The One Thing We Learn From History

I remember it like yesterday when my high school history teacher opened the class with the title of this blog and then said: “is that we learn nothing from history!”

The regional newspaper covering Jacksonville put an Op-Ed piece from their historical files about the summary of what the town learned from an outbreak of Yellow Fever ins 1888.  I summarize it here because it is stunning in its clarity of what we should be learning through and about our Covid-19 experiences today:

Lesson 1: Look for advice from scientists, not politicians.

One of the key lessons I would take away from how Jacksonville elites dealt with the epidemic, is that that expert scientific advice had not actually penetrated the local political level of Jacksonville.  They believed, and there’s somewhere an article in The Florida Times-Union, that what causes disease are animalcules, tiny animals.  Their recommendation was the exact wrong recommendation. They said to leave buckets of water around your house to breed mosquitoes to eat the animalcules. It said you should do this, and people did it. The mosquitoes became vectors of infection.  There are experts. They do know what to do. They’ve studied this extensively for years. There is knowledge we should not politicize, and we should let certain kinds of experts lead in this situation.

Lesson 2: Quarantines, by their nature, create class conflict.

Quarantines have always pitted workers and bosses, citizens and merchants, industrialists and public health advocates. The people who make money on trade and commerce don’t want to see things shut down. They will fight and fight and do what they can to subvert quarantines and fight them. When they do so, all they do is prolong the misery. All they do is make things worse, even though they take a financial hit in the end. If Jacksonville had been able to figure out the quarantine more quickly, they might’ve been able to get through yellow fever quicker than they did. The city government was really still weak. The idea that government should have powers to intervene and declare that everyone should stay indoors, couldn’t have happened in the 1880s. Instead, they needed buy-in from merchants who had to volunteer to shut down.

That didn’t happen.

 Lesson 3: Beware of philanthropy replacing the government.

Private actors who aren’t the government used fundraising, charity, and philanthropy to displace Jacksonville city government. When the yellow fever hits, everybody who has the resources to bug out and leave, go to New York and form the Jacksonville Auxiliary Sanitary Association. They raise half-a-million dollars in relief funds, which is a lot of money in 1888.  They then use this money to run the government by fiat. Once the yellow fever was done, it wasn’t that hard to go to Gov. Francis Fleming and say you can remove home rule and put us in power because we’ve shown we can do it.

The third lesson is: There will be moments where people swoop in and pretend to fix things and will use it to exercise control.

I think we should all heed this advice.  The truth is now emerging about China and the World Health Organization.  We should study the results from Sweden vs. Norway … the blog from last week … and think carefully about who we elect to make sweeping decisions for our society.  And, most importantly, we should be wary of people who swoop in and pretend to fix things only so they can exercise control.

One thought on “The One Thing We Learn From History”

  1. Thanks Joel! Always so insightful and beneficial. As a History teacher I had to work hard to inspire my students to even follow along in the boring text book. I had to rewrite history and directly apply it to the student’s lives.
    Hopefully those kids are adapting my strategies today. Facebook says, “Absolutely!” I look forward to sitting above the waterfall discussing our little piece of history!❤️

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