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Democracy now?

(Original review by David Rieff at Democracy Journal...)

"I have always thought George Santayana’s celebrated phrase that those who fail to remember the past are condemned to repeat it to be one of the dumbest things ever said by a smart person. It assumes the past repeats itself, which hardly seems likely, and that the past can be understood by posterity as offering simple moral lessons—history as a kind of McGuffey’s Reader writ large—when in fact history is almost never morally binary, but rather bears out Walter Benjamin’s saturnine claim that every document of civilization is also a document of barbarism.

Still, reading both Rosa Brooks’s and Tom Perriello’s contributions to Democracy’s “America and the World” symposium [Issue #23], I found Santayana’s sentence coming unbidden to mind. For rarely have two pieces illustrated what might with only slight exaggeration be called the will to forget the past, and, as in so many of America’s foreign-policy follies, both the triumph of hope over (even recent) experience and the belief that this time America’s good intentions in fostering a global democratic order should matter far more than the actual history of U.S. actions from at least Woodrow Wilson’s day to George W. Bush’s..."


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