winning essayist Roger Rosenblatt wrote:

“[W]e are learning that democracy can kill democracy. For one thing, excessive freedoms have made it almost impossible for an ethical conscience to assert itself. People have been free to ignore social obligations, to abuse one another, to kill themselves.”

Truly, we’re observing what may turn out to be the death throes of democracy. But are we learning anything? We misinterpret Winston Churchill’s critique of democracy as the worst form of government, by overemphasizing his qualifier: except for all the others. Indeed, how many elections are won by candidates whose only credentials are that they aren’t as bad as their opponents? And the bar keeps getting lower with each cycle.

Are we not witnessing the fulfillment of Karl Marx’s prophecy that the more capitalism — i.e., economic democracy — creates wealth, the more it sows the seeds of its own destruction? We need not begrudge the wealthy their fortunes. But the vast, growing chasm between the superrich and the lower classes has created alarming instability. And although there’s no indication that the proletariat will rise up and establish a new world order, the bourgeoisie themselves may have doomed the system by infecting it with the virus of crony-capitalism.

Were it not so chilling, it might be amusing to witness the influencers of our society watching the steady erosion of our cultural foundations like spectators at Wimbledon.  In the same way, Madame de Pompadour reveled in luxury as mistress to Louis XV, they seem convinced and content that things will last their time even if, after them, le deluge.

Floodwaters rising

As postmodern society eagerly tears down conventions, traditions, and boundaries, the collateral damage extends to one of the most elemental emotions of the human condition: shame.  Ironically, as public shaming over microaggressions and other trivial offenses has exploded, we’ve lost all sense of embarrassment even when caught in the most blatant lies and misrepresentations.  And as respect for truth vanishes, so does trust, followed by self-respect, followed by respect for others.

Last month, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald observed the entrenchment of Orwellian doublethink in the starkest imaginable terms:

“Truth matters. Noble lies are never justified no matter the cause, especially in journalism. But these employees of corporate media outlets have been taught the exact opposite model: that their primary obligation is to please and flatter the partisan agenda and political sensibilities of their audience even if it means lying or recklessly spreading unproven theories to do it… The audiences [of corporate media] want to be lied to — they are grateful for it — and would prefer that they not admit they did it so that their partisan interests will not be undermined.”

Survival of the fittest?

If we aren’t convinced that facts and logic and truth will serve us to advance our cause, aren’t we morally bound to reconsider whether our cause is one worth advancing?  And if we can’t face that question honestly, are we worthy to survive?

Asking such questions might as well be a hate crime.  Feelings are all that matter.

So what shall we do—give up on democracy?  Shall we hope that things will indeed last our time and leave our children to their fate?  Or shall we speak up and speak out, if only because we simply cannot remain silent?

If you’ve read this far, I urge you to commit yourself to these first steps:

  • Investigate news headlines for veracity, especially those that tell you what you want to hear.
  • Make certain that your opinions are based on facts, then practice articulating them so those who don’t already agree with you can understand your point of view.
  • Engage people you disagree with in conversation and respectful debate.  Listen to their positions and paraphrase those positions back to them before you argue.
  • Challenge your own suppositions and predispositions relentlessly.
  • Study ethics, and make your choices based on the principles of ethical reasoning.

To paraphrase Charles Dickens:  these are the best of times; these are the worst of times.  Whether they will give way to enlightened prosperity or bloody revolution is entirely up to us.


Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics, setting higher standards to earn loyalty and trust. He’s a rabbinic scholar, repentant hitchhiker, and co-host of the weekly podcast “The Rabbi and the Shrink.” He has published hundreds of articles applying ancient wisdom to the challenges of the modern world, and six books, most recently “Grappling with the Gray: an ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity.” The ninja were covert agents in feudal Japan who practiced espionage, deception, and surprise attacks. Doesn't that make Ethics Ninja a contradiction in terms? Not at all. Just as the master of martial arts turns an opponent’s strength against himself, the Ethics Ninja turns attacks against moral values back against the adversaries of ethics, exposing groupthink and double-standards through rational argument in asymmetrical battle to vanquish the enemies of moral clarity.

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  1. Yonason, I remain an optimist when it comes to democracy. As difficult as it is to cling to the belief that it will survive, I predict that it will thrive. I think we’re in the midst of a true paradigm shift, not only in U.S. society, but in the wider world, away from long-stale assumptions such as ‘white people are superior’, for example, and ‘western culture is the pinnacle of history’, for another. My grandson is 11 years old. I believe he’ll grow up in a society that values all people, viewpoints, and religions equally. When will that begin? We’ll slowly emerge from this crisis once a majority of people truly understand what ‘democracy’ means, and we reject the false belief that only certain people understand it. So the crisis is not democracy, I believe, but the definition of it, and our loss of its meaning. I hope I’m right.

  2. The critical moment of our systems of liberal democracy is also the result of the lowering of the ethical threshold of politics. At the origin of the serious damage to the regular functioning of the political system, there are behaviors that lie outside of public ethics.
    Politics without ethics makes democracy suffer and puts everyone at risk.
    Contemporary politics, unfortunately for all of us, tends to forget that its investiture to act, when exercised in a democratic regime, comes exclusively from the people and from the laws that they give themselves. On its own, politics possesses nothing, and is therefore not endowed with “interpretative” abilities of the powers it has entrusted with, but only “administrative”: it must be a good executor of the popular will. I challenge anyone to argue that this contains the authorization to lie, bribe, get rich by selling favors, or to practice other unethical behaviors that politics believes it can adopt every day. And, of course, if the people keep those who do not deserve in power, this does not mean that they share their behavior: moreover, they are not always well informed, and can themselves be corrupted, for example by demagogy.
    The fact remains that the art of government, or politics, to correspond to its raison d’etre must correspond to the laws, not only to the positive ones but to the natural law and to the practice handed down by the founding fathers.
    There is certainly a contradiction of nature between ethics and politics. The first, with regard to the due acts, does not provide for exceptions, compromises, abstentions or omissions: observance of the precept is up to, without compromise. Politics, on the other hand, and law when it is aligned with it, coexists with compromises and illicit acts. When it is realistic, and it almost always is, it makes the state hold the bar on the so-called national interest (which then becomes nothing more, in daily practice, if not the interest of the ruling class) certainly not on the primacy of ethics.