How Long Does it Take for Us to Forget?

by Lorne Mitchell on 28/11/2012

This week’s cease-fire in Gaza probably passed most people by – except for quick glimpses of rockets being fired back-and-forth and the commentary from safe television studios by those who try to collapse a whole history lesson into a few minutes of short, sharp sentences.  I am sure we were all relieved that the war was halted by an equally abrupt ceasefire.

However, the news reminded me of a time when I was much smaller and of the 6 Day War of 1967 – and more particularly my father’s reaction to it.  He had strong opinions about this part of the world having been posted to Palestine at the end of the Second World War.  By luck, he was minutes away from the King David Hotel (1) when it blew up on 22 July 1946.

The bomb killed 91 and injured 46.  The Irgun planted a bomb in the basement of the main building of the hotel, under the wing which housed the Mandate Secretariat and a few offices of the British Military headquarters.  If my father had arrived a few minutes earlier, I would not have been born.  Nor would my brother nor sister.  A sobering thought (for my siblings and me, at least).

My father therefore had a very different perspective on the Arab-Israeli conflict – and would merely say “remember what happened to the Palestinians.”  This did not have anything like the meaning for me as it did for him.  And for my children, it is probably just  another history lesson in a country that they have not yet visited somewhere in the Middle East.  In reaching a bit deeper into the subject, I came across a quote (2) by David Ben-Gurion (the first Prime Minister of Israel):

“I don’t understand your optimism,” Ben-Gurion declared. “Why should the Arabs make peace? If I were an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them? Our God is not theirs. We come from Israel, it’s true, but two thousand years ago, and what is that to them? There has been antisemitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that? They may perhaps forget in one or two generations’ time, but for the moment there is no chance. So, it’s simple: we have to stay strong and maintain a powerful army. Our whole policy is there. Otherwise the Arabs will wipe us out.”

What struck me by this quote was not so much that the Prime Minister of Israel was admitting to the fact that the Israelis had stolen “their” country from the Arabs, but more the idea that it takes one or two generations to accept; one or two generations to forgive; one or two generations to forget.

It reminded me of some research I did a few years ago on the famous Russian economist, Nikolai Kondratiev (3).  Kondratiev came up with the theory of the long-wave economic cycle which takes about 50-60 years from peak to peak.  Kontradiev’s views were so controversial in his country at the time that he was sent to the gulag and was executed in 1938 at the age of 46. It was Joseph Schumpeter who named the wave in Kondratiev’s name in 1939.  I remember reading about long wave economic cycles about 20 years ago and wondered what might cause  these types of patterns in history.  I can’t remember exactly where I heard the theory at the time – but I remember hearing the idea that the 50-60 year cycle is natural because “it takes two generations to forget”.  Given that a significant number of children are born to women between 25-30 (from(4) – see chart below), this is somehow quite an interesting idea.

If you take the theory and apply it to the cycle from the Wall Street Crash in 1929 (and the Great Depression of the 1930s) to the financial crisis of 2008 and our current post-crash turmoil, then 1929 to 2008 is about 80 years.  Some of you might point out that the time between is not 50 or 60 years, so the theory does not hold.  But perhaps this is due to the fact that we are now all living a bit longer?  In any case, the underlying pattern of loosening financial controls within the international financial system seems clear – as is the pattern of forgetting the lessons learnt from the previous generation’s Grandparents.  I’m not a qualified economist – but as an inquisitive observer, the theory somehow makes sense – even if it is not numerically accurate.

So we have wars, we have waves and we have history repeating itself and it got me thinking about the recent flooding that is currently taking place (again) across many parts of the UK.   Over 5 million people in England and Wales live and work in properties that are at risk of flooding from rivers or the sea. (5)  Yet there seems to be considerable political pressure on encouraging the building industry to “get building” so that we can kick-start the economy.  In Kent, where I live, many of the new houses have been built on the flood plains around Ashford – and there is the famous story of the Vodfaone Headquarters building in Newbury being built on the old racecourse that was well-known for flooding.

And so it was that I came across a story (6) about the tsunami that struck Japan last year.  Many people living by the sea lost their lives, but there was one village, apparently, in Aneyoshi that has a stone which reads:

High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants.

Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. 

Do not build any homes below this point.”  

Those who headed the warning (like the residents in Aneyoshi) were spared from the destruction of the recent tsunami. Other towns did not. Yuto Kimura, aged 12, from Aneyoshi said they studied about the markers in school, and when the tsunami came, his mother got him from school and the entire village climbed to higher ground.

And so it is.  Maybe we are all cursed with the fact that it takes two generations to forget.  But for the wise ones who read the markers that have been laid down from previous generations, it is worth teaching the next generation about the deeper lessons from history.  It is worth encouraging them to take less time to accept, less time to forgive and more time to forget the important things in life.

Then again, we are all creatures of habit, so I expect the addage that “it takes two generations to forget” will last for many more generations to come!

(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_David_Hotel_bombing

(2) http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/David_Ben-Gurion

(3) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikolai_Kondratiev

(4) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2051374/Average-age-women-having-baby-climbs-29-start-family-later.html

(5) http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk/homeandleisure/floods/default.aspx

(6) http://www.thestar.com/news/world/article/969855–japan-nuclear-plant-plugs-highly-radioactive-leak

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