don kerr

4 years ago · 4 min. reading time · visibility ~10 ·

chat Contact the author

thumb_up Relevant message Comment

The history of stupidity

"We spend a great deal of time studying history, which, let's face it, is mostly the history of stupidity." 
Stephen Hawking

Do you have a fascination with history? Do you have a minor interest or does it avoid your radar entirely?

I can’t get away from it. While a proponent of living for the present moment, there is excellent insight gained from an understanding of what has preceded.

In university, I majored in Mediaeval studies. It was fascinating to attempt to learn old- and mid-English by reading Chaucer and Beowulf. In my experience, many writings from that time provide profound insight into the realities of today’s world.

In the vein of plus ça change, plus ça reste we humans seem hardwired to repeat the mistakes of the past by failing to be even remotely aware of what has come before us.

What transpires in the fading days of great empires - Roman, Ottoman, or British? What signs might indicate alternative paths forward? Or are empires doomed to fail - even after centuries of world dominance.

Consider - the Roman empire, before the period of the republic - existed for 1,500 years. The Republican empire carried on for approximately five centuries longer until Romulus Augustulus was deposed by Flavius Odoacer who is regarded as the first King of Italy.

That is 2,000 years of global (at that time!) dominance by one society.

By comparison, subsequent empires pale by comparison, but they still score some impressive numbers with the Ottoman Empire racking up approximately six centuries of dominance throughout the Mediterranean basin.

The British Empire, that with which I am most familiar as a Canadian, hung in there for five centuries. When it started to come apart, it was usually with conflicts in far-flung colonies. Upon the conclusion of the First Great War, the British Empire was at its zenith, but very quickly the idea of subjugation and control became problematic. Imperialism was no longer a sustainable model of governance for the 20th century.


Queen Victoria's 1897 Diamond Jubilee probably represented the absolute high point of British Imperial power. The sun did not set on her vast Empire. For many, the fact that she had been queen for sixty years seemed to confer stability and an assuredness to the whole enterprise. The bigger the Empire became, the more its resources and manpower increased and so the more territory it could control. But there were very real storm clouds on the horizon coalescing around competition from rivals, increased internal opposition and the changing nature of warfare.*

At the dawn of the new century, the threads began to come apart with the Boer War and the scramble for Africa. And, while Britain would never be more powerful the cracks inherent in what was known as ‘the splendid isolation’ would widen.

Regardless, keep that notion of ‘splendid isolation’ in mind, and while I could go on forever about the Brits, it’s time to move ahead.


I am in a period of revisiting some of my favourite authors, one of whom is Robert Ruark author of several books including The Old Man and the Boy, Uhuru, and Something of Value.

The latter deals in very graphic and violent detail with the Mau Mau uprising against the British in 1950s Kenya.

In Something of Value, Ruark writes:

“When we take away from a man his traditional way of life, his customs, his religion, we had better make certain to replace it with something of value.”

I couldn’t help but see parallels in the novel with what is currently underway in the U.S.

Stark polarization, acceptance of blatant falsehood, a struggle between thinking persons and those with little awareness of the value of a worldview. And, finally, worship by the ‘downtrodden’ of a despot who promises great change while delivering absolutely nothing but more grief.

He also, in another of his publications wrote:

“A man can build a staunch reputation for honesty by admitting he was in error, especially when he gets caught at it.”

Now, I turn my attention to the American Empire.

It was the central notion of tribal instincts and loyalties which drew me to make a comparison between the world of Ruark’s ‘50s Africa and Trump’s America. The goal of the current administration is to mobilize tribal instincts to keep building the wall of loyalty around Trump higher and higher, no matter what eventually gets revealed in the many investigations which swirl about him.

The United States of America has been the world’s dominant power for a comparatively paltry period. With the current President withdrawing his country into an isolationist cocoon of xenophobic and economic fantasy, it appears that perhaps within my lifetime (of which there is only a little left) the U.S. will continue to move to the wings.

And, it is not an empire in the traditional sense. It has not colonized the world - unless you count American Samoa, Guam and Puerto Rico - which even the current administration doesn’t appear to do!

The ‘short-fingered vulgarian’** currently occupying the White House may have more similarity to historical figures than we care to imagine. And yet, we fail to learn. The hubris that accompanied the downfall of virtually every empire (yes, along with global influences, cultural developments, etc.) remains constant.

At least I think it does.

What I hope is that if anyone bothers to read to this point of this post - they will contribute their thoughts and perspectives. This is a genuine expression of curiosity on my part and not a scholarly treatise that I expect anyone to take at face value.

Are we witnessing the end of yet another dominant power and can we find similarities from the past? Is George Santayana’s famous dictum - those who fail to learn from history and doomed to repeat it - true?

Is Hawking correct and that the only thing we learn from history is proof of our stupidity?

Or is Canadian history professor Margaret MacMillan correct when she writes,

"We can learn from history, but we can also deceive ourselves when we selectively take evidence from the past to justify what we have already made up our minds to do." 


** Graydon Carter

© Copyright 2017, Don Kerr, Don Kerr Writes - All rights reserved.

thumb_up Relevant message Comment

don kerr

4 years ago #18

Pamela \ud83d\udc1d Williams I will readily acknowledge you perspective Pamela. I have many relatives in the US and they are very dear to me. The simple fact of the matter is this - the American people voted for this jackass and he still garners support from a sufficient number of the voiceless and deluded to remain in office. With regard to other world leaders kissing his ass (however repugnant that image is) there is a simple reality that, for the time being, the US remains the dominant economic power globally and while pandering may be objectionable it at the very least allows the world to carry on in the hopes that given term limits and a hoped-for impeachment process will leave the surviving leaders in a position to negotiate with new leadership. Understand, this is about the man and the office and in your system, those two cannot be separated. In a parliamentary democracy, we can quite readily dispose of a crazy person. Your system makes it much more difficult. You have my sympathy but empathy may be a stretch. I do appreciate you commenting very much. BTW: We make jokes because the reality is too difficult to comprehend. Besides, that's what we Canucks do!

don kerr

4 years ago #17

Jim Murray Could not agree more my friend.

Jim Murray

4 years ago #16

Outstanding, my friend. You already know where I stand on the state of stupidity in America. To me there are 2 forces at work here. One is the regressive decaying of the industrial/fossil fuel era, which only fools (like Trump and other Republicans) with no vision or understanding of the world and its history, continue to keep touting as the be all and end all. And the new world of progressive thinking, conservation, renewable energy and new ways to reap benefits from this planet without destroying it. America, which is owned by the old world special interests, is finding itself slipping further and further behind, while more and more countries are choosing the progressive road. America needs to join the rest of the world or end up with third world status. It won't happen right away, but as long as the levels of of greed, corruption and ignorance remain as high as they's inevitable.

don kerr

4 years ago #15

Franci\ud83d\udc1dEugenia Hoffman, beBee Brand Ambassador Common sense is so incredibly uncommon however.

don kerr

4 years ago #14

Ken Boddie I can always rely on a comment from down under to bring us back to our senses. Thanks Ken.

don kerr

4 years ago #13

Ian Weinberg I actually don't know a whole lot about Stephen Hawking as most of his writing is beyond me however this quote did ring true. Thanks for your perspective.

don kerr

4 years ago #12

Pascal Derrien With luck the homo smarticus will prove dominant.

don kerr

4 years ago #11

John Rylance Love that!

John Rylance

4 years ago #10

The past is another country they do things differently there. The Go Between.

Pascal Derrien

4 years ago #9

A smart write up on homo stupo me thinks

Ian Weinberg

4 years ago #8

Great article Don \ud83d\udc1d Kerr and very apt for this time. Homo Sapiens unfortunately has not evolved emotionally to any significant degree. And the price for all this burgeoning technological advancement has been a regression of collective wisdom. Indeed the sum total of wisdom that we can show for the millennia of our existence is the collection of paltry souls who have transcended the folly of their times through the ages, reflecting greater awareness of things. And so with all our technology and 'sophistication' we are doomed once again to live through 'dark ages'. Btw, Stephen Hawking has expressed some other thoughts which are pretty dumb in the greater scheme of things!

Ken Boddie

4 years ago #7

No doubt about it, Don, whether individually or collectively, we tend not to learn from our mistakes. As an example, I was moving furniture into a new house yesterday and banged my head on the exact same low hanging ceiling light too many times to count. And the young kids these days are no better at learning from history, in spite of instant access to ’Googletruth’. I asked a young fella the other day who built the ark. He had Noah idea. 🤣😂🤣
Excellent piece Don \ud83d\udc1d Kerr. I also agree "those who fail to learn from history "are" doomed to repeat it". It appears we are capable of acquiring new ideas but don't always use common sense in their application. Happy New Year!

don kerr

4 years ago #5

Appreciate your chiming in Chef. #6 Randall Burns

Randall Burns

4 years ago #4

Great, thought provoking read Don \ud83d\udc1d Kerr, I agree with "those who fail to learn from history "are" doomed to repeat it", alas that is our folly. Is it our greed? our ego? that drives us to repeat our mistakes even after learning about them through history? That is obvious in your example of the present "President Elect". It's interesting in that we learn and progress in so many aspects, technology being a prime example, yet when it comes to being "wiser" and more "enlightened" we are no further ahead, and I would argue that we're behind in many ways, than we were a couple of thousand years ago. It will take a major shift in our collective paradigm to change for the better, unfortunately I have no answers as to how we can do that; Bottom line; Yes we have a history of stupidity that is laughable and tragic at the same time. Karma Buddy, Karma; you can only smash your head against a brick wall for so long before you get a headache, unfortunately we humans have a very thick skull. Happy Holidays to you and your's Buddy!

don kerr

4 years ago #3

Paul \ Hey Merry Christmas my friend. Hope you're having a wonderful season.

don kerr

4 years ago #2

Proma \ud83d\udc1d Nautiyal I so appreciate you adding your perspective here. Clearly, I don't have any definitive answers but your observations regarding successors are intriguing. Again, many thanks for contributing to my learning.

Proma 🐝 Nautiyal

4 years ago #1

This buzz is an absolute gem, Don \ud83d\udc1d Kerr. I like to read about the past. Like you so rightly mentioned, "there is excellent insight gained from an understanding of what has preceded." We always have something to learn from history. Times change, development occurs, but human nature stays the same, well, mostly. Things that motivate us, remain the same. The same can be said for the people in power, the makers of empires. When you asked the question, "What transpires in the fading days of great empires - Roman, Ottoman, or British? What signs might indicate alternative paths forward? Or are empires doomed to fail - even after centuries of world dominance." I thought not only about the major empires meeting their doom, but also revolutions that started their downfall. It's the first time I actually thought of all of them, collectively. Most of the time the reason was sheer hunger for power and control & domination beyond limit. Something that the people couldn't take anymore. Another factor is when a weak successor came into power. The one who couldn't hold everything together, brining a thriving empire to a screeching halt. A weak successor who tried to control and dominate, thus, not providing value to the people instead of the things he was taking away from them, things that were dear to them (like you mentioned in your buzz). I wish we could really learn from history. But unfortunately, "we selectively take evidence from the past to justify what we have already made up our minds to do." Thank you so much for this wonderful read. Sharing.

More articles from don kerr

View blog
4 years ago · 2 min. reading time

It may now be time to alert Search & Rescue

In November of 2016, I produced a bit of honey her ...

4 years ago · 4 min. reading time

Soul force and the immortal part of history

This has been such a messed up year with so much f ...

4 years ago · 2 min. reading time

How often do you reflect and remember?

A few weeks ago Kate, many of our breast cancer co ...