There are times when I wonder if I may have missed something, amidst the vitriol engaged between and among today’s “populations.” Or, to the contrary, am I all right while they keep talking “past one another” toward destinations unknown?
I finally take refuge in age: I’m simply too old to understand current interests (now that the Cold War is over).
Yet, even that won’t do, since I’ve been teaching history since 1966, and they all seem to use history as argument, one way or another. Where have I been?
History (used and abused)
Americans are known as “ahistorical,” which means that they care little and use it sparingly. Yet, the ones on TV, in the news, and on campus use history all the time. As the only known human “laboratory,” this is unavoidable, but the history used in public controversies is almost completely channeled according to current events. Or, perhaps closer to intent, to future events, as wanted.
Thus, yesterday has value, but only for tomorrow.
This is not necessarily a contradiction in terms. “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” (Santayana, 1931). But was this a warning or advice? If the first, it’s meant to “avoid,” if the second, it’s meant to “apply.”
Today’s public “discourses,” most obviously, have chosen number two. Nobody wants to re-start slavery, but many want us to pay for it.
The problem in this regard is the problem of “selection,” i.e., we select that which conforms to our chosen desires, omitting that which does not.
In colloquial terms, this is called “cherry picking,” a derisive term that denies the value of history altogether. Indeed, it turns it on its head and converts the subject to a rather low-level aspect of ideological (“emotional”) and self-absorbed ambition.
If this kind of subject was included in any school curriculum, it would have to be identified as “Contemporary Ideologies.” Which is fine, but it continues in “masquerade,” which makes every day on campus Halloween.
“Application” in these cases requires two behaviors: forgetting and remembering. Both are selective and, therefore, arbitrary (“ideological” by definition).
Remembering is the easy part, just look in a book. Forgetting takes deep attention. In fact, it should avoid looking in any book or recalling anything that may have occurred. For example, I remember Robert E. Lee as a Confederate General, easy enough. But forgetting him takes intense devotion, both to the man (whom I never met) and even invention.
Invention requires attribution, i.e. to attribute Lee to an institution now gone but once universal. Whether or not this attribution is accurate, half-accurate, or even erroneous remains beside the point. The word itself, “attribution,” does not require support. In this regard, it then becomes reasonable, indeed necessary, to “attribute” behaviors to whole generations, whole countries, whole peoples, religions, races, genders …and the list goes on.
If General Lee, to continue, is to be “forgotten,” then it would have to be the fact that he led (and nearly won) a rebellion. Yet this apparently bears little relevance to those who tear down his statues. He, thus, is to be discarded because of slavery as opposed to secession.
Lee’s statue, properly, does not belong on any public location, not because some of his people held slaves, but because he was in rebellion. If someone wants Lee’s picture on their wall or his likeness in their yard, that is, and should remain, private. (My in-laws, RIP, had pictures of Benito Mussolini throughout their house in Maryland. I accepted that they were Italian).
Attribution, especially for a lost cause, is not only illogical and irrelevant but can be extremely disruptive. Immediately after the end of the Civil War, Appomattox, Union soldiers began cheering and shouting. General Grant hurried out and told them to be quiet, “The rebels are our countrymen now.” In his Second Inaugural, Lincoln asked for “malice toward none, charity for all.”
In today’s “culture,” we have nearly the opposite: malice toward all, charity toward none. The list goes well beyond the slavery issue, to include nearly all aspects of the human experience. To list the causes would be superfluous and to deny legitimacy of “cause” itself would be the same.
A critical component in contemporary beliefs is the separation of the particular from the universal. In the manner in which it is presented, the cause is identified as “American” and, as well, to be erased inside America. The problem: without exception, each cause is universal, observed from the Bible to ancient empires, and cannot be identified with any particular society or time period. The Founding Fathers provided liberty, not a change in humanity itself. (Ironically, America, despite today’s grievances, has probably done more in each instance to rectify history’s wrongs than any other large or diverse society.)
So where does this leave us? Nowhere, I fear. Ideology cannot be persuaded. No one could tell Hitler that Aryans would not rule the world. No one can tell a Communist that the proletariat will not rise. Professional Feminists will still insist that the only good males ever are now both “dead [and] white.” And no one will convince me that modern medicine, prosperity, and technology comes from the Devil himself, “white supremacy.”
Yet, these are widespread in our current culture.
Have I missed something? Here’s “The Boss” (Bruce Springsteen):
You can’t start a fire
Worrying about your little world fallin’ apart
This gun’s for hire
Even if you’re just dancin’ in the dark.