Knowledge of social history is essential to understand countries' attitudes and actions to crises.
Even before the Vietnam War – "American war" to Vietnamese – Americans' reactions to "socialist", and by extension "communist", is incomprehensible without knowledge of treatment of US prisoners during the Korean war.
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Similarly North Koreans' anti-US attitudes make no sense without knowledge of the extensive US carpet bombing of North Korea 70 years ago. The same is true for colonised nations, ours included.
If policies emerge from the context of historical decisions, it follows that a broad knowledge of social history is needed to construct forward-looking policies – and widespread buy-in of them.
For example, pandemic management today is a lesson in science trumping superstition.
With the capacity to crunch mega-data quickly, modern science is able to offer political leadership both the numbers and modelled scenarios to guide decision-making.
However, it is knowledge of social history that also influences our ability to assess, prioritise and act. Governments need, in democracies at least, to have the buy-in of a variously educated public.
In liberal democracies, public health policies cannot be simplified to trade-offs between citizens' wellbeing and economic wellbeing. Such policies need to appeal to a nation's core values, and social history can remind how these were established.
Those most at risk in this pandemic, besides the elderly and their caregivers, are refugees and the indigenous. Mass graves from the 1918 influenza pandemic attest to this. Sweden's experience then is also instructive.
Following a devastating second wave that killed 37,000 Swedes, Sweden's writers and politicians launched a successful liberal movement to ensure everyone had access to the best care. This led to the world's first comprehensive social welfare system.
Adopting the slogan that Sweden must become "Hem fӧr vanliga mӓnniskor", "a home for the common people", this movement embedded a culture of liberal egalitarianism, later adopted by other Scandinavian countries. And in the 1930s, by other liberal democracies around the world, including New Zealand.
World War II sacrifices, channelled by many countries during Covid-19 , is exemplified by the testimony of Kiwi PoW Colin Hanson. On two escapes he was often fed by Poles despite knowing they would be hung by the Nazis: "I saw so many of them hanging in the trees that lined the streets, whole families … I will never forget."
Forced to accompany Russian "liberators" on a nearly 1500km march to Odessa, Hanson witnessed a massacre of 38 civilians, and 50 Russian wounded, because of orders: " it was too much trouble to take them to Russia." Arriving there weighing 32kg, Hanson vowed "never to have anything to do with communists, ever".
Knowledge of social history is important not just to motivate but also to identify values.
While strong leadership is primitively attractive, the tendency to confuse decisiveness with consultative wisdom can only be inoculated against by education. And at times, public protest.
In 2003-4 I was in Rome for the march for peace and against the second Iraq war. More than 80 per cent of citizens in Europe supported that protest. Popular opposition to this illegal war was ignored, signalling the beginnings of a deep cynicism we are still trying to undo.
How can trust be restored in political systems? In this latest crisis how can we ensure that leaders respect the three pillars of peer-reviewed, published and consensus science? More importantly, how can ideological filtering that sees science as part of the problem be excluded?
Filters such as the "Christian fascism", currently bedevilling US conservative administrations, have been articulated by war correspondent, political commentator and Presbyterian minister Chris Hedges. His book "American fascists – the Christian right and the war on America", outlines real and present dangers of merging politics with fundamentalist faiths.
Defined as fascist in part because of "obsessive preoccupation with community decline … and goals of internal cleansing and external expansion" such forces, Hedges argues, are determined to "Christianise the nation" by undermining the separation of church and state.
While various forms of monarchy, theocracy, authoritarianism and communism have come and gone, liberal democracy has endured. Its principles of liberty, individual rights, and equality of opportunity have become widely accepted in public debates and policymaking.
Although in Europe "liberal" is still more likely to refer to a defender of the free market, and in the US to a defender of the welfare state, what has undermined liberal democracy in both is polarisation, disengagment and narrowly defined self-interest.
In an interdependent world, inclusive policies require discussions that begin with rejecting "liberal" and "conservative" as smearwords. Such policies also require a focus on re-defining those core values for which our forebears were prepared to fight.
Let's commit to educating all citizens in liberal democracy's basics – in the context of the social history that gave them birth.
• Steve Liddle is a teacher and independent researcher based in Napier.