Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Five Minute History

Although knowledge of history has seldom been lower in our country's history than at the current moment in our culture, or perhaps because of that fact, people seem to have a great penchant for declaring things to be historic.

Since I started keeping track, I believe we have now had five of "the most important presidential election of our times" in a row -- despite "our times" remaining fairly similar to what they were before.

The world "changed forever" on 9/11. Though if you were magically transported from 9-10-2000 to 9-10-2007, you'd notice few differences unless you happened upon the foreign affairs section of the newspaper or an airport security line. (And even then, the differences are not so large.)

This election cycle seems to be lending itself to much of this thinking. Several acquaintances emailed me after Sen. Obama's "Philadelphia Speech on Race" informing me that this would rank as the third great moment of American oratory next to the Gettysburg Address and MLK's I Have A Dream speech. School children would, I was assured, be reading this speech fifty years hence in order to understand "when America changed". Does anyone remember much about that speech now -- not yet 90 days later?

One must account for the enthusiasm of the moment, surely, but it seems at times that, having forgotten most of our history, we increasingly declare to be historic whatever caught our attention five minutes ago. Perhaps we even believe ourselves. When announcing his victory in the Democratic primary Sen. Obama declared:
I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.
Perhaps I'm a hardened cynic, but: excuse me? Our past is not so bad, nor our possible future (whether under Obama or otherwise) so good, that such a thing would be remembered. Now sure, part of my reaction to this speech is that I simply don't like Obama. I find his policies and inclinations dangerous, and his rhetoric foolish and shot through with demagoguery under a thin veneer of self-congratulatory high-mindedness.

But that aside, from any political side-taking: History simply is not made every day. It can't be made every day. What makes a historical moment "historic" is its status as a unique event or pivot point in the course of events, as it later becomes clear to us. As such, it's often difficult to know at the time to know that something is historic, but in general, you'll win most of the time by betting that any given event or speech is not. In order to understand that, however, we need to have the perspective of actually knowing history. Not just a few scattered names and dates, but enough of the flow of events in our own country and in others to know what seemed important to people at the time, and to what extent that continues to seem important now.

Only then can we begin to have any perspective as to what is historic and what is not -- and any perspective on what "change" is likely to happen through national politics, and what is not.

8 comments:

Theocoid said...

If anything turns out to be historic about this election cycle, it will be hysteria surrounding Obama, particularly if he wins. That hysteria followed by a crushing disappointment could be a turning point for us. Guess we'll see in a few years.

Paul, just this guy, you know? said...

I'm reminded of the line from A Man for all Seasons: "'The sixteenth century was the century of the common man.' Just like all the others."

The election of 2008 will be the most important election in history. Just like all the others.

Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says:

The thing about the Obama quote is, that was him being humble. As he said in the speech just prior to the quoted passage: "I face this challenge with profound humility, and knowledge of my own limitations."

Anonymous said...

America's first black president isn't historic? Even if he turns out to be mediocre at the job?

Darwin said...

America's first black president isn't historic? Even if he turns out to be mediocre at the job?

Eh. Historic to an extent. I'd tend to say that at this late date, not very. By 2008, I can't see that it's much more than a matter of time will be have a black president and till we have a woman president. Or a hispanic or asian president.

But to the extent that electing our first black president is historic, it's not because he's going to heal the sick, give jobs to the jobless, heal the earth, raise the dead and walk on water.

Rick Lugari said...

America's first black president isn't historic?

Time will tell, but seeing as you don't even recall that Bill Clinton was the first black President, my guess is that it's not something that history will view as an anchor rather than a limited point of information or trivia. i.e. Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President and the first Republican one, but those things are not what made him truly historic - it's a factoid, a point of reference, something somewhat worthy of recalling (as would the first black President or the 44th president), but they're not historical in the same sense as the Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation, Gettysburg Address, or even his assassination.

Tim said...

I was listening to that speech as a podcast on the way into work this morning and was wowed by the hubris. And by the cheering crowds. They were eating it up, hook, line, and sinker. I can only guess that there is a dire need for people to feel like they are a part of history, of something bigger than themselves, and Obama serves it up with a list of what he's gonna fix without anyone noticing that it's pretty much the same list of problems humanity has faced for who knows how long, nor noticing that he doesn't say how he's gonna fix it. It's all just one big daisy chain of people patting each other on the back for work that is yet to be done and goals that are yet to be realized while cheering for their future historically-important selves.

The podcast I was listening to also had a speech given earlier that day by McCain. It was interesting to hear what were obvious rebuttals to McCain's speech in Obama's speech. The profound humility, and knowledge of my own limitations seemed to be one of them. It sounds like a footnote added on to say, "oh, yeah, I'm humble just like McCain".

Anonymous said...

I've read several blogs today, and I thought all of them were the most important and historic blog ever, but THIS blog is clearly more historic. I can't remember what it was about, but it is still historic!