Culture

History Is Short

Visitors at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Jason Reed/Reuters)
And there’s a reason we fight over it.

There is no marriage as stable and enduring as that of ignorance and certitude.

Years ago, I knew some crunchy progressives of the particularly nasty kind they cultivate in the few remaining blueblood enclaves of the old WASP Main Line. There is something about the combination of genuine privilege, Quaker moralism, and macrobiotic diet that makes these particular partisans of peace and tolerance the most vicious and intolerant of their kind but far from the brightest, as in the case of the woman who sniffed that she could hardly endure trips to visit her husband’s family in the South because she was physically nauseated just by being present in a place that had once seen slavery. She said this with practically orgasmic moral self-satisfaction while standing on what had been the grounds of Richard Harrison’s tobacco plantation, the largest slave operation of its kind in pre-Revolutionary Pennsylvania. She had a keen sense of morality but a somewhat less keen sense of history.

And that can be a dangerous thing.

William Faulkner was right about the past. Even in a young country such as ours, there is no escape from history. I spent Thanksgiving in a house with foundations that had been laid before the Civil War was fought, near Boston where the road signs blithely direct travelers to Lexington and Concord, as though these were just places where you could find a Trader Joe’s or a CVS. Some relations visiting from Europe brought an extraordinary gift for their cousin: Digitized versions of some old 8mm home movies discovered at the old family home, documenting, among other things, a visit between the expatriates and their family behind the Iron Curtain. The trip had been conducted in some secrecy (the expats traveled under the mother’s maiden name) and the movies had been hidden, which was necessary: Under Communism, evidence of contact with family in the West might have led to loss of job, arrest, or worse. While Bernie Sanders was off honeymooning in the Soviet Union, the locals were hiding letters from abroad for fear of being shipped off to labor camps. Don’t let anybody ever tell you “real socialism has never been tried.”

For me, the Cold War meant practicing diving under my elementary-school desk to be ready in the event that Soviet ISBMs should come raining down on the local Air Force base, which was a pilot-training center. (I never believed that our desks were quite up to the task of shielding us from one of those 50-megaton warheads.) For our European cousins, the terror of Communist rule is not a half-remembered passage in a dusty book, but a living memory. For me, the Civil Rights era and the desegregation project meant being bused across town to a largely black elementary school, and the news flash that a largely black elementary school in Lubbock, Texas actually existed. (There were, in fact, several.) For others not too much older or too much worldlier, the terror of those days is a living memory. Right around the time I was discovering the east side of the small city in which I lived, 19-year-old Michael Donald was lynched in Mobile, Ala., by members of the Ku Klux Klan. One of them, Henry Hays, was sent to the electric chair in 1997, the only Klan member executed in the 20th century for the murder of a black man.

We keep wanting history to be over. That is especially true of racial history in the United States, which is sometimes treated as though it ended in 1964. But history is never really over, never really through with us. Not that history, and maybe not any history. In the Great War, Canada, with a population akin to that of Ohio today, suffered 61,000 deaths. In 1917, Mexico effectively outlawed the Catholic Church and began a campaign of terror and murder against the religious, who were stripped of their rights to vote and defend themselves in court when charged with violations of Mexico’s repressive anti-Catholic laws; there were summary executions of priests. The United States sees itself at the center of the great North American stage for a reason, but how well do we really understand the rest of the story?

For that matter, how well do we really understand our own story?

I wonder how many people watching the fantastical alternative history of HBO’s Watchmen were shocked to learn that the events depicted in 1921 in Tulsa are things that actually happened, down to the airplane assault. I remember the first time I read about it — it seemed to me (to me) something that could not possibly be true. If I had simply heard about it from someone, I would have confidently predicted that the account was either an outright fabrication or a wild exaggeration: ignorance and certitude, together again, together always. There are many Americans who hear that story and have the opposite reaction: Not that it couldn’t possibly but true but that it couldn’t possibly be anything other than true. It is no great mystery that we misunderstand one another.

History grows shorter and closer every year, less rather than more distant, less rather than more alien. The day on which I was born is as close in time to the Scopes Monkey Trial as it is to today, and closer to the Reichstag Fire and the stock-market crash that announced the Great Depression. The day my father was born is closer in time to the Civil War than it is to today. Those old granite hitching posts out in front of the houses in Massachusetts are relics from another time, but one that is not so distant as we imagine it to be. The men who hitched their horses there might marvel at our Teslas, but they would recognize us. They know us, and we know them. Or we can know them, if we want to.

I do not believe that only those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it. Plenty of people who study history are entirely capable of making the same mistakes as their ancestors, and worse ones, too. Practical application is not the first, best, or only reason to study history and try to learn something from it — which is not exactly the same as learning something about it — but give that fair consideration, too. Thanksgiving may put us in a historical mood, and different people tell different stories about the founding of this country and what came next. They do not always have the best or most honest reasons for preferring one version of that story to another. But each of us, possessed of the knowledge of his own nearly boundless ignorance (how many things do you really know about?), ought to have a little modesty and a little humility, enough to hope that we might see a little light in some of those other versions of the story, and that we might expand the circle of light outward a little, pushing back the darkness as best we can.

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