Today’s election in a broader historical context: A Little History of the World

Today is an election like no other in living memory, for many obvious reasons. The first female Presidential candidate in American history versus…well, how to define him? The first truly non-politician candidate? The first businessman candidate? The first bravado Manhattanite candidate? However you may choose to define Donald John Trump (and I suspect many of you reading this may use stronger language), he’s a man who has made history.

I made clear my own political views a couple weeks ago in my article, and how there’s only one realistic choice, no matter how “suboptimal” people may find both candidates.

Last year I read a book called A Little History of the World by an Austrian author called Ernst Gombrich. He wrote the book in the 1930s. Initially banned by the Nazis, it was later translated into English and became a huge worldwide hit, including a New York Times bestseller. The book concisely takes the reader through the entire history of the world, literally from caveman days up to the 20th century. It does this in an entertaining and focused manner, and if you ever wanted a synopsis of mankind’s existence on the planet, this would be your book.

In one of the first chapters, Gombrich warned about the fact that what you are about to read may seem utterly depressing. When I first read this, I didn’t know what he meant, because I was looking forward to gaining knowledge about ancient and modern civilizations, along with significant human advancements. After all, it’s no small achievement to go from sticks and stones to televisions and airplanes. But after reading a little more, I soon realized exactly what he was talking about. The story of mankind is indeed very depressing and sad. It is literally war after war, massacre after massacre, hatred upon hatred. Division and bloodshed have totally defined our time on this planet. Sure, we’ve accomplished some great things in between as well, but make no mistake—when you read that book you realize just how sorrowful man’s existence has been. One of the most tragic things about the book is that Gombrich, as a Jew in Austria in the 1930s, expressed some hope that maybe things would change in the future, unaware of the calamity that was about to be unleashed on Europe.

A Little History of the World should be mandatory reading for every high school student. It truly gives the reader a complete perspective of history that is not usually taught. It also makes one realize not to take all of mankind’s progress for granted.

So how does this all relate to the Presidential election? Well, I don’t want to exaggerate the choices we face. I don’t believe Trump will be able to act like a tyrant or a maniac (we have enough checks and balances to work against those tendencies). We also live in a technological age where it’s very difficult for any leader to control information or hide things from the country. But there is a very clear trap that America may be falling into. You see, when we succumb to the language of division, bitterness, anger and seeking scapegoats—we are doing nothing different to what mankind has done ever since those first caveman days. It’s a game that is as old as time itself, and has been played by would-be leaders since the very beginning. As humans, it’s our natural default. Doesn’t it feel so good to find an enemy, be bravado and gung-ho and want to kick some ass against all those things that are responsible for our misery and frustration? The problem with this way of thinking is that it doesn’t ever get us to where we expect, and inevitably results in conflict. The same pattern that has continuously repeated itself throughout history: Exploit peoples’ frustration and anger, whip them up into a frenzy, and find someone or a group of people to rally against. Conflict between people who actually have much more in common than what divides them.

Several years ago, Bill Clinton gave a speech in the United Kingdom. He was reminiscing on his time as President, and recalled how one of his favorite moments was one that he shared with Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister at the time. He remembered the astonishing achievement when scientists had, for the first time, been able to fully sequence and code the entire human genome. Scientists had found that genetically, all humans were almost 99.9% identical. They also found that the genetic differences within populations, were more variable than the genetic difference between populations. In other words, there were more differences within an isolated tribe in Greenland or an isolated tribe in South America, than there were between those tribes that had absolutely no contact with each other. Yet given this fact that anyone anywhere is 99.9% the same as anyone else, we as humans always choose to define ourselves by the 0.01% that is different from the next person. In fact, as Bill Clinton said, we spend 99.9% of our lives obsessing over that 0.01% that is different from everbody else! So very true. However, even if we suddenly got everything we ever wanted and became the richest, most beautiful, most powerful person in the world—if we then suddenly found ourselves all alone in the world, it would not be worth “a hill of beans”. Bill Clinton finished by recalling the ancient African word “Ubuntu”, which is a term used to describe humanity and kindness, and can be translated as “I Am Because You Are”. How profound.

The only hope we have as humanity is to reject the language of hate, fear and despair, and to choose hope, optimism and a sense of togetherness. It’s the only way forward for ourselves, society, the country, and the world. It’s also the only way to ensure that history doesn’t keep repeating itself.

 

Suneel Dhand is a physician, author, speaker and healthcare consultant. He has experience in a number of different healthcare environments, having worked up and down the East coast and also internationally. His specialty areas include hospital QI, optimizing healthcare IT, and improving the patient experience. He is the author of 3 books, including most recently “The Ultimate Patient Advocate in Your Pocket”, designed to help hospitalized patients. He is also the founder of HealthITImprove, an organization dedicated to improving and optimizing information technology at the frontlines of healthcare.

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