History Is More Than Two Days Ago
I love history, particularly American history. It is far and away my favorite topic, and I love watching books and movies that explore our unique roots as a nation.
But what I have discovered with alarming frequency lately is that my interest in history appears to be an outlier. I’m not saying everyone has to read multiple books on the founding and World Wars within a calendar year, but I feel like the basics of history – which often explains what we’re doing right now – is disregarded by far too many people.
This inability to place the now in a historical context becomes doubly troubling when the people involved are politicians and journalists. More than many other pursuits, those two jobs almost mandate a stronger than average interest in history.
I saw this failure a lot in reporting about the 2012 election. In part due to ongoing cost-cutting within the mainstream press, the networks had embedded reporters with the campaigns who often weren’t even eligibile to vote in the 2008 election, let alone put the current election in historical context. It’s why rote events were often reported on as if they were happening for the first time ever. And you can’t convince me that reporters not knowing that every candidate within the modern era had released detailed tax records didn’t contribute to the softball coverage of Romney’s opposition to releasing his own.
And yes, you can blame someone for not knowing better – because they should!
One of the qualities I admire in President Obama is that he understands that his presidency is not just about the day to day Washington fights. What he does has a historical context that will reverberate long after he is dead and buried. But I must also admit that as counterfactual as it may seem, President Bush often looked at events in this same way. While I don’t agree with the policy, much of his zeal to invade Iraq was about the historical consequence of his actions. Completely wrong on policy, but he often looked at what he was doing there in the right context.
Senators, due to their ability to politically breathe for longer periods than House Representatives, seem to do a little better at regarding their actions in a historical context, but I feel like most of our politicians don’t have this ability.
It’s why – for example – people like Michele Bachmann create anti-Muslim witch-hunts without the appreciation for the history on American governments demagoguing religious and ethnic minorities, from Mormon persecution to Japanese internment to redbaiting. I feel like she and others just don’t know better because they don’t appreciate the history enough.
In my consumption of historical information, I find that I’m always learning something new. A miniseries I just watched taught me things about America at the turn of the last century I never knew, and I’m a guy who has been reading about that era a lot over the last couple years. And there is much more to learn and it informs my opinion on what is happening now (I’ve become a lot less dismayed about Obama’s supposed indifference to progressivism as I’ve learned about garment-rending about FDR’s supposed indifference to the same – he’s now viewed as one of our most progressive presidents ever).
We’ve got to do better, I think. We don’t all have to be amateur historians (and God knows there’s a lot of crackpottery masquerading as history out there) but I feel we have an obligation, when talking about the now to have some idea about what happened then.