1191: The Past

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The Past
If history has taught us anything, we can use that information to destroy it.
Title text: If history has taught us anything, we can use that information to destroy it.


"The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there" is the opening line of "The Go-Between", a novel by Leslie Poles Hartley (1895–1972), published in London in 1953. The phrase was intended to highlight the impact of changing social norms and customs. As when dealing with a foreign society, one must be prepared to encounter different ways of life than one is accustomed to. And that's true, even over a single lifetime, so in recalling one's past, it's important to understand the context in which those memories take place.

Black Hat, however, decides to take the first part of the quote literally, and consider "the past" as it it were an actual foreign country. In true Black Hat fashion, the first thing he considers is that this "nation" would have an outdated military (by definition, because current technology and military doctrine hadn't been invented) and huge oil reserves (because their reserves would not yet have been depleted). The implication of these two points is that such a country would be ripe for invasion by a more powerful nation, seeking to control their natural resources.

The pensive way in which he makes these points implies that he's genuinely considering trying to mount an invasion of "the past". Such an invasion would, of course, require inventing a time machine, and could introduce all sorts of potential issues with the space-time continuum (depending on how the space-time continuum actually works). But time travel is hardly unknown in the XKCD universe, and Black Hat isn't the type to worry about consequences when there's an opportunity to gain some benefit.

This notion has shown up in fiction before. For example, "Mozart in Mirrorshades" is a short story by Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner, which features the use of time travel to exploit earlier eras' natural resources. As another example (from the short story Young Zaphod Plays It Safe), “When the hunt for new sources of energy had at one point got particularly frantic, one bright young chap suddenly spotted that one place which had never used up all its available energy was - the past. And with the sudden rush of blood to the head that such insights tend to induce, he invented a way of mining it that very same night, and within a year huge tracts of the past were being drained of all their energy and simply wasting away. Those who claimed that the past should be left unspoilt were accused of indulging in an extremely expensive form of sentimentality.”

The "If history has taught us anything" is usually used to introduce a lesson that the speaker takes to be clear and obvious from history. The title text of this strip subverts that by implying that lessons learned from history can count as military intelligence to use against it.

The concept of going back to the past to collect resources (or, at least, set up the collection of resources) shows up again in 2321: Low-Background Metal.


[Cueball and Black Hat talking.]
Cueball: Well, you know what they say. The past is a foreign country-
Black Hat: -With an outdated military and huge oil reserves!
Black Hat: Hmmm...

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WOW. When I first read the comic, I assumed it was making an analogy to current countries. Like ones that have been invaded because of their oil reserves. When I saw the image-text, my thought was "We can destroy time like we've destroyed these countries." The above explanation makes a lot more sense. 06:17, 27 March 2013 (UTC)

I don't think there's a distinction. "If history has taught us anything, we can use that information to destroy it". If you destroy the country in the past, then you 'destroy' that timeline of history. (Of course, current consensus seems to be that you'd branch off into a new timeline and both will exist in parallel universes, but nonetheless - to the antagonist - it could well count as a destruction. 08:50, 27 March 2013 (UTC)
Perhaps, but nothing I was saying was referring to time travel. 00:47, 29 March 2013 (UTC)

The past is a foreign country most probably means his own country. You would not conquer your own country today, but the past is something totally different - it is foreign and ready for exploitation.

Anyone else thinking of time travel? I think BlackHat was planning to get a time-machine (somehow), bring a whole army through and conquer a nation. It's an easier way to become a mighty overlord, ruling over continents and enslaving millions of people. World domination turn out to not impossible after all, aside from the time-travel stuff. 02:43, 28 March 2013 (UTC)

BHG has made a time machine before. http://xkcd.com/1063/ 04:46, 28 May 2013 (UTC)

Does this have anything to do with the previous comic (Time) ? I'm guessing (out of the blue) that the next comic will be "The Present", and the next one "The future". 12:43, 28 March 2013 (UTC)

Did anyone think about Iraq? This comic comes quite close to the 10-year anniversary of the war, and the description of the "foreign country" quite resembles what Iraq was at the time. 19:28, 28 March 2013 (UTC)

Did anyone NOT think about Iraq? I though THAT parallel is so basic it doesn't need to be mentioned ... although mentioning the anniversary probably make sense, this information may be lost when someone will see this page later ... -- Hkmaly (talk) 12:14, 31 March 2013 (UTC)
I didn't really think about Iraq, but I did think about Gruinmarkt even though this isn't time travel as such. --Pmakholm (talk) 12:56, 4 April 2013 (UTC)

Something should be mentioned about Black Hat incorrectly finishing Cueball's sentence(s). (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

"If a country from the past existed in its old state today, other countries would likely leap at the opportunity to exploit its oil reserves." Shouldn't that say United States instead of other countries. Not all countries are oil-hungry warmongers. Tharkon (talk) 19:20, 5 August 2014 (UTC)

I think Black Hat is saying that the past is a foreign country that physically exists, we should take it over for oil.